“This Is One Man’s War, One Man’s Choice”
In an interview, renowned Russia expert and former US government adviser Fiona Hill discusses the background to Putin's brutal assault on Ukraine.
Spring 2023 Issue: The China Challenge
Fiona Hill has been closely watching Russian President Vladimir Putin for decades, both as an intelligence analyst in the Bush and Obama administrations and as a presidential advisor, working at the US National Security Council, during part of the Trump years. A renowned Russia expert and author, she tells IPQ that it has been clear since 2007 what Putin wants to achieve.
Dr Hill, you are a long-time observer of Vladimir Putin. Were you surprised when Russia’s president launched a full-scale war against Ukraine on February 24?
I’m afraid I wasn’t. Like everybody else, I was still shocked, of course. Even if somebody does something you are expecting, you always hope it will not happen. The previous week my former colleagues in the United States government were communicating that an invasion was imminent. They had really serious intelligence about this and had taken a major step to warn about it. My job as intelligence analyst at the US National Intelligence Council in the past had also involved warning. In 2008 it had been my job to warn about the imminence of Russian military action against Georgia—and we were correct. But it was very hard to get the warning across.
As always in these cases, you hope or anticipate that there might be a different decision on the part of the protagonist—in this case, Vladimir Putin. I thought there was a 50-50 chance of a full-scale invasion as he also had various other options on the table: crippling cyber-attacks, the “decapitation” of the Ukrainian government meaning the assassination or orchestrated removal of President Volodymyr Zelensky. There was also the possibility of more intensive military action in the Donetsk and Luhansk oblasts, or of the Russian military pushing out of Crimea and around the Sea of Azov to take Mariupol and also potentially pushing down the Black Sea coast to Odessa. This was the idea the Kremlin in fact had in 2014 to reconquer the tsarist era Novorossiya, or “New Russia.”
So, there were many different things that Putin could do with the military build-up on Ukraine’s borders. I was pretty sure he was going to do something because Vladimir Putin is not somebody who bluffs. And there is a long pattern of behavior that indicates he will take drastic action if he thinks that it is necessary—from the invasion of Georgia, the murder of the ex-FSB agent Alexander Litvinenko in London two years earlier with polonium, the attempted Novichok murder in Salisbury in 2018 and so on. We’ve seen that he raised the threshold of violence and showed a very strong streak of ruthlessness.
What he tried was a blitzkrieg. And as we have seen through history, it never really works.
The clearest statement of intent was quite early on in 2007 at the Munich Security Conference where Putin gave a long accusatory speech. Do you remember your and the US administration’s analysis at the time? Did you take it seriously?
Yes, we did take it seriously. There was a lot of parsing of that speech—analyzing the language, looking at the words that he used, also his body language, the fact that he had chosen the MSC to do this clearly meant that he had a very strong intent of passing on a message to the West. The cutting-off of gas supplies to Ukraine had already happened in 2006, and there had also been a very negative reaction to the so-called color revolutions, including the Orange Revolution in Ukraine of 2004 and the Rose Revolution in Georgia a year earlier. That came against the backdrop of NATO enlargement in 2004 along with EU enlargement to include the Baltic States.
So, there was a cumulative effect from Putin’s point of view that was obvious in the 2007 speech. That he chose Munich was also seen as significant because of Putin’s linkages with Germany and his view that Germany was a bridge for him, which was very much the case back in the day. Then, in 2008, NATO declared its open-door policy vis-à-vis Ukraine and Georgia, and at that point, as the national intelligence officers in that period, my colleagues and I were warning that we anticipated pre-emptive military action on the part of Russia to stop Georgia and Ukraine from progressing towards NATO; and we assessed that on the basis of the 2007 Munich Security Council speech as well.
Has Putin’s approach evolved this since then, or has it basically stayed the same, while the West, Germany, in particular, continued to underestimate him?
I think his approach has stayed fairly the same. He does what he says. If he threatens something, he delivers on it. Putin’s use of coercion and compulsion always follows the same pattern. He makes a threat and basically the incentives are one and the same. So, the stick is the threat, and the carrot is the removal of the threat: if you do not do something, I am going to take military action. If you do it, I will not. Or in the case of Georgia: If you do not pursue NATO membership, I will not attack you. If you do, I will attack you.
After the war in Georgia, Putin explicitly told the then Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili: Your Western allies promised much and they did not deliver. I threatened and I delivered.
And that has been a long pattern, going back to the second round of war in Chechnya in 1999/2000. It is often forgotten that Vladimir Putin came into office as a war-time president, against the backdrop of what some people are pretty convinced was a false flag operation, the blowing-up of residential buildings in towns in Russia supposedly by north Caucasians who were linked to the Chechnyan rebels. But there is circumstantial evidence that suggests that the FSB, the domestic successor of the KGB, was behind this.
In any case, the FSB was put in charge of that second war in Chechnya by incoming President Putin who had been heading the FSB when he was first named to become prime minister and then acting president, to carry out the brutal repression of the Chechens. The whole point of the second war in Chechnya was to avoid any kind of compromise with the Chechnyan opposition. You had the targeted killing of Dzhokhar Dudayev and a host of other rebel leaders who were termed Islamist terrorists. But it started off as a very similar kind of conflict to those elsewhere in the region, as an ethno-political one; there was not the religious aspect of it initially, it was a classic secessionist conflict, and it soon became a brutal war. And what we saw was Russian forces levelling Grozny, killing large numbers of civilians, most of whom were Slavs and Russian speakers, lots of elderly women in basements in Grozny because Grozny was really a Russian city. And again, brutal suppression, taking people’s families hostage, all kinds of extrajudicial assassinations.
The point of laying this out is that it has always been in plain sight what Putin is capable of. This is all something that we saw from the very beginning of his presidency. And the ruthlessness with which he has pursued his alleged enemies, who he sees as “traitors,” should not leave anybody surprised, either. Again, the pattern is consistent all the way through the last 22 years. I and many others have been trying to get this across to people for a very long time. But I think it is just hard for people to get their heads around it because of all of the other seemingly contradicting evidence of Putin being pragmatic, focusing in the early part of his presidency, beside the domestic suppression of Chechnya, on building up the economy, wanting to see Russia established as one of the top five global economies. Obviously the outward manifestation of a practical leader in those first couple of terms probably diverted people's attention away from what else he and the system are capable of.
Is there then a straight line to be drawn from Chechnya to Putin’s war in Ukraine? Did NATO enlargement also play a role or are Putin’s complaints just a smokescreen?
NATO enlargement does play a role in it, it is not a smokescreen. However, it is not the only answer, and many people are deluding themselves if they think that if NATO enlargement had been solved that there wouldn’t have been a war.
Just to be clear, I think the 2008 offer of NATO membership to Ukraine and Georgia was a strategic blunder. I don't think it should have ever been on the table. It was not achievable at that specific juncture for all kinds of reasons and there was a lot of opposition from Germany, France, and other countries. They should have pushed back and not allowed the issue to be brought forward at the NATO 2008 Bucharest meeting. This was the choice of US President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney even against not only the advice of the intelligence community—and I was the briefer, so I know this for a fact—but also the advice of many of the key officials who thought this was a mistake because it was not something that was achievable, and we got the worst of all worlds as a result.
But for Putin that is just part of a much larger picture. He sees NATO as an offensive military alliance since 1999 at the latest, in the context of the bombing of Belgrade when the alliance intervened in the Kosovo war to stop Serbian troops killing Muslims, during the wars that followed the break-up of Yugoslavia. Putin was head of the FSB at that time, and all Russians were shocked because there was not a specific attack by Serbia against a NATO member. And so, after this, whenever NATO was used as the coalition umbrella in other operations, in Afghanistan or Libya, for example, Putin and the people around him saw this a proof that NATO was an offensive alliance rather than defensive. Given their own Cold War perspectives, they already had seen NATO in a very negative light prior to 1999.
That former Soviet states like the Baltic States or former members of the Warsaw Pact would then join NATO, that idea became too much for someone like Putin to handle. And it is all fitted into this much larger frame that for Putin the collapse of the Soviet Union resulted in the loss of Russia’s place in Europe and over time his desire to re-establish the dominant position of Russia in the old Communist bloc and the old Russian empire is reinforced.
And in fact, the one thing that has evolved over time is Putin’s propensity to think about the past: that restorationist, revisionist, recidivist view of Russia’s position in Europe. I think that was less apparent in the beginning of his presidency, but over time I think it has consumed him in an extremely unhealthy way.
There are clearly things that the West could have done earlier on to address that. I know that in Germany many officials thought we should have handled the communications with Russia about NATO more carefully, we should have found a way of creating a post-Cold War agreement that was not just the NATO-Russia Council, that we should have paid more attention to Dmitri Medvedev’s request put forward in Berlin in 2008 for a new European security arrangement.
I agree with this idea, but it still might not have changed this very dark view that Putin has—and his desire to reassert Russian dominance. And early on, in the early 2000s, we did not see that so much because he still felt that Russia was weak. And you know what Putin always says: “The weak get beaten and the strong do the beating.” He wanted to build up Russia’s strength domestically. By 2007 he felt that Russia was strong again. It had paid off all the state’s debts, the economy was doing well, oil and gas prices were continuously rising, and the military was getting back into shape.
The initial attack on Ukraine—the annexation of Crimea of 2014 and the war in Donbas— was already inspired by recreating “the Russian world” or Russkiy Mir. Is this now the overarching aim?
Well, Belarus has already been absorbed. And Ukraine fits into that as well. Malorossiya, “little Russia.” That whole part of the southern Ukraine is Novorossiya—the areas that were conquered by Catherine the Great;and then the northern part of Kazakhstan, which was settled by Slavs could be included. The Russkiy Mir is where Russian speakers and the Russian Orthodox Church had its largest extent.
From Putin's perspective this is about the gathering of those lands that were once part of the Russian empire. And then it’s about more influence and dominance over the others. Usually, what Putin has done is flirt with ideologies and histories that are useful in terms of justifying the existence of the Russian Empire. And seeing the Soviet Union as a different version of that.
So, when Putin talked about the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century being the collapse of the Soviet Union, he also had in mind losing some of the lands and peoples of the Russian Empire. And we've seen in his speech justifying the war against Ukraine that he criticized Lenin and the Bolsheviks for creating a separate Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic as part of the USSR. Given his whole invocation of earlier histories, Putin clearly sees Belarus, most of Ukraine, Transnistria, Bessarabia, Moldova probably, within that scope, as well as the northern parts of Kazakhstan. The region is well aware of the implications. In Central Asia, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Turkmenistan have all been extraordinarily quiet for some time trying to keep their heads down and balance a little bit between Russia and China.
Anyway, I think Putin has made it very clear to all the regional leaders that if they go too far in the direction of courting the United States, the West, Europe, the European Union, certainly relations with NATO, then there will be big trouble. And he has made it very clear what that would be. The invasion of Georgia in 2008 was a massive red flashing warning sign to everyone else in the region and they have trod very carefully ever since.
Former German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in 2014 that Putin “lived in a world of his own”…
She was completely right about this. What she meant by that obviously in German—“in seiner eigenen Welt”—was that he lives in a totally different frame of reference. It was misunderstood at first in the United States that she was saying that Putin was somehow irrational and mad. It is clear that Putin now sees himself as the embodiment of the Russian state. It is this obsession, his version of history, that has led us to this point.
So again, it is not just about NATO. It is about Putin’s view of how Russia exists within Europe. He said many times that he wants a demand for Russia in Europe and in the world. That Russia was “an exceptional state.” That is why he has often pushed back against America's sense of exceptionalism saying: well, we are exceptional, too. We have our rightful place in Europe and the world, and that is why we wanted from NATO not just a consultative council, but the ability to veto what NATO could do.
And the demands that were made in December 2021 are very clear on this, wanting to consolidate Russia’s dominance in what was the old former Soviet Bloc, including the Baltic States, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, and into the Balkans—basically wanting NATO to pull back from the positions it took after 1997, getting the United States to pull out.
I was in this huge white room where Putin met with President Emmanuel Macron and Chancellor Olaf Scholz, at that long table. The times I was there I saw four statues, which tell the story. They were obviously selected by Putin. There was Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Alexander I and Nicholas I. Interestingly, Nicholas I overextended Russia. He ended up sparking off the Crimean War. In any case, Putin clearly sees himself as Vladimir the Great. He may be in power potentially until 2036 which would make him the longest serving leader in modern Russian and Soviet history; Stalin had 30 years thereabouts. There is also the obsession with Prince Vladimir the Grand Prince of Kyiv who took on Christianity. There is a huge statue of Prince Vladimir that Putin erected outside of the Kremlin to make that point.
What does it tell us about possible limits to his ambitions?
Very sadly, what we are seeing here is that Putin’s ambitions are pretty maximalist. He pushes, and if he encounters weakness, he will keep pushing.
Do you think he is truthfully informed about the progress of his war in Ukraine? And who does he listen to?
Well, as a national intelligence officer, I truthfully informed the people that I was supposed to inform including presidents and senior officials and they sometimes ignored me or said they would pursue their chosen policy regardless. Take President Trump: he did not want to hear from his intelligence services. So, Putin may have been given all kinds of information and briefings, but everything depends on how he interprets things: whether he assesses information himself as a former intelligence professional and believes it is accurate based on his worldview and his perspective; and whether he even wants to hear it in the first place.
I am sure Putin is informed about the state of the economy, for example. This is now a total disaster, but Putin is convinced that it is possible to adapt. There was this picture of a meeting with Elivra Nabiullina, the head of the Russian Central Bank, and other economic advisors, they have got their heads in their hands, and it is obvious that he is telling them: Well, it is what it is, and you guys have to figure it out and adapt.
So it may be that Putin also has information that things are not going well, that he miscalculated. I mean obviously French President Macron and others have brought that forward to him and he has basically said all is going according to plan. Not because events on the ground are going the way that he thought but that he has this larger plan, and they will find a way of adapting and still executing the plan. In fact, this is likely why we saw the attempted blitzkrieg turn into a much more cruel and barbaric assault. Indeed, this is what Putin did in Chechnya after the same pattern of Russian military failure to meet its original goals and in Syria, where the whole goal of Russia’s intervention was to keep Assad in place. Well, guess what? Assad is still in place. But most of Syria is not.
The intelligence the US made public ahead of Putin’s war was very precise, leading some to speculate that there might be a mole in the Kremlin. What is your sense about how Putin’s war will end?
On this front I must say that I do not have any special intelligence. But after 22 years in power, Putin is fairly predictable to me: the patterns are clear, his behavior is clear, his personality is clear. Listen to what he says. Of course, he does lie—but it is that sort of lie where everybody knows you are lying, for which there is even a Russian term. There is also a truth in all of this. Putin has a purpose. You do not need to have a mole in the Kremlin to understand that this is a pretty ruthless guy who is going to do some pretty nasty things.
But the other thing is that I honestly do not know how this ends. And that is what troubles me the most because I know Putin is very ruthless, that when he talks about using nuclear weapons, he is thinking about how he can; and we have to stay calm and push back against that and get the rest of the international community to push back as well, because that is just unacceptable to everybody.
Putin is obviously thinking about biological and chemical weapons and staging false flag attacks. He has done that before, When the Malaysian airline flight MH17 was shot down in 2014 with a Russian missile, the Kremlin denied it and said that the CIA filled a plane with corpses and shot it down; that the United States had been trying to shoot done his plane and shot MH17 by accident; and all kinds of other lies. So, once the Russians start putting out lies about Ukrainians trying to get nuclear weapons or biological weapons, or the United States trying to use chemical weapons, you can be sure that Putin is laying the ground for something really horrible.
Because what Putin wants to do is escalate the situation, get Germany in particular and everybody else in Europe and the West really scared and pressure us to back down. And we must not do that. I mean, I am scared of him using weapons of mass destruction too, but I am not going to back down and be intimidated by all of this—because he wants to brutalize the Ukrainians. We cannot let that happen.
Now, in this context, Putin is not the Russian people. We also have to figure out a pathway in which we preserve some ability to reengage with Russia more broadly. This is one man’s war, one man’s choice. Of course, there are enablers around him, within a very tight group of people who have made this war possible. But this is not the war of choice of the Russian people. They are also being forced into it because of the propaganda, the repression. And you know, however it eventually ends we have to make it possible to actually have that discussion we keep postponing about how Russia fits into Europe and how we move forward in dealing with Russia. So, we must be careful not be utterly punitive to the Russian people.
The Russian leadership has created a horrible situation. The country is going to be a pariah state for the foreseeable future. And the only way that this ends is through a much bigger international effort of diplomacy. We have really got to focus on getting other countries that are sitting on the fence thinking this is just a battle between the West and Russia to see it for what it is: a postcolonial, postimperial grab of territory.
And so, we ultimately have to be able to explain to people globally what this is and what it is not. It is not just about NATO; it is not just about our mishandling of various issues. It is not justified because the United States went into Iraq in 2003 (which is one of the Russian arguments). This is Putin and people around him in the Kremlin making the decision to invade an independent sovereign country because they want to reincorporate it into their territory. And this is incredibly dangerous for global stability. It is a repudiation of everything that we have tried to do since World War II.
In addition to supporting Ukraine, we must maintain our diplomatic efforts in the United Nations. We need to make the institutions that we have relevant again to be able to push back against this atrocity. We need a major diplomatic effort to stop the war and then figure things out further from there.
The interview was conducted by Martin Bialecki, Henning Hoff, Ines Meyer, and Joachim Staron.
Fiona Hill is a Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at Brookings.