'Putin is definitely in it for the long haul' (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

February 22, 2023   17 mins

Few people better understand the West’s fraught relationship with Russia than Fiona Hill. Born in Bishop Auckland, she went on to study History and Russian at St Andrews before a scholarship at Harvard took her to America. From there, Hill rose rapidly through the ranks to become one of the world’s foremost experts on Putin’s Russia, brought into the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama and, finally, Donald Trump.

Then, in 2019, she shot to international fame as the star witness in Trump’s first impeachment hearings, prompting the president to dismiss her as “a Deep State stiff with a nice accent”. Here, Hill gives her candid assessment of Trump’s redeeming features, the West’s historic missteps in Ukraine, and how the war might end.

Freddie Sayers: In 2008, at the Bucharest summit when it was agreed that Ukraine and Georgia would become Nato members, you were advising President George W. Bush. What did you tell him?

Fiona Hill: Well, 2008 was pretty much a low point. It was a pretty bad idea to give Georgia and Ukraine an open door to Nato, but not for the reasons that everybody thinks: which is that the whole expansion of Nato was generally bad. At the time, Nato members were suddenly trying to address a very late request from Georgia and Ukraine, which wasn’t for membership immediately, but for them to be considered over time.

Now, that’s a drawn-out process: when countries apply, it is not automatic — some of them can stay under consideration for a long period. And not only were the majority of Nato members opposed to their accession, but it was also not particularly popular inside Ukraine itself. This was very much an elite project driven by Viktor Yushchenko, the Ukrainian president, as well as the Georgians, who were more supportive about Nato membership because of security concerns with Russia. I and others said it was not a good idea at all. We thought it shouldn’t have even been under consideration.


FS: So you said that to George W. Bush’s administration?

FH: We did. And many other people — including Bill Burns, who’s now the Director of the CIA and had served as the Russian ambassador — were against it. Part of the reason was that it wasn’t going to succeed.

There was a question about how to guarantee their security. And there was a decision to say that these countries weren’t going to get into Nato now, but will at some point in the future — which was a bit of a break with precedent. And that outcome was the worst of all worlds. It was Angela Merkel, who helped to broker that arrangement. And it was basically like a red flag to a bull for Vladimir Putin, who had been opposed to Georgia and Ukraine seeking Nato entry.

But this also isn’t the full story. Because Nato has become a red herring in many respects. It’s the thing that everybody looks at. But Vladimir Putin — when he was working in the mayor’s office in St Petersburg in the Nineties, before Nato expansion was even a thing — was part of a group who thought that Ukraine shouldn’t be an independent country and that the Soviet Union should be put back together. So, his views about Ukraine were not shared by Nato early on.

FS: Is it therefore fair to accept that the West could have handled things better?

FH: Yes, the West could have and should have handled things better — but perhaps again, not in the thrust of where the debate has been focused. Because we should have been thinking about how we were going to ensure the security of all of Europe, not just those countries that were in Nato. Part of the issue was that we have always looked at Russia as the only successor state of both the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union — that all its other neighbouring countries only had contingent sovereignty, while Russia still has a sphere of influence. We’ve always thought of Russia as having a dominant role.

This wasn’t always the case, but when Putin came along, it became evident over time that he had aspirations for making Russia great in its neighbourhood. This shifted in 2007, when Putin made a pretty explosive speech at the Munich Security Conference about wanting to push back against American unipolarity and exert Russia’s rights again. Against that backdrop, it was of course a mistake to casually approach the issue of Georgia and Ukraine getting into Nato in 2008.

FS: Now that we’ve had the invasion, what should the West do next?

FH: We need to have an international diplomatic effort. We need to persuade the rest of the world that this war is not in anyone’s interests. And that’s where it becomes difficult, because this can’t just keep going on the battlefield. If we look at other world wars, there was some decisive moment on the battlefield. We might not get that, even though people talk about it all the time. We need to have a full-on international diplomatic effort where everybody tries to push, not Ukraine, but Russia towards the negotiating table.

FS: At the moment, though, it feels like the only question in the West is over whether we should send jets or more long-range missiles. There doesn’t seem to be any talk of peace negotiations.

FH: There is talk of peace negotiations. But the problem is that the Russians are not interested in them. What Putin has said is that: “Of course, we can negotiate. The war could have been over yesterday. The war would have never started if Ukraine had conceded to our territorial demands.” And that’s where we have a real problem. Because if we cede to Russia’s territorial demands — if Ukraine is forced to capitulate and give up not just Crimea but also the Donetsk, Luhansk and Donbas regions — think of all the precedents for other conflicts, not just in Europe, but around the world. Remember, Greece and Turkey still have massive disputes in the Aegean. We also have them in Cyprus, and in the eastern Mediterranean. So I agree we can’t just have it decided on the battlefield, but also decided diplomatically. These things have to be complementary.

FS: If the opening position from the West is that you can’t have any change of border from pre-2014 Ukraine borders, that’s not realistic. That’s not a peace negotiation. That’s just a sort of demand for complete surrender. What should we be talking about as an opening position in a peace negotiation?

FH: Part of it needs to account for Ukraine’s ability to defend itself against Russia coming back. But then if there’s any kind of territorial settlement, it has to be done in an international framework, which makes clear that this can’t be a precedent for other countries just taking territory. At one point, the Ukrainians were willing to contemplate Crimea being subjected to an internationally supervised referendum, 15 or 20 years down the line. That was before all of the incredible violence and atrocities that we have seen there. So it’s going to take some time to get back to that kind of position. There has to be a push to get Russia to negotiate and compromise. But right now, Putin is showing no sign whatsoever of that willingness.

FS: There was a moment earlier in the war when Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister, was talking about some kind of peace settlement. It felt like there was some interest in the Ukrainian administration about engaging with him — and that it was actually Western powers, like the UK, who suggested Ukraine shouldn’t go down that road and that we need to have victory first.

FH: Freddie, that’s actually not true. That’s all Russian trolling and basically a disinformation campaign.

FS: Ok — what’s the truth then?

FH: It’s true that there was a negotiation in February or March, and it was in Istanbul. I’ve talked to lots of people who were there. And there’s a German political scientist called Sabine Fischer, who has reported on the structure of a negotiation which would have involved Russia pulling back to pre-invasion lines. It would have basically left Crimea in Russian hands, which the Ukrainians were then willing to discuss. But since then, all the atrocities in Bucha and Irpin became evident. There have also been a lot of stories from Russia that suggest Putin wasn’t necessarily willing to go down that path. He was trying to see what the Ukrainians were willing to do. I’ve been involved in many negotiations with Russia. And you don’t get very far on your opening gambit, because that’s when both sides are trying to see what the other is willing to do.

So we were in the initial phases of a negotiation. But what happened next, of course, was that negotiations were pushed off-track because Russia started to annex more territory, talk about the expansion of its borders, and basically tell the world that we had better get used to it.

FS: You have sat next to Vladimir Putin on a number of occasions and had dinner with him. You’ve seen him up close. What is the best way to begin negotiations with him? And more generally, does this all mean that the Western position is kind of a posture: that by not mentioning any possibilities of territorial deals, we are making sure not to enter into any negotiations in a weaker position?

FH: Correct. That’s exactly it. This is when it becomes very difficult to lay things out, because Putin always wants to know what your move is. He’s not a chess player, per se. I mean, I think we all know that he played judo. And he was actually very proficient at it: he was a judo champion. And he’s always looking to see what his opponents’ leverage points might be: what their weaknesses are, where their strengths are, and what their opening move might be. And he plays it over a long period of time. He is always sizing us up: are we completely unified? How much are we willing to give up? How far can he go?

FS: So he’s in it for the long haul?

FH: He is definitely in it for the long haul. If we had made a decision early on to push Ukraine to give up Crimea, as well as the Donbas, Putin would have taken that, pocketed it and then tried to figure out how much further he could press on. Because that’s exactly how he operates. He would have pocketed that win, and then tried to figure out how he could extend it further. Because, again, this started a long time ago — not just in 2014 but in 2006, when Russia cut off gas to Ukraine. Ukraine has been under constant pressure, all the way through the 2000s.

FS: But how does this end? I understand that we must appear strong and united. But as the years pass, if proposing a settlement is seen as a sign of weakness, how will we ever reach one?

FH: That’s not the way to look at this. The way to look at this is to try to create the circumstances for a real negotiation, not a capitulation. I don’t think we’re going to have an absolute victory over Russia. But look, it only ends when Russians no longer want to extend territory in an imperial fashion. Leadership matters a lot here. Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev didn’t have this same way of thinking. Gorbachev himself made the decision to end the Cold War; Yeltsin did not want to reincorporate Ukraine or Belarus or any of the other countries. So you’ve got to find a formula where Russia no longer wants to expand.

FS: So what does victory actually look like? Does it mean that we’re not going to push Russia out of all of Ukraine, including Crimea?

FH: Probably not in the short-to-medium term on the battlefield, but one could imagine something different over the longer term. The Baltic states are no longer part of the Soviet Union; they are independent again, so that didn’t last forever. This was one of the points that Angela Merkel kept making: that things change over time.

FS: What should we be doing differently? If you were now the adviser to the US President or British Prime Minister or Nato more generally, what would you suggest?

FH: We basically have to think differently about this. It’s not going to be settled on the battlefield. This isn’t going to be like the First or Second World War, with some satisfying armistice peace treaty. We’re talking a few weeks after the anniversary of the Yalta Conference of 1945, in which Europe was divided up into two spheres. That’s what Putin wants. And that’s not what the rest of Europe wants, so we have to think about a larger framework, about the fact that Russia currently has a UN Security Council vet. We need to rethink these multinational approaches. People have said this is a great power competition. But the United States isn’t trying to expand its borders, or annex anywhere. It might have done in the past. But it isn’t doing this now.

FS: Sceptics might think differently about that.

FH: That’s exactly our problem: we’re justifying what Russia is doing to Ukraine because of our irritation with the United States. Yes, the United States shouldn’t have invaded Iraq. Yes, the United States shouldn’t have gone into Afghanistan. The United States does all kinds of things that the rest of the world doesn’t like — but does that justify Russia devastating Ukraine? No, it doesn’t. Unless, that is, the UK wants to live in a world that is only decided by clashes among China, the United States and Russia. That’s not the world I think the rest of the world wants to live in. That’s certainly not the world the Finns, the Swedes, the Danes, the Dutch, the Norwegians and others who are really supporting Ukraine want to live in. There has to be some kind of revitalisation of multilateral entities — whether that means the UN or part of it.

FS: If we’re talking about European security, what about the European Union?

FH: It doesn’t just have to be the European Union. It could be different formulations. The UK is not in the EU now. Neither is Norway and Norwegian military posture is very important. In fact, Norway has been very good at managing their relationships with Russia and is a very successful example of a country managing a territorial dispute with Russia (in the Barents Sea). Norway also has a shared sovereignty of Svalbard, and the Russians are still abiding by those international regulations because they weren’t just set by Norway, but by international treaty. All I’m saying here is that we need to have some fresh thinking. Is it sufficient to be just thinking about tanks and planes and the battlefield? No, it’s not. We’re going to have to think long and hard about how we frame an international set of agreements — and it’s not just going to be from the United States side or just from Europe.

FS: Let’s move on to a few specific areas. Who do you think blew up the Nord Stream Two pipeline? Was it the Russians? Do you think there’s a chance that it was the Americans?

FH: Initially, I did think it was the Russians. There was just so much about the whole eruption that reminded me of the kind of sabotage the Soviets undertook during the Second World War, and that Putin’s father was actually engaged in during the siege of Leningrad. He talks a lot about how his father was part of a destruction battalion, going behind enemy lines and getting rid of any infrastructure the enemy could use. And there was just something about the way Putin talked about it that made me think the Russians did this — that they think this will teach the West a lesson.

Now, I’m not so sure. I don’t believe it was the United States. If the United States had done that, by now, somebody would have laid claim to this. The United States can be a leaky sieve in terms of information. Some of my colleagues who have been looking at this think Ukraine could have done it. And this isn’t implausible, because they already managed to launch a pretty significant strike on the Kerch (Crimean) Bridge, but I haven’t seen any evidence.

FS: Do you believe Ukraine has the capacity?

FH: That’s why I initially didn’t think that it could be Ukraine, because I wasn’t sure they could have had the capacity. But it’s possible that Ukraine could have found a way of doing this: we’ve seen them be extremely inventive. But I just want to make it very clear that I absolutely do not know who carried this out. And I think that we actually should continue to look at this. And I’m certainly ready to concede that my initial suspicion that it was the Russians is wrong.

FS: It’s a strange and worrying world where nobody knows who carried out such a major piece of vandalism. But let’s move on to fighter jets, which Zelenskyy is asking for. Should we say yes?

FH: Look, I think everybody has to remember that between 1939 and 1941, the United Kingdom needed a lot of assistance from the US, which inspired a big debate in America. So we’ve had these kinds of debates before. I think if military experts are looking at the long term, it’s obvious why the Ukrainians are asking for this because we keep talking about escalation. The Russians are continuously escalating, and have or had “escalation dominance”. And the whole point of talking about all this military equipment is to prevent Russia from having escalation dominance, in the hope that we will push them towards negotiations because Putin will only negotiate when he thinks that achieving his current goals is not possible.

FS: Does that mean yes to airplanes?

FH: Yes, I would say potentially yes. But I would say it’s really contingent on our longer-term plan to try to get Russia to the negotiating table. Because look, Russia and Putin right now think that they can win this war by destroying Ukraine and by destroying their own population. Putin is talking about throwing not just the 300,000 people who have been drafted, but another 500,000 people into this campaign. He is willing to sacrifice as many Russians as it takes.

And so part of this is a problem of Putin himself — how to constrain him and how to get the message across to him that he’s ruining Russia’s future, and that Russia’s relationship with Europe will be irrevocably altered. Putin still seems to think that he can get away with all his carnage and brutality and it’ll be back to business as usual. He thinks that is what happened to Assad in Syria. And the more that we talk about the fact that we just need to resolve this, and say “please take Ukrainian territory then we’ll all be back to business”, the more that he will persist.

FS: I wouldn’t say that’s what many people are saying…

FH: I’m not suggesting you’re saying that, but there are people out there who are saying it. I read it all the time. They’re basically saying, look, if we can get a formula here, we get Ukraine to give up territory, then Putin will stop. But he won’t stop unless he thinks that Russia’s interests are going to be imperilled. And right now, that’s not the case for him. I mean, there are still 80-odd countries that allow Russians visa-free access. Only 30-odd countries that have imposed sanctions. And you know, Putin is just replugging the Russian economy by moving from Europe to the Middle East and Asia.

FS: Don’t we know from the last year that Western power is less influential than we thought? Most countries have not taken a side. Putin can now pivot to China, and it feels almost like we’ve pushed Russia into a different orbit when perhaps there was a more intelligent way to go about it.

FH: Well, there certainly should have been a more intelligent way of going about it, but I don’t think that justifies allowing Russia to totally brutalise Ukraine. And I don’t think that’s what you’re saying. I think what we are seeing is Russia gambling that it can create a new division. What we have to do is make sure this new division doesn’t take hold.

We’re actually seeing Russia become more dependent on China. I don’t think that’s in anyone’s interests. Russia and China have had periods of conflict over their border. Russia’s longest border is with China. Russia is also a source of Asia-Pacific security issues as well. Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore all don’t like this situation. So what we have to do is work with other countries to again make it clear that what Russia is doing is unacceptable.

Right now, South Africa is carrying out naval exercises with China and Russia — that’s just not on. It’s one thing to be neutral and sit on the fence but it’s another to be essentially allowing China and Russia to practise drills they can use against other countries. South Africa should be called out on that.

But we have to find a way of making it clear what we’re standing for, which is the violation of the UN Charter and international law. When we play a democracy versus autocracy or frame a conflict around values, it just doesn’t cut it because the United States and the United Kingdom and France and other colonial powers have a lot of baggage and people don’t buy it. But we have to basically find ways of calling out Russia and getting that message to stick.

FS: I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you about Donald Trump. You accepted a job in his White House in 2017. You were there for two years, and then you famously testified against him in 2019. Do you think, had he still been President, Russia would have invaded?

FH: No, probably. Putin would have anticipated that he could get Ukraine handed over without the necessity of invading. If you look back to what happened in the run up to the war, there was the Geneva meeting between Biden and Putin. At that point after the shambolic withdrawal from Afghanistan, Putin hoped that Biden would be willing to cut his losses on Ukraine and on Europe as well. Basically, he was trying to figure out whether Ukraine really matters, and was pushing Biden to negotiate away Ukraine — but Biden didn’t. Ukraine is not the United States’s to negotiate away. It’s not going to go over the heads of all the Europeans.

Russia gave all these ultimatums: that the US needs to pull up out of Europe and take its bases and its missiles and leave Russia to its own devices. And Biden wasn’t willing to negotiate on that basis. So Putin assumed that he has to use force. And he literally said afterwards: “Well, the United States won’t negotiate, so we’re invading.” And of course, he didn’t think that he’d end up in a massive war. He thought his special operation would be over in a week or two.

This gets back to where we started about where we’ve always gone wrong. We’ve never signalled that we really care about anything. We allowed Russia to invade Georgia and then Ukraine. So what would have happened with Trump is that he would have likely negotiated. Trump always said that Ukraine didn’t matter. That’s what happened in that first impeachment trial. Basically, Trump had made it very clear that Ukraine didn’t matter to him one bit; that national security didn’t matter, and this was all just about personal favours, and Ukraine was just a plaything. And so, with Trump, the assumption from Putin would have been that none of this would have been necessary.

Now, there is one element, however, one which Trump was somewhat unpredictable. If it looked like Trump was being humiliated in some way by Putin, then there might have been some other more mercurial reaction. Trump was the one who actually did shell Syria. Obama hadn’t done that before. Trump could be, you know, quite complicated on some of these issues.

FS: You’re no fan of Trump. But do you think that his unpredictability is part of the reason why there were no major wars during his presidency?

FH: Well, the situation hadn’t ripened in that way. Putin probably wasn’t ready at that point. There are other factors here. It’s not just always about the United States. I mean, Putin saw weakness in the United States, for sure. But he saw weakness over a whole period of time. Remember, he intervened with an influence operation. That’s why I went into government in 2016. I didn’t go in there to serve Donald Trump. I went in there to deal with a national security crisis after the Russians launched an influence operation to basically subvert the US 2016 presidential election.

FS: My question was more about Donald Trump. I suppose most journalists would push you to condemn Trump in more and more severe terms. I guess I’m interested in the other side: having worked with him for that period, what’s the best thing you can say about him? Do you think some of his instincts were good?

FH: “Good” is subjective, isn’t it? But look, I think he had a lot of instincts where he understood strength versus weakness. He understood that he had to appear strong. He had that kind of strongman idea in many of his interactions with people, which was sometimes misplaced in the way he behaved. But he also asked a lot of hard questions that we weren’t asking ourselves. He was right on a number of issues related to European security. He basically was saying, as he said to Germany: if Russia was such a threat, why are you involved in all of these multibillion dollar deals for energy development? Bloody good question, right.

FS: And he was right on the Nord Stream pipeline.

FH: He was on the money with those ones — basically saying to Nato countries: if Nato is so concerned about Russia, why are you not spending enough on your defence? And why are you always looking to the United States?

Sometimes he would say that Nato is 80% or 100% dependent on the United States. This wasn’t entirely true, but he also wasn’t wrong. During the war in Ukraine, the US has ended up having to be indispensable with its leadership and military provisions again. So, there were lots of things he was right on, including the threat of China.

Although, often what we saw with Trump was that he became somewhat enamoured with the strongmen on the top, because he saw himself reflected in them, when he was much more hard on the relationship with the country itself. He didn’t pull back from some of the actions that were taken against Russia behind the scenes, things that nobody really talks about. Nobody really saw. And the same with China. But he would often undercut himself by pandering to their strongman leader.

Still, there are things where I think he actually deserved more credit than he got. On North Korea, the way that he spoke about things was often somewhat deceptive. At the same time, he recognised that he was going to have to do something non-conventional in terms of dealing with a real threat that he inherited from the Obama administration. I mean, the one thing that Obama told him that really seemed to have sunk in was that we’re on the verge of having North Korea launch a missile at us. And basically, Trump dealt with that head on.

FS: That was an example of this strongman trick working.

FH: That’s right — and a bit of madman theory as well. He came across pretty effectively, in that regard. And sometimes Trump instinctively knew how to play that one. Part of the problem with Trump, which I think everybody knows, is that everything is about him. So, when he said he was really supporting US interests, it was as if they were reflected by his own sense of self-interest. And sometimes that would work. And sometimes it was absolutely disastrous.

This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. You can watch the full interview here:


Fiona Hill is a foreign affairs specialist and former advisor to Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump.