““The thing about Putin is, if he has an instrument, he wants to use it. Why have it if you can’t?””
That was Fiona Hill, former official at the U.S. National Security Council specializing in Russian and European affairs, talking about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s willingness to use nuclear weapons.
Hill has worked in both Democratic and Republican administrations, and she has published a biography on Putin. In an interview with Politico published Monday night, Hill shared her thoughts about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what she expects the Russian leader will do next.
“Every time you think, ’No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would,” Hill said. “And he wants us to know that, of course.
“It’s not that we should be intimidated and scared,” she added. “We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we’re going to do to head them off.”
And in terms of a potential nuclear weapons threat, in many ways, “we’re right there,” she said.
Hill recalled one notable exchange between Putin and former President Donald Trump in 2019, when the leaders discussed the possibility of such weapons being used.
“Putin tried to warn Trump about this, but I don’t think Trump figured out what he was saying. In one of the last meetings between Putin and Trump when I was there, Putin was making the point that: ‘Well you know, Donald, we have these hypersonic missiles.’ And Trump was saying, ‘Well, we will get them too.’ Putin was saying, ‘Well, yes, you will get them eventually, but we’ve got them first.’”
“There was a menace in this exchange,” she continued. “Putin was putting us on notice that if push came to shove in some confrontational environment that the nuclear option would be on the table.”
Hill suggested that part of Putin’s current agenda is reconstructing a massive Russian empire.
“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,” said Hill.
Hill noted that it’s unclear at this time if Putin wants to move in and occupy the entire country of Ukraine, or even if he has the military capability to do so.
“If there is serious resistance, he may not have sufficient force to take the country for a protracted period. It also may be that he doesn’t want to occupy the whole country,” she said. “That he wants to break it up, maybe annex some parts of it, maybe leave some of it as rump statelets or a larger rump Ukraine somewhere, maybe around Lviv.”
“I’m not saying that I know exactly what’s going on in his head,” she added. “And he may even suggest other parts of Ukraine get absorbed by adjacent countries.”
Hill suggested that one aspect of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine which may have gone under-discussed would be his electoral incentives. The Russian president is up for reelection in 2024.
“In 2020, Putin had the Russian Constitution amended so that he could stay on until 2036, another set of two six-year terms. He’s going to be 84 then. But in 2024, he has to re-legitimate himself by standing for election,” Hill said. “The only real contender might have been Alexei Navalny, and they’ve put him in a penal colony. Putin has rolled up all the potential opposition and resistance, so one would think it would be a cakewalk for him in 2024. But the way it works with Russian elections, he actually has to put on a convincing show that demonstrates that he’s immensely popular and he’s got the affirmation of all the population.”
Her comments came ahead of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address on Tuesday, when the commander-in-chief is expected to focus heavily on the U.S. response to the war in Ukraine, as well as on his efforts to manage the pandemic and his selection of Ketanji Brown Jackson as a Supreme Court justice.