I'm definitely not an expert on geopolitics, but I do try to gather as many opinions from the actual experts as I can, and nearly all the Russia experts that I've read have said the same thing: Putin wants to, at the minimum, recreate the Soviet Union. It's humbling that anyone reads my opinions, and I've gotten plenty of stuff wrong in the past, both on my opinions and on material facts that I glossed over (and you, the readers, have definitely called me out on it.)
But one person who has consistently been right about Putin, Russia, and the Ukraine situation now has been former CIA Russia analyst and author Fiona Hill, and if anything, she says that we're vastly underestimating the lengths that Putin will go to when it comes to building a new Russian empire out of the ashes of Europe and Asia in this interview with Politico Senior Editor Maura Johnson.
Maura Reynolds: You’ve been a Putin watcher for a long time, and you’ve written one of the best biographies of Putin. When you’ve been watching him over the past week, what have you been seeing that other people might be missing?
Fiona Hill: Putin is usually more cynical and calculated than he came across in his most recent speeches. There’s evident visceral emotion in things that he said in the past few weeks justifying the war in Ukraine. The pretext is completely flimsy and almost nonsensical for anybody who’s not in the echo chamber or the bubble of propaganda in Russia itself. I mean, demanding to the Ukrainian military that they essentially overthrow their own government or lay down their arms and surrender because they are being commanded by a bunch of drug-addled Nazi fascists? There’s just no sense to that. It beggars the imagination.
Putin doesn’t even seem like he’s trying to make a convincing case. We saw the same thing in the Russian response at the United Nations. The justification has essentially been “what-about-ism”: ‘You guys have been invading Iraq, Afghanistan. Don’t tell me that I can’t do the same thing in Ukraine.”
This visceral emotion is unhealthy and extraordinarily dangerous because there are few checks and balances around Putin. He spotlighted this during the performance of the National Security Council meeting, where it became very clear that this was his decision. He was in a way taking full responsibility for war, and even the heads of his security and intelligence services looked like they’ve been thrown off guard by how fast things were moving.
Reynolds: So Putin is being driven by emotion right now, not by some kind of logical plan?
Hill: I think there’s been a logical, methodical plan that goes back a very long way, at least to 2007 when he put the world, and certainly Europe, on notice that Moscow would not accept the further expansion of NATO. And then within a year in 2008 NATO gave an open door to Georgia and Ukraine. It absolutely goes back to that juncture.
Back then I was a national intelligence officer, and the National Intelligence Council was analyzing what Russia was likely to do in response to the NATO Open Door declaration. One of our assessments was that there was a real, genuine risk of some kind of preemptive Russian military action, not just confined to the annexation of Crimea, but some much larger action taken against Ukraine along with Georgia. And of course, four months after NATO’s Bucharest Summit, there was the invasion of Georgia. There wasn’t an invasion of Ukraine then because the Ukrainian government pulled back from seeking NATO membership. But we should have seriously addressed how we were going to deal with this potential outcome and our relations with Russia.
Reynolds: Do you think Putin’s current goal is reconstituting the Soviet Union, the Russian Empire, or something different?
Hill: It’s reestablishing Russian dominance of what Russia sees as the Russian “Imperium.” I’m saying this very specifically because the lands of the Soviet Union didn’t cover all of the territories that were once part of the Russian Empire. So that should give us pause.
Putin has articulated an idea of there being a “Russky Mir” or a “Russian World.” The recent essay he published about Ukraine and Russia states the Ukrainian and Russian people are “one people,” a “yedinyi narod.” He’s saying Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same. This idea of a Russian World means re-gathering all the Russian-speakers in different places that belonged at some point to the Russian tsardom.
I’ve kind of quipped about this but I also worry about it in all seriousness — that Putin’s been down in the archives of the Kremlin during Covid looking through old maps and treaties and all the different borders that Russia has had over the centuries. He’s said, repeatedly, that Russian and European borders have changed many times. And in his speeches, he’s gone after various former Russian and Soviet leaders, he’s gone after Lenin and he’s gone after the communists, because in his view they ruptured the Russian empire, they lost Russian lands in the revolution, and yes, Stalin brought some of them back into the fold again like the Baltic States and some of the lands of Ukraine that had been divided up during World War II, but they were lost again with the dissolution of the USSR. Putin’s view is that borders change, and so the borders of the old Russian imperium are still in play for Moscow to dominate now.
Reynolds: Dominance in what way?
Hill: It doesn’t mean that he’s going to annex all of them and make them part of the Russian Federation like they’ve done with Crimea. You can establish dominance by marginalizing regional countries, by making sure that their leaders are completely dependent on Moscow, either by Moscow practically appointing them through rigged elections or ensuring they are tethered to Russian economic and political and security networks. You can see this now across the former Soviet space.
We’ve seen pressure being put on Kazakhstan to reorient itself back toward Russia, instead of balancing between Russia and China, and the West. And just a couple of days before the invasion of Ukraine in a little-noticed act, Azerbaijan signed a bilateral military agreement with Russia. This is significant because Azerbaijan’s leader has been resisting this for decades. And we can also see that Russia has made itself the final arbiter of the future relationship between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Georgia has also been marginalized after being a thorn in Russia’s side for decades. And Belarus is now completely subjugated by Moscow.
But amid all this, Ukraine was the country that got away. And what Putin is saying now is that Ukraine doesn’t belong to Ukrainians. It belongs to him and the past. He is going to wipe Ukraine off the map, literally, because it doesn’t belong on his map of the “Russian world.” He’s basically told us that. He might leave behind some rump statelets. When we look at old maps of Europe — probably the maps he’s been looking at — you find all kinds of strange entities, like the Sanjak of Novi Pazar in the Balkans. I used to think, what the hell is that? These are all little places that have dependency on a bigger power and were created to prevent the formation of larger viable states in contested regions. Basically, if Vladimir Putin has his way, Ukraine is not going to exist as the modern-day Ukraine of the last 30 years.
Reynolds: How far into Ukraine do you think Putin is going to go?
Hill: At this juncture, if he can, he’s going to go all the way. Before this last week, he had multiple different options to choose from. He’d given himself the option of being able to go in in full force as he’s doing now, but he could also have focused on retaking the rest of the administrative territories of Donetsk and Luhansk. He could have seized the Sea of Azov, which he’s probably going to do anyway, and then joined up the Donetsk and Luhansk regions with Crimea as well as the lands in between and all the way down to Odessa. In fact, Putin initially tried this in 2014 — to create “Novorossiya,” or “New Russia,” but that failed when local support for joining Russia didn’t materialize.
Now, if he can, he is going to take the whole country. We have to face up to this fact. Although we haven’t seen the full Russian invasion force deployed yet, he’s certainly got the troops to move into the whole country.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy urged the EU on Tuesday via video link to an emergency session of the European Parliament to "prove that you are with us" in Ukraine's war with Russia, a day after Kyiv officially asked to join the bloc.
European Union lawmakers, many wearing #standwithUkraine T-shirts bearing the Ukrainian flag, others with blue-and-yellow scarves or ribbons, gave Zelenskiy a standing ovation.
"We are fighting to be equal members of Europe," Zelenskiy said in Ukrainian in a speech translated into English by an interpreter who spoke through tears.
"Do prove that you are with us. Do prove that you will not let us go. Do prove that you are indeed Europeans, and then life will win over death and light will win over darkness," he said. "The EU will be much stronger with us."
Zelenskiy has remained in Kyiv to rally his people against the invasion. As he spoke on Tuesday, a Russian armoured column was bearing down on Ukraine's capital. read more
The presidents of eight central and eastern European nations on Monday published an open letter calling for Ukraine to be granted immediate EU candidate status and for the start of formal membership talks. read more
But Ukraine is well aware that any membership process will be long and difficult, even if it manages after the war to avoid falling back under Moscow's domination.
Charles Michel, the chairman of EU leaders, told the EU Parliament after Zelenskiy's speech that the bloc would have to seriously look at Ukraine's "legitimate" request to join.
But he added: "It is going to be difficult, we know there are different views in Europe (about further enlargement)."
According to a draft text they will vote on later on Tuesday, EU lawmakers are expected to brand Russia a "rogue state" and urge member states to agree even tougher sanctions.
The EU has taken unprecedented steps, including financing weapons deliveries to Ukraine, after President Vladimir Putin launched war on Russia's neighbour last week. read more
According to the draft resolution and amendments backed by the assembly's main parties, lawmakers will call for the scope of sanctions to be broadened and "aimed at strategically weakening the Russian economy and industrial base, in particular the military-industrial complex".
Russia's invasion of Ukraine "effectively makes Russia a rogue state," the lawmakers are set to say.