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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

The Impact of Russia's War in Ukraine with Fiona Hill

Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine is no longer a short-term event and its impact is going to shape global affairs for a long time to come, according to Fiona Hill, a leading expert on Russia and Vladimir Putin’s regime. In this episode, Hill shares insight on Putin’s actions, what could happen next, and how the war may impact our world for decades to come. She shares this vantage point as a Russia adviser to two U.S. presidents and co-author of the book “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” She is now a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at The Brookings Institution. 

Fiona Hill

I think that part of where we go from here is also in recognizing that this (Russia’s war in Ukraine) isn't going to be over anytime soon, in terms of this is now a highly fluid, highly evolving situation. And we're going to have to stay agile and on our toes and not have a particular fixed approach to this or be fixated on a specific end game.”

–  Fiona Hill, Brookings Senior Fellow, Foreign Policy, Center on the United States and Europe

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Read the transcript of this show below

Annelise Riles [00:00:03]  Welcome to the Breaking Boundaries podcast. I'm Annelise Riles, executive director of Northwestern University's Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. The Northwestern Buffet Institute is dedicated to breaking through traditional silos of expertise geography, culture and language to surface novel solutions to pressing global challenges. Today's guest, Fiona Hill, is a leading expert on Russia and Vladimir Putin's regime. She's here to shed light on Russia's war in Ukraine. What could happen next and how it may impact our world for decades to come. Hill served as Russia adviser to two U.S. presidents, as senior director of European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council and as the intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia in the National Intelligence Council. She's the coauthor of the wonderful book "Mr. Putin Operative in the Kremlin" and the author of a memoir and stocktaking of present day challenges called "There Is Nothing for You Here Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century." She now serves as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and also as a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to the show, Fiona, and thank you so much for being here.

Fiona Hill [00:01:25] Thanks so much, Annelise. It's a real pleasure to be with you.

Annelise Riles [00:01:27] How do you assess the Biden administration and Congress' response to Putin's invasion? What do you think the administration and Congress should do more of or less of? Or have they got to do it right?

Fiona Hill [00:01:39] Well, first of all, they've recognized that this really is one of those hugely pivotal moments that we need to address this head on directly and as quickly as possible, because this is a fast moving, fast developing crisis that will affect the United States, has already affected the United States and will continue to affect global affairs. And I think that part of where we go from here is also in recognizing that this isn't going to be over anytime soon, in terms of this is now a highly fluid, highly evolving situation. And we're going to have to stay agile and on our toes and not have a particular fixed approach to this or be fixated on specific end game. Some of this clearly things that we want to see. We want to see the end of these hostilities. We want to see the restoration of Ukraine. We want to make sure that Russia is not going to be in the business of invading its neighbors and doing the similar kinds of things in Moldova. Using Transnistria as a lever for example, moves into the Baltic States or Poland. There's already been consequences for all of those countries as well, continues to try to leverage what it's done in Ukraine against neighbors or other countries further afield. So we have to, as I said, now, be very adaptable and flexible. We also have to make sure that it's not dependent on one administration and one set of people and that we have a broader best support for continued engagement with this. And again, as I said, bringing more voices into this, picking up on what we've just talked about before, to get different perspectives and to understand about what it's going to take to handle this over the long term. This is now one of those long haul events, very similar. And that's why I've mentioned it before, not to scare people, but the thinking about this in the same way as we thought about World War I or World War II as something that we're going to have to deal with, and that's going to shape global affairs for a long time to come. And our own some of our own domestic affairs as a result of some of the impacts in terms of energy security, energy pricing, food, food security, the risks of shortage at a time when we're still grappling with the effects of a global pandemic and facing climate change, another existential threat to humanity, not just to our own way of life.

Annelise Riles [00:03:40] So, when you say we are going to have to remain flexible and adaptable, what are you thinking about specifically? What kind of adaptation?

Fiona Hill [00:03:48] Well, it's the way that we think about these things. We have to have a short and a medium and a longer term perspective. We have to be open to thinking that maybe some of our desired end states are not achievable, but not kind of then cutting off opportunities to push things in a different direction. So, we have to basically create structures that can keep our eye on the ball. You know, I think that the administration and others have been saying the right things by taking the pulse continuously of what Ukraine and Ukrainians want to do. I mean, that would be an enormous tragedy if the hostilities stop because, you know, for example, the Russians kind of run out of steam and want to have a pause so that they can regroup, to go and try to retake more territory or consolidate what they have. And then, you know, Ukraine gets pressed into a peace, which is the last thing that something that we might see as more permanent, but which is really sort of temporary from Russia's perspective as a side as it tries to figure out how it can prosecute this war further with a different point that's more advantageous to it. And then, you know, forcing Ukraine into negotiations or into acceptance of some kind of incredibly flawed settlement, that's going to be temporary anyway. How do you create the best possible guarantees that this won't happen again? How do you manage the communications and the information aspects of this? I mean, in many respects, outside of the European environment, the West and the rest of the world, the global South Asia, Africa, Latin America, there's a very different perspective on what's happening because Russia's narrative of the events has really taken hold and has been pushed by other regional governments because it's beneficial to them. How do we address this? So, again, we have to create structures and mechanisms for doing this, but ones that can adapt to different sets of challenges that we're not just focused on one particular challenge or one particular version of events or one in the information space or the immediate consequences of things that we see and we are constantly reassessing and reevaluating.

Annelise Riles [00:05:34] So, interesting what you say about the countries in the Global South or the countries that are on the sidelines of this so far. We serve as the secretariat of something called the U7 Plus Alliance of Global Universities, and we had a tiny little experience with this ourselves when the presidents of all of the universities in the alliance planned to sign on to a statement, and we had quite a challenge getting some of our partners in the Global South to sign on for a variety of reasons. One, the sense that you've never cared before about other invasions in our part of the world. That was one. And the other was a certain remaining positive orientation, let's say, towards the old Soviet Union among some of the universities in the global south. So, what are your thoughts about that? How do we manage? First of all, how significant is it that those countries become part of the alliance and what do we do about it?

Fiona Hill [00:06:27] I think it's essential, actually. But at least if they won't be part of an alliance per se, but that they understand what's happening and the seriousness of it and do not kind of assist Russia in perpetuating the war either directly or indirectly. And it's as you posed the issue there and laid it out there, is the fact that there is a lot of lingering affinity with the old Soviet Union, because the old Soviet Union was presented itself in any case as a combination of a leader of the nonaligned powers during the Cold War, even though, of course, it was also had its own Soviet bloc, but also is the champion of what were often then Marxist liberation movements. And that was kind of just sort of an ideological underpinning for really the kind of movements that led to insurgencies and revolutions against colonial powers. And in Africa and other parts of Asia, Russia, as the inheritor of the Soviet mantle, the Soviet Union's successes, that is still seen as continuing to some degree this leadership role and the nonaligned and the national liberation movements. Even though Russia and a contemporary state couldn't be even further from those Soviet ideals, Putin sees himself not seen how much of the Soviet Union, even though he talked about the catastrophe of the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 20th century. He really sees himself as the inheritor of a much older Russian state and an imperial state. And this is antithetical to the aspirations of many of these other countries is interacting with to make sure that they were independent, not just from the old colonial overlord, but from the hegemony of the United States or other European powers who have returned to the region. And so explaining that what that Putin's Russia is not that Soviet Russia, that they interacted with a place like Angola or Mozambique or Vietnam, Korea, you know, etc., and that this is actually a different neo imperialist power that's trying to impose its will on other countries that are actually more like them, that are independent former colonies of the Russian empire, former subjects of the Soviet Union, who over the last 30 years, in the case of Ukraine, have tried to exert their own independence and go off in their own direction. That actually Russia is countering all of that and actually is a threat in what it's doing to Ukraine, that this whole invasion of Ukraine is a threat to their own independence and territorial integrity and sovereignty. That's going to be pretty essential. The question is really, and that gets to the heart of what you're asking here, is how do we spin all of this? The United States, getting back to the first part of your framing as the imperfect messenger, we did actually step up and assist Kuwait after it was invaded by Iraq. Under the similar presence, at least Saddam Hussain said Kuwait itself wasn't a state, very similar to what Putin said about Ukraine, and that Kuwait was really belonged to the territories of Kuwait and all of its resources actually belong to Iraq. This was a historical accident that Kuwait was was created. That was one thing. But then when the United States later invaded Iraq in 2003, under the pretext of unfinished business and Iraq having weapons of mass destruction and engages actively in regime change, and lots of the rest of the world saw that as an abomination, as a violation of international law and an invasion of a sovereign country. Now, the United States didn't annex Iraq, but certainly occupied it for a period of time. And it is very hard for other countries, just as you laid out there, to then say, well, hang on, why is that different from what Russia's doing? And this becomes a dilemma for the United States of how to explain the difference. And it's going to be nuance, kind of finer points, trying to explain that we made a mistake in terms of the judgment of Iraq having weapons of mass destruction, explaining the larger context of this. Putin has trolled us in many respects, coming back with the same kind of language the United States used in the invasion of Iraq, talking about Ukraine acquiring weapons of mass destruction, talking about de-Nazification, when we kind of put the Baath Party, the Baathist Party, in a similar kind of position in Iraq, and we have to contend with all of that. So, it may be that we, the United States and the United Kingdom, given its imperial role in Africa and Asia and the parts of the world is also an imperfect messenger. So, how do we work with our allies and partners and with Ukraine itself to explain why this matters to other parts of the world? Because it will only be when there is widespread opposition to what Putin is doing. And it's not just being depicted as a rerun of the Cold War. All this is NATO in the West against Russia. So we will be able to change things, and there's real risk in not doing that. This is why this is such a pivotal wall of conflict that in the West we see what's happening here. And, you know, maybe we've missed and yes, we obviously have made so many mistakes and maybe we're just seeing things now with fresh eyes and realizing we've been accused of not paying attention to previous conflicts, has led into this and fed this idea, certainly of the parts of Russia that we don't stand by our own principles and values. And if we can do it, why can't they? And we've not reacted in the past. And why would we act now? Why would you react so differently? But that we actually really do see what's happening. But we've got to get...if other countries don't see that, we'll end up with a division across the globe between north and south and between the so-called west and the rest. And it won't be about democracy versus autocracy because it'll be other countries like India and others that we would see as more pluralistic societies that will be on the other side of that divide as well. And we'll not see the reasons for why Ukraine should become this definitional moment in time, even though that they are having impacts from increased commodity prices, energy security concerns, food security concerns, they will actually be more pushing for Ukraine to make peace, a flawed peace with Russia as well, and giving Russia more ammunition, not in the weaponry range, but diplomatically to be able to press its interest and press its position.

Annelise Riles [00:12:12] Well, in our U7 Plus experience, we actually did get there in the end. And more than that, I think what was interesting to me was that a lot of learning happened along the way among the presidents in the Global North about the perspectives of the Global South. So, I wonder if you're at a think tank. I'm at a university. I wonder if there's a role for a track to networks in addressing this particular piece of the puzzle. What do you think?

Fiona Hill [00:12:38] I think there is. And I think it's just what you just said, that the presidents of the Global North learned quite a lot from the Global South from the perspective, a need to listen to people. That gets back to where we started. You know, if you don't listen to anybody, just talk at them, but not talk with them, you're not going to understand their perspective because often when people ask a question, it's coming from a particular vantage point. And the way they articulate the question can tell you a lot about not necessarily exactly what they think, but their framing comes from certain base, certain base of information, a certain experience in a particular context. And often we don't understand the questions that people are asking us because we're not really listening to them. And I think, you know, in a lot of our interactions with Russia, we haven't fully understood the thinking of Putin and the people around him and why they think like they do that sort of strategic empathy. And then, you know, our diplomacy around all of this has failed because, again, we haven't fully understood the context that the people are operating in and therefore how we need to address some of the issues that are being raised. Now, that doesn't suggest from the Russian point of view, if you have a strategic empathy, that you should actually, you know, be validating a lot of that. You know, there are pretty good reasons for why should we be absolutely opposing, you know, some of the things that Russia has done under the instigation of Putin, the people around him. But you've got to fully understand about why they think the way that they do and listen very carefully to questions they ask and the framing and why they're framing things in a particular way as well.

Annelise Riles [00:14:02] So what are you hearing when you're listening carefully? What are the reasons this makes sense from the Russian point of view?

Fiona Hill [00:14:10] Well, it makes all the sense in Putin's point of view in particular. And, you know, I've obviously spent quite a lot of time looking at Putin, but he's a man of his time and a man of his context. And what I mean, a man of his time. You know, he's born into specific context in the 1950s. And the book that I coauthored with my colleague Clifford Gaddy at Brookings, "Mr. Putin Operative in the Kremlin," basically tries to look at Putin from various different vantage points of drivers and motivations for his behavior. The sources and origins of things that he, he clearly thinks based on, we took some of the things that he said literally at their face value because there are some things that he says over and over and over and over again. And some of it's manipulated, some of it is dissembling to be charitable and untruths kind of and lies, because that's part of what he is, is a KGB operative. His training in the KGB was to lie and to dissemble. It wasn't just a character flaw. This was kind of the whole raison d'etre of deception. But beyond that, and the deception and the open way of lying, there are clearly some things that Putin believes in. And you see this with a pattern break. So when this kind of behavior gives you a mirror imaging, for example, you know, you kind of behave in some way and he doesn't you've got to ask yourself, why is that the case? And Ukraine fits very clearly into that. So, I'll just give an example of when I was at the National Security Council and we knew that Putin was very eager to sit down with President Trump to have a discussion about the next phase of arms control beyond the United States pulling out of the INF Treaty. The Russians had been violating the INF treaty for years, and there was a feeling in the United States, if we didn't break the logjam of the INF treaty, we'd never be able to actually get on to renegotiating Newstart or the longer term prospects for a new phase of nuclear arms control with all the nuclear weapons that the Russians were developing and thinking about in a broader strategic stability with China and know other major nuclear powers emerging because INF was proving this obstacle,all they were doing was going round and round around in circles. The Russians were doing whatever they wanted anywhere, and they were violating the treaty. And Putin, we knew, wanted to at this point, talk about what happened next, because it was a lot of anxiety on the part of Russia about what this might mean over the longer term. And we tried many times to have a serious meeting, but something kept always happening and it was usually something happening around Ukraine or Putin or others assassinating somebody where it was very important for them to teach a lesson to people in their security services that treachery would be dealt with in a terrible fashion, for example. And when it came to Ukraine, it was very clear that Ukraine topped any agenda any other agenda item at a particular point that Putin had gotten Ukraine in his crosshairs. And we were supposed to have a sit down with Putin in Argentina at the G20 after many efforts to have these meetings. And this is the period just in the days before that when the Russian navy seized Ukrainian naval vessel with all the sailors on board in the Kerch Strait, basically the narrow strip that connects the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov, which Russia clearly aspires to turn into a Russian sea, despite the fact that this is also encompassed by a lot of Ukrainian territory. And after the annexation of Crimea, Russia had built a major bridge across from both sides of the Kerch Strait to residences by Crimea and then seized the sailors, the Ukraine sailors under the pretext that they were threatening the security of the bridge. And we basically said to them, look, we can't have this meeting in Argentina unless you release the ship and the crew. And we were told to take a hike. Even though we knew that Putin really wanted to have this meeting, really wanted to have this discussion, there was a pattern broke. Ukraine on teaching us and the Ukrainians, creating an incident in the Kerch Strait, rattling Ukrainians because this is in the run up to the Ukrainian presidential election, was much more important to Putin and the Kremlin ultimately than actually having that sit down that they'd wanted so and put so much effort into on the next phase discussions of arms control. And that's a part of a way of trying to show how important it is to be really kind of paying attention to what drives a person and what the context is. And sometimes, you know what, they say is important and really looking at in passing it and seeing what's consistent and sometimes when it's a break and something that you might have anticipated, what is that telling you about what they have put more weight on in terms of a hierarchy of priorities? 

Annelise Riles [00:18:24] So, let me ask you about NATO. So, Finland and Sweden expressed interest in joining NATO, and Turkey came out opposed to their entry into the alliance. Do you expect that they will join NATO and what are the geopolitical implications if that transpires?

Fiona Hill [00:18:41] Well, there's several different things to alert people to here. First of all, Turkey is playing its own politics, its own domestic politics. On the one hand, it's trying to signal to Russia, hey, look, don't blame us for this if these countries come in. But more importantly for Erdogan, Erdogan's in political trouble at home. And he's been in the business of hostage taking. There have been a whole host of civic leaders, civil society leaders who have been in prison, some for life, some for ridiculous sentences 18, 20 years. He has seized Americans in the past and dual nationals, French, Germans, others. And in a way, he's kind of now taking sort of Finland and Sweden hostage because he can because they've presented him with some leverage. He is saying, you know, ostensibly because of Sweden and Finland, Turkey and Kurdish and other refugees, all kind of political opponents from Turkey. But he's really trying to see what he can extract from all of this to be frank. Turkey itself joined NATO in the 1950s because of its own fears of being invaded by the Soviet Union and pressures the Soviet Union put it on it, it joined voluntarily, and that's basically what Finland and Sweden are basically saying, that it's better for them to be in than out at this point, although they've benefited from the strategic ambiguity and from a very close partnership with NATO and from their own robust self-defense, given what's happening now, they now see the security by being in a closer in relationship with other NATO partners, including with Turkey. So, Turkey is well aware of that. And and this is just utter, blatant Erdogan's own private and domestic Turkish political interest that's going on here. And that larger point about the independent decision of Finland and Sweden is very important because NATO doesn't just expand as Turkey's actually proving it's a consensus based entity and countries apply to join for their own considerations. There's no entity that's forcing countries into it. Turkey wasn't forced in in 1950s. This is the anniversary of Turkey's entry into NATO, just to be clear. And that's the difference between NATO and the Warsaw Pact and the CSTO and other organizations that Russia has basically headed. Russia, by the way, thinks that the rest of the world is just like Russia, the mirror images, you know, which is more hypocritical than they are that we do exactly the same things that they do. So, if countries are forced into alliances by Russia or the Soviet Union, then that's what we're trying to do as well, that NATO it was just the United States forcing other countries into military dependance on it, which is absolutely not the case. And the mirror imaging in part comes from the Warsaw Treaty Organization, which Russia, the Soviet Union dominated, which many people point out had a history of invading itself rather than just other countries. Because when Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and later Poland all wanted to go their own way and do some of their own things. What happened? They got invaded by the Red Army, 53, Germany 56, and this is East Germany of course, 56, Hungary, 68 and Czechoslovakia. And then in the 1990s, general Jaruzelski of Poland stepped in and declared martial law to avoid the Red Army coming in. Now, who were the first countries once the Warsaw Treaty Organization dissolved with the end of the Soviet Union and the disintegration of the Eastern Bloc to want to join NATO? Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, all of whom, I mean Germany was reunified, all of whom had been basically pressured and invaded or pressured or invaded by the Red Army. They chose themselves to apply. It wasn't that the NATO was sitting around and thinking about taking those, and now there was one instance where we did make this mistake, which is in 2008, and saying that Ukraine and Georgia would be members of NATO, but without basically creating the membership action plan of the full application process, which is how Sweden and Finland are moving along now. And that probably changed Putin's perspective on all of this. But that's part of the thing that Sweden and Finland are going to have to articulate then as well, that they're choosing to join NATO. They are not being forced into it by NATO members or by the United States or NATO headquarters. They're choosing to join it in any if they're forced by anybody, by the force of circumstances because of Putin's invasion of Ukraine. For all of this time during the Cold War and immediately afterwards, Finland and Sweden stayed away from NATO. And only now are they making that decision. That ought to be telling, and they should be telling that story to others to explain why this is and why this is so significant.

Annelise Riles [00:23:10] Very interesting. So the book is "There's Nothing for You Here Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century."  But I really recommend that everyone also read "Mr. Putin Operative in the Kremlin," if you want to understand what's happening now, because it's just really a tour de force as well. Fiona Hill, thank  you so much.


Fiona Hill [00:23:27] Oh, well, thank you so much, Annelise.


Annelise Riles [00:23:31] For more information on this episode and on the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, visit us at