Fiona Hill Reflects on Her Book, the Ukraine Crisis, and the Role of Grad Students

By The Fletcher Forum

On Tuesday, February 22, former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the United States National Security Council and key impeachment witness, Dr. Fiona Hill visited The Fletcher School to give a talk on her recently released book, There Is Nothing For You Here. The book tracks her childhood in English industrial decline to her brave testimony in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump. She makes a powerful case for national policy that favors opportunity for those who have felt “left behind” by late-twentieth and twenty-first century economic advancement.

Presented in the following transcript, Fletcher Forum Senior Web Editor, Alex Thomas, had a chance to speak with Dr. Hill about the impacts of her book, Putin’s power prospects, international humanitarian law and the Ukraine crisis, and opportunities for graduate students.

THE FLETCHER FORUM: Dr. Hill, I want to begin by saying thank you so much for joining us today and for giving the Fletcher Forum some exclusive time with you. I’d like to begin by talking a little bit about your book, There Is Nothing For You Here. What are some of the biggest lessons you learned while you were writing your book? What are some of the impacts [of] the book on the U.S. domestic political system and about U.S.-Russian relations and geopolitics more broadly?

FIONA HILL: Well, the purpose of the book was to try to explain about how with last 30 years of domestic political events and those changes, we ended up in a moment of populist politics [in] the United States, and then by comparison the UK and Russia. I think the most surprising point of the book for those reading it is probably the comparisons between the United States and Russia. I mean, having spent most of my career looking at Russia and the former Soviet Union, and particularly writing about Vladimir Putin, the subject of our discussions today, was how similar in many respects the populist structures of politics have been: Putin coming into power at the turn of the millennium and promising to make Russia great again, the base of his political support in the old industrial heartland of the Soviet Union but within Russia, and the strong-man great power politics that he has played over the last several years.

Of course, we had that phenomenon with President Trump here in the United States, but we’ve already seen it in the land of the U.K., which was the land of my birth. I decided then to use the personal narrative of growing up in the U.K. at a time of really dislocating and wrenching change, when all of the heavy [nationalized] industry of the United Kingdom was privatized all at once in the 1980’s, and how that process of deindustrialization lead to the grievances and frustrations of people who felt left behind in the places that got abandoned by the new economy. The rest of the country moved on without them and [it] affected politics in the present.

We’re sitting here in Medford, at Tufts’ Fletcher School, and all we have to do is look out the window—well obviously Tufts is flourishing, but the town around is not. When I first came to the United States in 1989, I obviously came to Harvard, to Cambridge, and it had really fallen on hard times. The area around Harvard Yard and MIT now is massively transformed, but Medford is still a place that hasn’t fully recovered—apart from the interactions of the University—from that deindustrialization. That again feeds into local politics, but it can also [spill] into national politics. I wanted to use the book, having worked for years on deindustrialization in Russia, and how that fed into the populist politics of strongman politics and the whole political system that developed in Russia over the last 22 years, to sort of explain the path we might be on here in the United States as well.

FORUM: I really like this juxtaposition of Putin’s political constraints and former President Donald Trump’s domestic political constraints. To what extent do you think President Putin really is impacted by popular opinion in Russia, versus the President of the United States?

HILL: Well, Putin’s legitimacy is completely tied to his ratings. His popularity—one might say overall here, because he doesn’t have a political party—he’s enshrined in the Russian constitution as basically the most important figure, and the institution of the presidency being the most important institution in Russia. But, his legitimacy depends on the support of the people. He’s always invoking the name of the “Norod”, the Russian people. The importance of being immensely popular—I mean we look back to the early period of his presidency, the scrutiny of the ratings, the constant polling that’s been undertaken by the Kremlin and the press offices. Every election is seen as a plebiscite, or a referendum, on his appeal. He’s running against himself, not against anyone else.

One can make a pretty strong argument that the annexation of Crimea was, in many respects, the high point of his ratings in Russia. It was seen as a universally acclaimed act; something that’s not repeatable. Prior to that, we’d seen his ratings falling and some concerns about when he returned to the presidency after being prime minister for four years in 2011-2012 that his brand as a president had become stale.

We’re seeing a similar dip in his ratings and his popular appeal now after COVID, multiple years now with the pandemic, [and] stagnation in the Russian economy, which isn’t a kind perspective on the future in terms of where is he leading the country. In many ways, one can make the argument that many things that we’re seeing now is also a reflection of that.

So, it’s very important for Putin, for his legitimacy, for being the ultimate arbiter in the system, to be able to show that he has the support of the people. As their support dips, his ability to have the ultimate traction in the system, to stave off criticism and pressure, gets reduced.

Just like it’s very important for United States presidents to look at their ratings, polling, and commentary about President Biden’s ratings being extraordinarily low or Trump’s ratings before that; that might not have so much of an immediate effect, but it does have an effect. And he’s got 2024 to put himself back up for reelection.

FORUM: One of the things that has perplexed me about the events unfolding regarding Russia and Ukraine, which has roots in 2014 as well, is Putin’s continuous reference to international [humanitarian] law. When he annexed Crimea in 2014, he invoked the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). Yesterday, he referred to the forces that were being sent into Eastern Ukraine as peacekeepers. What is going through his mind when he references international law, and what impact does this all have on international legal norms?

HILL: Well, from the point of view of Putin, it’s not “rule of law,” it’s “rule by law”: you use these legal treaties or legal precepts no matter what they are to maximize your own room for maneuver. Perhaps you try to apply them in a way to justify actions you take in order to get the things that you want. The Russians are always looking for [referring to] treaties and agreements because they want to hold others to it while they might manipulate them to their own effect unfortunately. So, what Putin is always wanting to be able to prove is what they’re doing is legal or that, somehow, they’re following a precedent that someone else has set.

It was also important for him not to declare himself president in perpetuity, but to have amendments to the constitution in 2020, or to have the appearance that he was out of the presidency and was prime minister and Dmitry Medvedev was president, to have Dmitry Medvedev be the person who extends the presidential terms from 4 to 6, and to always make it look like there’s a legal justification for this.

R2P, something [the US has] invoked as well, has been enshrined in legislation in Russia that goes back to the Yeltsin period. That’s seeing something they can use. There’ll be the “whataboutism” that he’ll be able to engage in, saying “The United States engaged in very similar interventions in Libya” for example, when there was the fear that Qaddafi was going to go after other Libyan citizens. And, “what about the interventions in the former Yugoslavia and the Balkans?”

So basically Putin is saying, these are Russian citizens, they’ve been put in harm’s way, and I have the right to protect. But of course, this is something that is sort of a fictitious formulation. People become citizens once they’re given passports that they wouldn’t normally be able to acquire.

FORUM: My last question for you has to deal with graduate students. What advice would you give to graduate students at Fletcher or any other graduate student who is reading or listening to this about how they can contribute to this peace process [in Ukraine], and to finding a peaceful resolution with the broader dilemmas at hand?

HILL: Well, we’re looking right now for some creative solutions given the constraints and all of the problems we’re facing, and clearly one of the things we all need is political will on the part of the Russians to be willing to negotiate. It doesn’t seem that this is the case right now. We have a lot of ideas that are being put out there for how one might frame negotiations, various different outcomes. We had a lot of questions today and discussions and how one might approach the issue of alternative security arrangements to NATO, for countries that don’t really have a prospect for joining, be that Ukraine or Georgia, without basically undermining the open door policy or agreements or commitments that were made before.

We’re going to have to have a lot of creative thinking here. I think absolutely that graduate students and anyone else here at the Fletcher School looking at the legal systems, understanding the prior agreements, the history, and the dynamics, are just as capable as contributing ideas as anyone else is. And obviously, the Fletcher Forum people can write op-eds, they can engage in all kinds of debate, which is all very important, because we do need some creative thinking. Particularly at times like this, it’s one of these mobilizing moments with “all hands on deck” to figure out how we can steer ourselves away from what can [become] an open and protracted conflict.

FORUM: Well, I really appreciate you taking the time sitting down with us for this.

HILL: Of course, thank you so much for having me.

This piece was re-published from The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs.

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