Fiona Hill: Vital things I learnt meeting Putin

Why Putin isn't who you think he is

Fiona Hill met Vladimir Putin several times as senior advisor to three U.S. presidents. In this unique interview with the Institute of Art and Ideas, Dr Hill explains Putin’s multiple identities, how he views NATO, why John Mearsheimer’s school of realism and international relations theory fails to explain the invasion, and what our strategy should be towards China and Taiwan.


People tend to have a very specific view of who Vladimir Putin is. Some say that he is an imperial strongman, others that he is a leader rationally defending his country’s self-interests, and some that he is a dictator gone crazy. However, you have argued that Putin is best understood as a composite of multiple identities. What finally led you to this conclusion after meeting him several times?

Public figures always have motivations ascribed to them, and, to be frank, observers tend to project their own views, opinions and perceptions from a distance. Often they hone in on the most obvious attribute. But no-one is one dimensional. Everyone is multifacted, and most people are products of their time and place. When you are in closer physical proximity to someone and have the chance to observe them in action, its easier to see that. Vladimir Putin is not that extraordinary for someone of his generational cohort and from his particular background. What is extraordinary is how he has risen to the top of Russian politics and managed to stay in place for such a long time. Determining which personal and professional attributes have enabled him to do so is the key to understanding him and how he operates.

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Why are so many under the misapprehension that Putin occupies one specific identity and how does the view that Putin has multiple identities shed light on his moves in Ukraine?

Putin is someone who is driven by many factors—in the case of Ukraine, his views are rooted in personal perspectives and biases, and shaped by his experience of events and his interpretations of Russian imperial and Soviet history. He is quite explicit about all of this, and his views have broader resonance in the political group around him. Putin grew up in the Soviet Union and he experienced Ukraine as part of “his” country. He has never been able to conceive of Ukraine as a separate country despite more than 30 years of independence, and his mental map of “Russia” includes Ukraine and other predominantly Slavic-settled territories that the Russian Empire conquered and incorporated over centuries of expansion. Putin has a very deterministic idea of identity, focused on language, religion, culture, and history. He believes that if you speak Russian, and were part of the historic Slavic core of the Russian empire, then you are Russian. He also has a historical-legalistic view of what constitutes Russia. He believes that any territories conquered by Russia in its imperial wars, or lands that were ceded by treaty to Russia by other European powers, are also Russian. Might makes right historically in his view. For Putin, this history of territorial conquest counts more than international law and the post-1945 prohibition against war and the use of force enshrined in the UN Charter.

Notable foreign policy realists, such as John Mearsheimer, have argued that the West caused Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by a series of provocative foreign policy stances. What do you have to say to this analysis?  

There is a lot more to Putin’s thinking than I have sketched above, but for those who don’t want to take the time to delve into it, the complexity is frustrating. So when Putin does something drastic—and at times completely unexpected—the temptation is always to look for a satisfying, straightforward and all encompassing explanation: “he did that because of this,” “he did this because he thinks that.”  The argument about NATO expansion and U.S. foreign policy stances, is one of those straightforward and satifying explanations that also fits neatly into international relations theory, but its too straightforward and satisfying. Ultimately it places blame on the U.S. and NATO for actions and decisions that Putin has made in his own specific context and based on his personal perceptions and broader calculations.

Nonetheless, Putin’s views and perceptions are important to understand, and I think our biggest failure over the last decades was in not fully appreciating them. We should have been tracking them consistently and getting ahead of his misintepretations and reactions to events. Unfortunately, democracies have a hard time paying sustained and close attention to issues. Since 2000, while Vladimir Putin and his core team have stayed rooted in place, NATO members have had multiple changes of government and launched numerous strategic doctrines. We have lost his plot every time we have rewritten our own. There has been no core team with eyes on Putin for the past twenty years (beyond a tiny handful of long-term experts), but he has never stopped watching us and projecting his views and opinions onto us.

Since the end of the Cold War, Putin has persisted in seeing NATO through a Cold War lens as an extension of the United States and an inherently anti-Russian institution. The fact that NATO is an alliance of countries, which was looking for a new role and mission in the 2000s was discounted by Putin—and also seems to be discounted by many of those who sieze on this explanation. For core NATO members, like Germany and France, for example there was an overarching assumption that peace and prosperity would prevail in Europe after the end of the Cold War and the reunification of Germany. They were not investing in maintaining their military strength. NATO was downgraded as a priority apart from former Eastern bloc and Soviet states that had raw or relatively recent memories of being invaded or dominated by Russia.


Putin’s actions and reactions confounded and confused the U.S. and Europeans—and ultimately he ended up provoking them too


The United States and many NATO members spent most of the last 20 plus years looking beyond Europe and away from Russia thanks to 9/11, and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. But the fact that NATO became a platform for military intervention led by the U.S. against Serbia in 1999, and then a framework for military coordination and support for the United States in Afghanistan and Iraq after the 2003 invasion, and later in Libya, all served to convince Putin even more that NATO was still a U.S. tool. This was probably the one set of issues that was not fully appreciated by the U.S., how Putin viewed NATO operations outside of Europe, and what Putin really thought about NATO. Unlike Gorbachev or Yeltsin, Putin didn’t want any accommodation with NATO. Both outside and inside, Europe, he wanted the U.S. and NATO gone, for good. NATO was a provocation for still being around; and the U.S. was still the Cold War adversary.

Within Europe, Germany, in particular, assumed that trade and close ties with Russia would be sufficient to convince Moscow of the “benign” purpose of the alliance vis-à-vis Russia. German leaders, as well as the French, never anticipated that Putin would invade Ukraine on any pretext. They saw the 2008 invasion of Georgia and 2014 annexation of Crimea as specific aberrations that could be explained and managed diplomatically. And while the 2008 invasion came immediately after Georgia and Ukraine were offered an “open door” to NATO membership at the Bucharest Summit that year, the 2014 annexation of Crimea was “provoked” by Ukraine seeking to conclude an association agreement with the European Union.  So Putin’s actions and reactions confounded and confused the U.S. and Europeans—and ultimately he ended up provoking them too.  It was only in February 2022, that they fully appreciated that his goal was to erase Ukraine as an independent state and to re-subjugate it to Russia as well as dominate his neighborhood. This wasn’t a series of unfortunate misunderstandings or the result of one-sided missteps by Georgia and Ukraine.

It would actually be an interesting exercise to flip the script for once and talk about how Putin lost the West and NATO. He has ended up inciting a massive backlash after 30 years in which Russia enjoyed unprecedented peace and growing prosperity in Europe and had no security challenges on its borders.

By contrast, Edward Lucas has made the argument that had Ukraine joined NATO sooner, there would have been a greater likelihood of the invasion not taking place. Do you agree?

Again, it’s not so straightforward, in large part because there was no appreciation of a real threat from Russia until it invaded Ukraine in 2014. NATO and other non-NATO countries were not planning appropriately for that eventuality.  Ironically, it took a full-on Russian invasion to get to that point of seeing the threat. Both the understanding of the threat and the determination to fight have to be real to ensure security within NATO. Prior to 2014, and also 2022, Putin would have had to be convinced both that Ukraine was prepared to defend itself and that other NATO member countries would be prepared to defend it too—which is in fact what we are seeing now without Ukraine being a member.

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It's certainly the case that Ukraine (and Georgia) was in the “worst of all worlds” after the 2008 NATO “open door” decision in Bucharest. After the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and then the “big bang” expansion of NATO in 2004, Ukraine and every other country that was outside the Alliance ,was left in a strategic gray zone. We should have actively been addressing this European security dilemma from 2004 on. Every European country outside NATO should have had a plan, like Finland or Sweden, to maximize its defensive capacity and resilience and create a web of security partnerships irrespective of NATO membership.

NATO’s open door, in short, was an empty promise that brought no security whatsoever for Ukraine and in fact more insecurity. The earlier 1994 Budapest Memorandum, where the U.S., UK and Russia gave Ukraine assurances of protection if it gave up nuclear weapons, was the same. These were vague commitments. There was no serious concrete, consideration of Ukraine’s security situation by NATO in 2008, nor by the UK and U.S. earlier in 1994. NATO’s belated efforts after 2014 to give Ukraine some “NATO perspective” through closer political relations alongside equipment transfers, training and exercises—even though there was still absolutely no intention of bringing Ukraine into the Alliance—simply drew Putin’s ire. NATO’s outreach to Ukraine after 2014 was only intended to add some substance and shading to the gray zone, in response to the annexation of Crimea. But it became another factor of contention for Putin.

We should absolutely have been considering the kind of security guarantees we are now discussing for Ukraine, and addressing the security gray zones in Europe long before we got to this point.

You have dealt very closely with former President Donald Trump who many have described as erratic and unpredictable. Some however have argued paradoxically that this unpredictability was an asset in his foreign policy. What do you say to this?

If all you have is erratic behavior and unpredictability its hardly an asset. It’s a liability. President Trump ended up alienating America’s allies as well as most of the rest of the world with his behavior, and convincing our adversaries that the U.S. was in a state of disarray and decline that could be exploited to their advantage. That being said, I do think that Trump’s unpredictability played to his advantage in his direct dealings with Kim Jong Un in North Korea. He deserves credit for heading off a widely-anticipated Norht Korean missile strike early in his tenure and for keeping Kim tied up for the duration of his presidency. And Trump’s  unconventional approach did bear some fruit in the Middle East, where he bucked years of U.S. policy principles and patterns to set the stage for Israel’s Abraham Accords with the Emirates and Bahrain.

Looking to the future, many are worried that if Ukraine were to achieve a decisive military victory against Russia, Putin could be overthrown and replaced by someone more nationalist and even more hostile towards the West. Is this a concern that you share?

This is clearly what Putin would like us to believe. For years, Kremlin propaganda has presented Putin as the most “moderate” of his cohort, with the most outrageous statements reserved for some of his associates, who are often touted as replacements. He is, however, nationalist and hostile to the West of his own accord these days.

If we look at the sweep of Russian history going back to the Tsarist as well as Soviet periods, we have all kinds of examples of reactionary leaders replacing other reactionary leaders, but also reformers emerging. A lot will depend on circumstances and context. Certainly it’s possible that Russia will be propelled into another period of political upheaveal—perhaps with a succession of weak leaders—along lines we have also seen before.


Ukraine clearly wants to deny Putin his “Stalingrad” moment


Following the ICC’s recent issue of an arrest warrant for Putin over alleged war crimes, how will this affect the possibility of an eventual peace negotiation with Russia?

The current warrant is very specific and related to the deportation of children. It is intended to stop the Russian system from carrying out these violations, so this could be addressed head on in any negotiations.

How applicable do you think the WW2 analogy is with dealing with Russia – namely the idea that appeasement will lead to a much larger war down the line. Is this a legitimate comparison?

We have gone way beyond that stage now. One could argue that we already appeased Russia by not sufficiently addressing and responding to the invasion of Georgia in 2008 and invasion of Ukraine in 2014 … so here we are … the World War II anology is already underway.

Peter Zeihan has argued that the only real scenario in which Putin would consider using nuclear weapons is if Ukraine carried the fight across the border into Russia. Do you agree with this?

This is a reasonable assessment. The problem, of course, is that Putin has now defined Russia’s borders as those around Crimea and the territories annexed since the beginning of the war. Crimea appears to be the most dangerous flashpoint, so we have to monitor all of this closely.

Recent documents revealed Russia’s 10-year plan to destabilise Moldova. What kind of policy do you think the Kremlin was pursuing here?

Putin also sees Moldova as part of the Russian historical state—as “Bessarabia,” a territory that was formerly fought over, conquered and then ceded by treaty to the Russian Empire. His long-term intent was likely to bring Moldova along with Ukraine (and possibly also Kazakhstan, which like Moldova has a swathe of territory settled by Slavs) into the kind of union treaty that Belarus had with Russia prior to the current war. Belarus has since been, to all intents and purposes, absorbed by Russia. There is no reason to think that Putin has abandoned this goal of creating a new Russian or Slavic union.

Do you think that Ukraine has a specific goal in continuing to hold the city of Bakhmut, a city that few say matter strategically, and at what point do the number of casualties seriously start to threaten Putin’s regime?

Ukraine clearly wants to deny Putin his “Stalingrad” moment—the devastating battle that destroyed the German forces in World War II (albeit at huge cost also to Soviet forces). Indeed, during the recent 80th anniversary commemorations of that battle there were numerous allusions by Putin and others to the war in Ukraine. Putin hopes that the number of casualities will prove too great for Ukraine, and that given Russia’s larger population he can weather the losses. We will have to see. Its very hard to judge where a tipping point might be at this juncture for Russian casualties. Putin is whipping up his war propaganda around some of the losses to rally the Russian population against Ukraine—adopting the rhetoric and techniques of World War II and creating Russia’s own war heroes.

Earlier this year, White House officials said there were indications that China might be arming Russia. Is this likely, and would this see a considerable shift in the balance of global power?

This would be a major blow for Ukraine and clear evidence of the consolidation of the confrontation between the U.S. and China. Personally, I am not sure how likely this is, but as China has had no prior disputes with Ukraine this kind of decision would obviously be driven by its opposition to the United States.

In terms of a shift in the global balance of power, there is a great deal of trepidation about China in Europe and Asia, as well as in the so-called “Global South.” Here—beyond the common repudiation of the invasion and annexation of territory—there is also considerable skepticism about the war and its drivers and motivations. So the situation is confused and messy already.

Most countries in the Global South think Russia was provoked in some way by the U.S. and NATO (not just analysts in the West). But they also see Russia as weakened by the war in Ukraine, and China strengthened. In fact, Russia is seen as dependent on China in every way now, and as an increasingly marginalized power apart from in its immediate neighborhood.  Global South countries have a generally negative reaction to the framing of an emerging new global order as a great power competition between the U.S. and China. They don’t want to be in a new bloc and forced to “take sides” that they see as artificially imposed. As a result, we currently see, in effect, many states hedging and uncertain about where things are headed.

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How, if at all, have recent events in Russia-Ukraine affected China’s strategy towards Taiwan? 

Just as Russia seeks to push the U.S. to the sidelines in Europe to enable them to dominate the region, China has the same desire in Asia. China is clearly watching every aspect of this conflict very closely to glean ideas, including for the development of its nuclear arsenal, to deter and constrain the U.S. I think it is incumbent upon us, after all the mistakes with Russia, to get this right and not allow false assumptions and misjudgements to drive us toward another disastrous war. We have to assess China’s positions carefully and, equally, not provoke ourselves by misreading China.

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