Fiona Hill: Putin’s Running Out of Time

A top Russia advisor to three U.S. presidents explains why the world shouldn’t fall for Moscow’s narrative that it can wait out the West in Ukraine.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
Fiona Hill, the U.S. National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington on Nov. 21, 2019.
Fiona Hill, the U.S. National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington on Nov. 21, 2019.
Fiona Hill, the U.S. National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington on Nov. 21, 2019. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

One of the reasons why it’s so difficult to predict how the war in Ukraine will end is because Russian President Vladimir Putin has designed it as such. He kept the world guessing in the days leading up to the war; policymakers around the world are still trying to figure out when he might declare an end to his so-called special military operation.

Although the balance of play has shifted month to month since the fighting began on Feb. 24, Russia has recently seemed on the ascendancy. Its military has gobbled up much of Luhansk in the country’s east and is now seeking to make further inroads to the southwest in Donetsk, taking over the area known as the Donbas. But as FP’s Jack Detsch writes, Moscow’s forays into new territory have “left itself open to a counterpunch,” with Kyiv using U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, to attack deep behind Russian lines.

As always, how the war develops next depends in large part on the whims of one man: Putin. FP spoke with an expert who has studied what makes Putin tick more than perhaps any other Western analyst. Fiona Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has worked in the administrations of three former U.S. presidents—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—in key national intelligence roles, advising the White House on its Russian and European strategy. Hill is a co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin and, more recently, the author of There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.

One of the reasons why it’s so difficult to predict how the war in Ukraine will end is because Russian President Vladimir Putin has designed it as such. He kept the world guessing in the days leading up to the war; policymakers around the world are still trying to figure out when he might declare an end to his so-called special military operation.

Although the balance of play has shifted month to month since the fighting began on Feb. 24, Russia has recently seemed on the ascendancy. Its military has gobbled up much of Luhansk in the country’s east and is now seeking to make further inroads to the southwest in Donetsk, taking over the area known as the Donbas. But as FP’s Jack Detsch writes, Moscow’s forays into new territory have “left itself open to a counterpunch,” with Kyiv using U.S.-provided High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, known as HIMARS, to attack deep behind Russian lines.

As always, how the war develops next depends in large part on the whims of one man: Putin. FP spoke with an expert who has studied what makes Putin tick more than perhaps any other Western analyst. Fiona Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has worked in the administrations of three former U.S. presidents—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—in key national intelligence roles, advising the White House on its Russian and European strategy. Hill is a co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin and, more recently, the author of There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.

I spoke with Hill as part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. You can watch our full discussion on video in the box below. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript.

Foreign Policy: Several influential commentators are warning that the West is running out of time to defeat Russia. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin is likely telling his generals to just get him to Christmas, when winter sets in and gas shortages in Europe will be especially painful. Washington Post columnist Fareed Zakaria concurs, writing, “Time is not on our side.” How should we assess these warnings given the West’s limited economic leverage and the threat of escalation?

Fiona Hill: The very fact that we framed it like this, which we have in most of the analyses, hides the fact that Putin, himself, may also be running against time limits. He wants that we are the ones who are on the backfoot, always wondering about whether we can make it, whether we can persevere. This is part of an information war. This is the kind of messaging that’s really coming out of the Kremlin.

The reason that I want to stress this is because of the magical date of 2024. We know from polling that [U.S. President Joe] Biden is getting no boost whatsoever for his commitment to Ukraine, although support for Ukraine remains fairly robust at the popular level in the United States as it does in Europe. It is actually hurting the United States and other Western politicians because of inflation and the pressures on energy and food security.

But Putin also has to get reelected in 2024. He launched this special military operation, saying it would be over in a matter of days. But this has dragged on for Russia as well. And all of the messaging from Putin saying, “We haven’t begun yet. We haven’t hit the tip of the iceberg of the carnage and destruction,” is messaging so that we will pull back because he is also concerned about the implications for the stability of his own system. By the time we get out beyond those magical depths of the winter and into next year, the impacts on the Russian economy from all of the sanctions that have been taken, irrespective of high oil and gas prices, will start to be felt.

FP: It’s striking to think that Putin would be worried about reelection. He’s an authoritarian leader; he seems to have coup-proofed himself. He controls the media, especially television. Why do you think that he would be fearful of 2024?

FH: Because he’s fearful of a repetition of what happened when he last returned to the presidency in 2011 and 2012, where we had protests in Moscow, St. Petersburg, and other major [Russian] cities. Putin knows that there is a lot of dissatisfaction hidden beneath the surface. People seem to be supportive of this special military operation as long as the children of the elite are not being sent off as cannon fodder to the front lines.

We’re starting to see some backlash from the marginal areas of Russia: Buryatia, for example, where there’s been an awful lot of Buryats sent to the front lines. You start to see protests of women wanting their husbands and sons brought home. They’re starting to have a hard time recruiting in places like Dagestan, not so much as Chechnya, where there’s a lot of compulsion for people to fight in the war. Putin knows that this grind is having an impact.

We have to look out for when things start to hurt people in their pocketbook. The biggest demonstrations or protests in Putin’s long tenure as president and prime minister of Russia since 2000 have been over economic issues. And then also over this sense of unfairness of him keeping himself in power. He’s not that popular in Moscow and St. Petersburg. When you get down into the depths of the polling, it looks a little bit like the new polling about Donald Trump right now. People would actually like an alternative.

Russia is often ripe for protests, particularly on socioeconomic issues. Putin’s going to worry about that as we get towards 2024 for another reason: There are people around Putin who believe he’s not justified in having this next set of two terms. He was supposed to end his term in 2024. He extended his ability to run again for another 12 years until 2036, which will put him into his 80s. But the more weakened he is [and] the less legitimate he appears, the less it appears that he’s popular and the more incentive there is for others to try to maneuver around him to push on succession. Putin wants to get this conflict over with. He wants to seem legitimate. He wants us to be the ones who feel that we don’t have time—when he also has a clock ticking.

FP: Given what you say, how then will he game out the next three or four months leading into the winter?

FH: He’s going to try to make it as easy for himself as possible. Russia can keep on terrorizing everybody and lobbing missiles all over the place. [It] can keep on putting an embargo on grain and making it very difficult. Putin’s assumption is that the Turks, the Lebanese, the African Union, and everybody will start putting pressure on the United States and the West because he’s saying, “That’s the result of their sanctions.” Which it isn’t, of course—it’s him deliberately manipulating famine in Africa to put us all in the hot seat as the bad guys here. Putin’s game is to have us defeat ourselves, basically, because we can’t imagine being able to sustain this over several years. 

FP: A lot of this sounds like mind games. There’s the well-known story from Putin’s childhood where a young Putin chased a rat around his family’s apartment building. He traps the rat in a corner, and then the rat lashes out at him. Putin’s takeaway from that scenario was that there’s never a retreat; you have to fight to the bitter end. But that’s what he wants us to think, right? That if we go too far, he’ll launch World War III?

FH: Exactly. And the only documentation of that story is Vladimir Putin telling his biographers about it.

FP: That’s right.

FH: Putin’s been a wartime president from the very beginning. Look, we’re already in World War III in terms of this being an epoch-making conflict. There’s an information war. He’s already annexed territory. World War I wasn’t a nuclear war, but there was the using of mustard gas and chlorine. Putin has already used Novichok, polonium, and all kinds of other chemical weapons aiding and abetting [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad.

We’ve been in this for a very long time. Putin takes us on these historical magical mystery tours all the time for justification. Sometimes he blames NATO. Sometimes he blames the European Union. And then he’s always trying to find the hot-button issues that he can press to scare people. In 2019, at the G-20 in Osaka, [Japan], in the last meeting that I sat in between Trump and Putin, he already threatened Trump about invoking the idea of the euro missile crisis of the 1980s over the U.S. pull out of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, basically saying, “If there are no treaties left to underpin European security, what’s going to happen then, Donald?” He says, “Your European allies won’t want to go back to the time of the euro missile crisis.” So, he’s always been in the business of nuclear saber-rattling.

FP: What would Putin consider a victory at this point?

FH: Well, he has said in the past that there is no victory short of basically wiping Ukraine off the map. He’s said Ukraine is a colony that belongs to Russia. I think there is a risk to the question, the way you phrased “victory at this point,” because he would clearly see a success in having taken all of the Donbas region of Donetsk and Luhansk. I think the risk is that he declares an operational pause or a truce at the point to try to consolidate those gains, and it is really nothing more than a truce to punctuate what’s really an ongoing conflict.

FP: Much of the global south has refused to condemn Russia. India, for example, has dramatically upped the amount of crude oil it’s purchasing from Russia. When Putin looks at the global response to the war in Ukraine—both in the West but also in the rest of the world—how do you think he assesses things?

FH: He thinks this is really going in his direction. This is the product of Russian disinformation. Brookings has an analysis of Twitter in Africa, with various hashtags showing the traction that Russian propaganda is getting in Africa in terms of shaping views there. It’s part and parcel of Putin getting the message out there that this is the fault of the collective West; he’s got Pope Francis saying perhaps Russia was provoked by NATO’s expansion.

In the global south, people have long memories of imperialism from Europe. They tend to think of Russia as the Soviet Union, as the leader of the nonaligned movement and the champion of all of the post-colonialist Marxist liberation militaries and forces. So Russia keeps presenting itself not as an imperial power trying to take back an old colony but as fighting a proxy war against the West, against NATO, and against the United States. And they’re also telling Africans and people in the Middle East that it’s the West’s sanctions that are cutting off grain and it’s the West’s sanctions that are raising oil and energy prices. That may be true. But it’s certainly not the case with grain and food security where Putin has deliberately taken this hostage and is, of course, destroying Ukraine.

FP: In light of NATO declaring China a “threat” in its new strategic concept, how does Putin see [Chinese President] Xi Jinping? What can you tell us about that relationship?

FH: China clearly worries that if Russia is defeated in Ukraine, this will have a knock-on effect because China has leapt in on both feet—ahead of what it thought was going to be a very brief special military operation—to give support to Russia. China is actively engaged in Russian propaganda and disinformation.

There is a huge risk to Russia from this, however. I think it’s evident to Russians behind the scenes that with all of their ties to Europe being cut, they’re left with the rest of the world—and that increases their dependency on China.

After the “partnership without limits” that was declared by Xi and Putin on the margins of the Beijing Olympics, the Russians pulled their troops out of the Russian Far East because they weren’t worried about any kind of attack from the Chinese. But a lot of those military forces have been depleted. They also pulled them out of Tajikistan, which creates a great deal of vulnerability in the Russian Far East, where Russia was much more of a security guarantor.

Will Tajikistan start to look towards China? Will China’s view change? There are plenty of Chinese nationals who remember that 25 percent of their territory in Manchuria was taken by the Russians in the 1860s. All those vulnerabilities were always there in the Russian-Chinese relationship and are still there, but now, there is so much invested on both sides in the strategic aspects of this partnership. Further down the line, if Russia appears weaker vis-à-vis China, the future is a question mark, right? I do think that China, itself, is reassessing—and that relationship may have strains at some point.

FP: When you imagine Putin looking at the Jan. 6 hearings, does he see America as being further weakened?

FH: Yes. So does everybody, honestly. Putin is pretty much betting that the [U.S.] midterm elections will undermine Biden and that by 2024, the United States will be in a great big mess.

I came back from Europe just a little bit before July 4, just after the Supreme Court ruling on Roe vs Wade, the efforts to deal with gun violence, and against the backdrop of all of the Jan. 6 hearings. Those three things were being paid very close attention to. I don’t think we fully process here how much the rest of the world feels that the United States is undercut by the manifestations of polarization and partisan infighting. So it’s not just Jan. 6. It’s this idea that the United States is out of control. Putin feeds on this. When you see Putin trying to exploit all of these hot-button issues, part of it is obviously to put us against each other, but it’s also to make the United States look less of a leader and diminished in an international context.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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