What Putin is trying to do is to get us

Fiona Hill: ‘Elon Musk Is Transmitting a Message for Putin’

Summary : What Putin is trying to do is to get us to talk about the threat of nuclear war instead of what he is doing in Ukraine.

Any compromise is, in any case, always at Ukraine’s expense because Putin has taken Ukrainian territory. Many of the people trying to push Ukraine to surrender are basically those who believe that the United States or NATO is somehow using Ukraine in a proxy war with Russia.

I see current NATO expansion as a kind of an interim step, a way station to thinking more broadly about how we configure ourselves after Ukraine.

That’s why, again, we see him doubling down. He’s got himself in a corner in the war and in a corner domestically at home. He has made himself the face of this war in Ukraine . His September 30th speech basically said it’s his war, his annexation, his Russia . And so, everything will fall on him if it falls apart.Reynolds: In the autocratic system that Putin has built, he has to stand for election every so often even though it’s mostly window dressing. But it periodically renews his legitimacy. One of those years is 2024. Is he facing a deadline? Does he need to look like he’s won this war by 2024?Hill: One would think so. In 2024, the reelection has to be in the early part of the year. So, we’ve got a year and a few months in the Russia n political calculations to start to prepare for this and ensure that it all goes smoothly. That was why Putin wanted to get the quick victory in Ukraine well out of the way. Ukraine started in February and March of 2022, because February and March of 2024 will be election time.I’m sure Putin thought he would have been unassailable with a quick, victorious war. Ukraine would be back in the fold and then probably after that, Belarus. Moldova as well, perhaps. There would have been a reframing of the next phase of Putin as the great czar of a reconstituted “Russkiy mir” or “ Russia n world.”If Putin had succeeded at that, maybe he could have found himself in a position where he could have begun to delegate some power to others.Just this past week, on October 7th, Putin turned 70. He’s in that age when people are asking, does he die in office? There are lots of questions about succession. 2024 is very much an inflection point for the system.Reynolds: Do you feel like Ukraine is on course for a military victory and what would that mean to the Russia n side?Hill: Ukraine has already had a great moral, political and military victory. Russia has not achieved the aims of its special military operation. But I think Putin is obviously hoping that now, with all of the nuclear saber-rattling, threats of nuclear Armageddon, deploying Elon Musk and others to convey his messages, that basically he can take the territory that he’s got and get recognition of that. And then he hopes that he will be able to put pressure back on Ukraine . He’d still like to see the Ukrainian political system crumble away. He’d like to get somebody as leader of Ukraine who is personally loyal to him. Putin hopes that he’ll still prevail, that he’ll find other ways of getting what he wanted when he went across the border in February.Reynolds: So to some extent, the biggest thing that Putin wants right now is to get Zelenskyy out. He wants somebody more pliant.Hill: That’s exactly what he wants. And I’m sure he feels that he might still get that. I mean, everything that he’s doing is an effort to discredit Ukraine and Ukrainians and Zelenskyy. Ukraine has the right to choose their own leadership. But Putin will try to manipulate this whichever way he can. He’ll keep trying to soften the battlefield beyond Ukraine , keep on trying to poison attitudes internationally against Ukraine .Reynolds: Along those lines, what do you make of the fact that some Americans, primarily in the Trump wing of the Republican Party and some Fox News personalities, are expressing doubts about how much support the United States should direct to Ukraine ? Is there something about this conflict that you don’t think they understand?Hill: This goes back to the point I tried to make when I testified at the first impeachment trial against President Trump. There’s a direct line between that episode and now. Putin has managed to seed hostile sentiment toward Ukraine . Even if people think they are criticizing Ukraine for their own domestic political purposes, because they want to claim that the Biden administration is giving too much support for Ukraine instead of giving more support to Americans, etc. — they’re replaying the targeted messaging that Vladimir Putin has very carefully fed into our political arena. People may think that they’re acting independently, but they are echoing the Kremlin’s propaganda.Reynolds: What do you think is the right response from the West if Putin does detonate some sort of nuclear weapon, either as a demonstration or something else?Hill: What Putin is trying to do is to get us to talk about the threat of nuclear war instead of what he is doing in Ukraine . He wants the U.S. and Europe to contemplate, as he says, the risks that we faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Euromissile crisis. He wants us to face the prospect of a great superpower war. His solution is to have secret diplomacy, as we did during Cuban Missile Crisis, and have a direct compromise between the United States and Russia .But there’s no strategic standoff here. This is pure nuclear blackmail. There can’t be a compromise based on him not setting off a nuclear weapon if we hand over Ukraine . Putin is behaving like a rogue state because, well, he is a rogue state at this point. And he’s being explicit about what he wants. We have to pull all the diplomatic stops out. We have to ensure that he’s not going to have the effect that he wants with this nuclear brinkmanship. Putin is also making it very clear that to get what you want in the world, you have to have a nuclear weapon and to protect yourself, you also have to have a nuclear weapon. So this is an absolute mess. Global nuclear stability is on a knife edge.But again, this is not about strategic issues. This is not an issue of strategic stability. This is Vladimir Putin pissed off because he hasn’t got what he wanted in a war that he started. It’s another attempt to adapt to the battlefield.Reynolds: Can this war end in a way that would be satisfying for the West and with Putin remaining as Russia n leader? Or is this the beginning of a revolution that’s going to be very messy and dangerous?Hill: It’s unlikely this ends in any satisfying way. You need every side willing to compromise, and Putin doesn’t want to compromise his goals.Any compromise is, in any case, always at Ukraine ’s expense because Putin has taken Ukrainian territory . If we think about World War I, World War II or the settlements in many other conflicts, they always involved some kind territorial disposition that left one side very unhappy.There is not going to be a happy or satisfying ending for anybody, and it’s also not going to be happy or satisfying for Vladimir Putin either, honestly.Reynolds: It is striking to me that of all the conflicts that Russia has been engaged in since Putin became president, that none of them have been resolved with any kind of a peace settlement. They just have been fought to stalemate.Hill: There’s not any good outcome I can see come out of this. What’s incumbent upon us is to figure out is how to constrain Russia ’s ability to put Ukraine under pressure again in the future or invade again. If there’s any interim freezing of battle lines, make sure that they’re not recognized as official. Maybe we can contemplate some international receivership. We’ve had many of these different formulations in the past for disputed territory. We have to ensure, again, that Ukraine can always defend itself and make it impossible for Putin to break out of constraints and do this again.But that still leaves you with lots of questions about the future relationship with Russia , the future configuration of any European security institutions. How do we reconfigure ourselves internationally to deal with this? The United Nations has proven to be in dire need of an overhaul. The United Nations has been a major player in this conflict. The secretary-general has been heavily involved investigating war crimes and pressing resolutions. But the United Nations has shown itself inadequate because of the configuration of the Security Council and the veto. Everybody’s talking about how to address this.Reynolds: It occurs to me that there’s a kind of reckoning coming for NATO . With Finland joining, that adds a long direct border between NATO and Russia . With the new union between Belarus and Russia , there’s going to be another NATO border between Poland and Belarus. Considering the fact that NATO ’s already getting a line across Europe that it’s going to have to defend, should NATO consider membership for Ukraine ?Hill: This is also going to be a big issue, right? There are so many people out there who still look at Ukraine as a proxy war. Many of the people trying to push Ukraine to surrender are basically those who believe that the United States or NATO is somehow using Ukraine in a proxy war with Russia .We’re not in a proxy war with Russia , just like we weren’t in a proxy war with Germany during World War I when we were trying to get German forces out of France and the Netherlands and Belgium. It wasn’t a proxy war either when we were trying to get Germany out of Poland and all the other places that it invaded in Europe during World War II . We are trying to help Ukraine liberate itself, having been invaded by Russia .This whole proxy war debate deprives Ukraine of agency. But, if we talk about Ukraine being part of NATO at this particular moment, it will simply feed into this flawed discussion. It will detract from the essence of what this war is, which is Russia trying to seize Ukrainian territory . Russia believes NATO is simply a cover for the United States in Europe. I think it should be very clear right now with Finland and Sweden wanting to join that this is not the case at all. Finland and Sweden did not apply to NATO before, they have now because NATO is focused on ensuring common collective security and defense, and Russia has put all of Europe at risk.I see current NATO expansion as a kind of an interim step, a way station to thinking more broadly about how we configure ourselves after Ukraine .You know, there’s also talk about making Ukraine a “giant Israel,” making Ukraine completely self-sufficient for its own security, as, frankly, Finland was before. I think we have to have an open discussion about all of this and not be fixated on one aspect or another.Reynolds: In other words, even if Ukraine wins the war for its territory, even if Putin is somehow constrained or deposed, we’re still at the very beginning of a rethinking of the international order that those outcomes are not going to solve.Hill: Yes. We’ve also had the impacts of Covid. We’ve got a climate crisis, which should be evident to everybody by now. There are so many things that we need to contend with, and we’ve only got the skeleton of an international system. Putin is holding the whole world hostage. We’ve got so many things that we have to deal with. I understand why the Global South is so frustrated with all of this: “While you’re fighting this war in Ukraine over the same kind of territorial disputes you guys have been having for a hundred years now, we’re dying here from disease and climate change. Our countries have flooded. We’re starving and you guys are expecting us to help you solve this?” The United Nations system is breaking down, as [António] Guterres, the secretary-general, has said over and over again. All the alarm bells are going off. And Vladimir Putin is behaving as if it’s the 1780s all over again.

Reynolds: So we need a new or a revamped global order to address the whole problem?

Hill: That’s obvious. So how do we do it? A lot of people don’t find the idea of a revamped United Nations very popular. I can just imagine some of my former colleagues groaning loudly. We definitely need a slimmed-down version.But we do need international institutions to deal with the magnitude of the problems that we’re facing. It’s ironic that Elon Musk, the man who has been talking about getting us to Mars should be Putin ’s messenger for the war in Ukraine , when we’re having a really hard time getting our act together on this planet. But it’s glaringly obvious to ordinary people that we need to do so. Time is not on our side.