Fiona Hill is a former diplomat who specializes in the study of Russia and Ukraine. She was a star witness in the first impeachment trial of Trump (the Former Guy).
She was recently interviewed by Politico. This is a fascinating discussion with a deeply informed expert. Please open the link and read it all.
In the early days of Russia’s war on Ukraine, Hill warned in an interview with POLITICO that what Putin was trying to do was not only seize Ukraine but destroy the current world order. And she recognized from the start that Putin would use the threat of nuclear conflict to try to get his way.
Now, despite the setbacks Russia has suffered on the battlefield, Hill thinks Putin is undaunted. She sees him adapting to new conditions, not giving up. And she sees him trying to get the West to accede to his aims by using messengers like billionaire Elon Musk to propose arrangements that would end the conflict on his terms.
“Putin plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role. But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin,” Hill says…
Whenever he has a setback, Putin figures he can get out of it, that he can turn things around. That’s partly because of his training as a KGB operative. In the past, when asked about the success of operations, he’s pooh-poohed the idea that operations always go as planned, that everything is always perfect. He says there are always problems in an operation, there are always setbacks. Sometimes they’re absolute disasters. The key is adaptation.
Another hallmark of Putin is that he doubles down. He always takes the more extreme step in his range of options, the one that actually cuts off other alternatives. Putin has often related an experience he had as a kid, when he trapped a rat in a corner in the apartment building he lived in, in Leningrad, and the rat shocked him by jumping out and fighting back. He tells this story as if it’s a story about himself, that if he’s ever cornered, he will always fight back.
But he’s also the person who puts himself in the corner. We know that the Russians have had very high casualties and that they’ve been running out of manpower and equipment in Ukraine. The casualty rate on the Russian side keeps mounting. A few months ago, estimates were 50,000. Now the suggestions are 90,000 killed or severely injured. This is a real blow given the 170,000 Russia troops deployed to the Ukrainian border when the invasion began.
So, what does Putin do? He sends even more troops in by launching a full-on mobilization. He still hasn’t said this is a war. It remains a “special military operation,” but he calls up 300,000 people. Then, he goes several steps further and announces the annexation of the territories that Russia has been fighting over for the last several months, not just Donetsk and Luhansk, but also the territories of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia.
Putin gives himself no way out except to pursue the original goals he had when he went in, which is the dismemberment of Ukraine and Russia annexing its territory. And he’s still trying to adapt his responses to setbacks on the battlefield….
Reynolds: If Putin wants Ukrainian territory so badly, why is he raining down such destruction on civilian areas and committing so many human rights abuses in occupied areas?
Hill: This is punishment, but also perverse redevelopment. You cow people into submission, destroy what they had and all their links to their past and their old lives, and then make them into something new and, thus, yours. Destroy Ukraine and Ukrainians. Build New Russia and create Russians. Its brutal but also a hallmark of imperial conquest….
Reynolds: We’ve recently had Elon Musk step into this conflict trying to promote discussion of peace settlements. What do you make of the role that he’s playing?
Hill: It’s very clear that Elon Musk is transmitting a message for Putin. There was a conference in Aspen in late September when Musk offered a version of what was in his tweet — including the recognition of Crimea as Russian because it’s been mostly Russian since the 1780s — and the suggestion that the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia should be up for negotiation, because there should be guaranteed water supplies to Crimea. He made this suggestion before Putin’s annexation of those two territories on September 30. It was a very specific reference. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia essentially control all the water supplies to Crimea. Crimea is a dry peninsula. It has aquifers, but it doesn’t have rivers. It’s dependent on water from the Dnipro River that flows through a canal from Kherson. It’s unlikely Elon Musk knows about this himself. The reference to water is so specific that this clearly is a message from Putin.
Now, there are several reasons why Musk’s intervention is interesting and significant. First of all, Putin does this frequently. He uses prominent people as intermediaries to feel out the general political environment, to basically test how people are going to react to ideas. Henry Kissinger, for example, has had interactions with Putin directly and relayed messages. Putin often uses various trusted intermediaries including all kinds of businesspeople. I had intermediaries sent to discuss things with me while I was in government….
Putin plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role. But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin.
Reynolds: Putin is very comfortable dealing with billionaires and oligarchs. That’s a world that he knows well. But by using Musk this way, he goes right over the heads of [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian government.
Hill: He is basically short-circuiting the diplomatic process. He wants to lay out his terms and see how many people are going to pick them up. All of this is an effort to get Americans to take themselves out of the war and hand over Ukraine and Ukrainian territory to Russia….
Putin invaded Ukraine in 2014, exactly 100 years after Germany invaded Belgium and France — and just in the same way that Hitler seized the Sudetenland, annexed Austria and invaded Poland. We’re having a hard time coming to terms with what we’re dealing with here. This is a great power conflict, the third great power conflict in the European space in a little over a century. It’s the end of the existing world order. Our world is not going to be the same as it was before.
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