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Fiona Hill talks Ukraine, January 6, Trump, Republicans, and 2024: ‘We’re in a mess’

Fiona Hill,arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC on November 21, 2019.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

  • Fiona Hill recently spoke to Insider about Ukraine, Putin, January 6, Trump, and more.
  • Hill said the war in Ukraine has global ramifications and could spark conflicts elsewhere.
  • She also issued dire warnings about the state of US democracy.

As the top Russia expert on the National Security Council under the Trump administration, Fiona Hill had a front-row seat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s efforts to manipulate former President Donald Trump. Hill also watched Trump attempt to emulate autocrats like Putin. In 2019, Hill was thrown into the national spotlight as a key witness during the House impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

Insider recently spoke with Hill about the Ukraine war, Russia, Putin, the January 6 hearings, Trump, Republicans and the future of US democracy. The conversation revealed how all of these issues are tied together.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

INSIDER: In November, you told me that Putin was “deadly serious” about neutralizing Ukraine. At the time, there was a fair amount of skepticism about whether Russia would actually invade. You were ultimately correct. But what’s been most surprising to you about how the Ukraine war has unfolded so far? 

Hill: It was clear he was going to do something military to me — but it wasn’t clear he was going to try for a full-on invasion. 

They went full on everything at once, which was a bit of a surprise. But I think that’s kind of the surprise for Putin as well. They miscalculated, right? They obviously thought — the Russians, Putin, the people around him who planned this adventure with him — that this “special military operation” would be over in a matter of days. And it wasn’t. Everyone’s surprised by that. The Ukrainians are surprised by it, because they managed to fend it off. Clearly, Putin’s surprised by it. 

But it was clearly because the planning was not for a full-on, full-scale, grinding war that we’re seeing now. 

The surprising element for a lot of people is that it has gone beyond these confines of a much shorter, sharper conflict. 

It’s obvious to all of us that [Putin] massively miscalculated.

INSIDER: It’s clear that there were major miscalculations here, and the early days of the war were fairly embarrassing for Russia and for Putin. But we’re beginning to see Russia make progress in the eastern Donbas region. And the Russian economy, while not exactly in the best shape, has managed to stay afloat. Is the tide turning in Putin’s favor?

Hill: He wants us to think that. We have to be very careful about that. That’s becoming kind of the conventional wisdom — that he can wait us out. It’s that whole idea of time and tide. There’s that old expression “time and tide wait for no man” — not even for Vladimir Putin. Because he wants us to basically capitulate at this point. He doesn’t want this dragging on, either. So all of these statements that Putin is saying like “we haven’t even started yet, the worst is yet to come,” it’s meant to have Ukraine and everybody else just sort of give up now. 

This is classical medieval siege mentality, right?

This is a guy whose father went through the siege of Leningrad. He’s thinking in a siege-like mentalities, laying siege to all of us. Just basically saying, “I’m going to wait you all out. You cannot prevail because I’ve got all the time in the world.” And that’s just not true.

The problem becomes one of maintaining the military equipment and everything over the longer term. They’re going to be cannibalizing equipment.

We’re seeing them reverting back, not just to the tactics of earlier times, but the equipment of earlier times. Pulling lots of things out of the scrapyard or cold storage. There’s a lot of speculation about how long it will take for them to replenish the equipment that’s lost. 

Russia’s got a lot of problems, and over the longer term.

We see signs of desperation there in terms of just trying to bring more people in without having a full-on mobilization that would bring in the kids of elites in Moscow and St. Petersburg, etc.

INSIDER: In light of these questions regarding whether Russia actually has the manpower and weaponry to continue waging this war in the long-term, where do you see this war going? What are Putin’s objectives at this stage of the conflict? 

Hill: His objectives have not changed. Putin wants to find a way of subjugating Ukraine one way or another. 

He might take what he can get in the short term and medium term. One of the big risks is that if he manages to get some kind of nominal control of the Donbas — Donetsk and Luhansk. But then there might be some kind of effort to create an operational pause for regrouping.

And then it just results in a renewal of conflict when the Russians feel that they’re in a good position to press ahead again. 

There are going be ramifications from this war for a very long time. It’s an epoch-making war in many respects. It’s shaping a whole set of interactions. The war in Chechnya was very similar. For years that went on and it shaped a lot of the dynamics within Russia itself and in neighboring countries. The war in Ukraine has a global reach, global implications — with the food security, Russia’s nuclear sabre rattling, Putin running around to Turkey and Iran and reaching out to China for support. This is a conflict already with global dimensions. 

INSIDER: Putin has offered a series of shifting justifications for the Ukraine war. He’s portrayed it as an effort to reclaim lands that he views as historically Russian. He’s also framed it as the beginning of the end of a US-led world order. What does he really believe?

Hill: Both, because he thinks that the US is an imperial power that has been occupying Europe because it’s an outside power. He says it all the time. He’s been saying it for forever. The Soviets said it as well — that the US was alien to Europe.

The US — we always think of ourselves as liberators, right? World I, World War II, coming in to liberate Europe from the destruction by Germany. And we did occupy Germany. We did occupy Europe. There were US bases all over the place. And there still are in the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy, and other places. And the US military is present in NATO, etc. 

At the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union/Russia was forced to pull out. Pulling its military back from everywhere. But the US didn’t go anywhere. So that’s the Putin argument the whole time — the US is an imperial power, we have to get rid of it. Really, what Putin wants to be is the dominant power in Europe.

INSIDER: When we spoke in November, you said Putin had an upper hand over the West and the only way this would change was if there’s a “collective, forceful, diplomatic response.” Does Putin still have the upper hand?

Hill: Putin was never so powerful as on February 22nd and 23rd, or in November when he was massing those forces and he was putting all this pressure and everybody’s running around trying to appease him and placate him. And then he goes in and he does this. Then everyone has to respond to that and he loses that power of coercion and persuasion.

INSIDER: Do you think that the West has the political will to maintain the support that Ukraine needs to withstand Russia? 

Hill: Well, Putin doesn’t think we have. And we can nay-say ourselves into not having it, either. I think it’s up to us. 

What’s going on in Ukraine is much larger than Ukraine and Russia, or NATO or the European Union. The food security, knock-on effects of energy, the precedent Putin is setting for similar activities elsewhere. 

This is really one of those massively transformative conflicts now. People freak out when you use the idea of World War III, but it’s that epoch-changing war. There’s been many of them in European history. 

Putin’s trying to basically say that all of the history of the past several centuries in Europe doesn’t count. All that counts is Putin’s version of events — that Ukraine belongs to Russia. What about all the other countries in the world that have come out of multiethnic states or empires?

INSIDER: When you learn about the history of World War I in high school, they teach you about the “powder keg of Europe.” All of the right elements were there for it to explode, but everyone seemed to be looking the other way. Is that kind of moment we’re in?

Hill: We’re in it. Look at what’s happening with food security and famine. I’ve used the idea of Putin as the four horsemen of the apocalypse in some of my presentations.

Death, famine, destruction, pestilence. This is what Putin’s creating here, and it’s now on a global scale.

INSIDER: Do you think there’s a real risk of direct conflict or fighting between the major powers? 

Hill: There’s always a risk. There’s a risk of this sparking off other conflicts, just like the Arab Spring did. The Arab spring was initially triggered off by food prices from food shortages and rising inflation and unemployment. And if Putin’s war in Ukraine compounds problems we’ve already had from COVID and other things that are happening, that compounding effect can spark off conflicts in other places. It doesn’t have to be between the great powers.

I want to be very careful about this because, of course, Putin wants us to believe that this is a proxy war with NATO. He’s telling everybody else it is, but it’s a war of conquest. 

INSIDER: What are the stakes if Ukraine loses and Putin gets what he wants?

Hill: The stakes are it helps make the case for China with Taiwan. We all worry about that. 

These things are all fused together now. There’s also a real risk of a rift internationally. It’s a different form of rift. It’s not across Europe, but it’s kind of globally with the West and then Russia with the rest. All the countries caught in the middle of all of this and all these sort of knock-on effects of realignments as a result. 

Is Russia going to reconstruct Ukraine? Hell no. What happens to Ukrainian agriculture? What happens to millions of Ukrainians stuck somewhere else?

You just then take out of play, in the same way that Afghanistan and Iraq and other places were taken out of play, a very large country that was contributing a great deal to global markets, commodities, etc. The potash, the fertilizer, all the grain, sunflower oil, all kinds of things there. The weakening of Europe overall as a result of all of this. 

Russia becomes incredibly weakened over the longer term, too. A win for Putin is a pretty Pyrrhic victory. He’ll take it. But everything that people have achieved in Russia in terms of building real businesses, all the steps Russia’s taken forward in alleviating poverty, building up a private sector for the last 30 years — is out the window. 

INSIDER: And a win in Ukraine is really key to Putin’s survival politically and maybe even existentially?

Hill: Yes. This is why he’s trying to tell us that time is on his side when actually it isn’t really so much. 

INSIDER: President Joe Biden has repeatedly said there’s a global fight between democracy and autocracy, and has presented the Ukraine war as part of this. Meanwhile, America’s democracy isn’t in the best shape. Have you been following the January 6 hearings? Do you think they’re having an impact? 

Hill: Yes and yes. But it doesn’t mean that everybody else is watching and is being persuaded.

There’s a lot of people who just won’t believe it, no matter what’s presented to them.

We’ve become so polarized and partisan. 

Biden tried to tap toward the center and pull others together, but he hasn’t succeeded. Maybe the argument could be that he couldn’t possibly succeed given the weight of all the problems. 

There’s just been so much polarization and it doesn’t just date back to Trump, it dates back even further. But, of course, the way he handled all this made it infinitely worse. Biden couldn’t possibly — against the backdrop of an ongoing pandemic and everything else that’s happening — have turned this around. But we always expect that the silver bullet’s gonna come from the man in the White House, rather than from people doing things for themselves. 

I guess that’s what the January 6 committee is trying to get across here. I personally think they’ve done a pretty good job. Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, they’re playing those roles, but not getting anybody to stand up as well. 

Liz Cheney has not stopped being a conservative or a Republican in her defense of our democracy. And it’s been weird to see this support for her from Democrats when they probably disagree with her on pretty much every policy issue.

But everybody should stand up. It’s a part of our democracy where we can all hold opposing views. That’s important. Trump was not doing that, he was just basically standing up for himself. 

And this is what’s happening in the case of Putin and Russia. Where you get unchecked power, where there’s no consultation, and there’s no kind of system of checks and balances. When you get to a situation where there is no institutional check on someone’s power, that’s the kind of thing you get — somebody could then just declare war. 

If you got somebody like Trump — we all know that he was running around saying “bomb this person” — if he managed to stay in power and blast through all of the institutional checks and balances, we might be in that situation, too. 

INSIDER: In your book, you wrote that Trump may have paved the way for someone who’s a little less insecure and more capable to “pull a Putin” in America. Based on the current political climate, how worried are you that someone will “pull a Putin” in the US in the near future?

Hill: I’m very concerned about it.

A lot of people are still running on the back of the lie that the January 6th committee has really tried very hard to refute. Some of the people who will run — and maybe most of those people beat Trump — have not refuted what he’s said and never recognized Biden as a legitimate president. 

Some people have said that might have been our last fair election in 2020. And it’s disastrous because that means that a portion of the population will always believe that whoever got elected is illegitimate. And that’s a recipe for communal violence and ultimately we could end up in a civil conflict here. Maybe it’s at the local level. Maybe it’s not at the national level. Or it’s inter-communal violence.

It’s like Northern Ireland. When trust in the different communities and authorities breaks down to such an extent that just people just start fighting with each other. We’ve already got it. We’ve already got that happening.

INSIDER: Some academics have already said that the US is in a civil conflict or at least a slow-moving civil war. Do you agree?

Hill: I’ve said that myself at times and I’ve dialed it back a bit. We’ve got a lot of communal violence. So, we’re already kind of in that. But we may have just become ungovernable by many of the things that have happened here. 

I don’t think we’d end up in the kind of conflict that we had between the states — the Union and the Confederacy — back in the day. But people’s sense of the civil and civic ways of resolving disputes are out the window. When you get people storming the US Capitol or storming the capitol of different states, for example, thinking about taking the governor hostage, mass violence that’s targeted — in some cases against racial groups like we saw Buffalo — this whole atmosphere where everyone’s on edge and feeling that they need to resolve the disputes themselves, you’re just in really big trouble. However you define it, you’re in big trouble.

When you go abroad, people just can’t believe it. 

People say to me, “The US is out of control.”

Our leadership is really tarnished. And that will have negative effects on the United States as well because we won’t be able to press our interests and the interests of our population internationally.

INSIDER: You’ve said that if Trump is elected again, it’s the end of US democracy. But what if someone else who is Trumpian, and who has embraced his false statements on the election, wins in 2024? 

Hill: If any of these other people who want to present themselves as a Republican candidate win on that basis, it’s equally as bad. And it’s disastrous if Trump wins on that basis, but also anybody else who’s basically helped enable this or perpetuate it and is tapping into it. 

I am not a partisan person, but it’s a little bit hard to take a neutral stance. When I was in the UK, for example, people described the Republican party as a charismatic satanic death cult.

[The GOP] seems to be trying to undermine democracy, at least a large number of its members do, particularly on the congressional side. 

INSIDER: A lot of experts have accused the GOP of embracing authoritarianism. Is the Republican party authoritarian?

Hill: It’s getting all the hallmarks. 

This is not the Republican party old. 

We can also be very critical of the Democrats, but the Democrats are not trying to undermine the overall democratic system. 

Right now it has to be said that the Republican party, the congressional Republican party, so it seems, so it would appear, is hellbent on undermining democracy to exert minority rule. 

My reading of the Constitution and all of the writings of the Founding Fathers is they were trying to prevent tyranny of all kinds — including the tyranny of the minority, not just the tyranny of the majority. And they never envisioned this kind of party over country, or individual in the case of Trump. He doesn’t care about the Republican party. He says it doesn’t exist. 

We’re in a mess, but it doesn’t mean to say that we have to be. And you know, that gets back to the whole point about the January 6th committee and how it’s talked about more broadly and getting a bit of empathy back in politics.

INSIDER: Are Democrats meeting the moment in terms of countering this assault on democracy?

Hill: I don’t think any of us are meeting the moment. We’re all in this together. If we want to still have this democracy, we’ve all got to work at it. So yeah, they’ve got to step up, but the rest of us have got to step up as well. 

Everybody’s individually got to think about what can they do in this moment, and really look at things long and hard about the kind of country that they want to live in. 

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