Former White House Official discusses Russia, Putin, and Ukraine at Event

| Senior News Editor

Jamie Nicholson | Student Life

Dr. Fiona Hill, the former Senior Director for Europe and Russia of the National Security Council (2017-19), spoke about the dangers of Putin, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and her interest in foreign affairs in Hillman Hall, Jan. 26. 

Hill now serves as a senior fellow for the Brookings Institution and was recently appointed Chancellor of Durham University in the United Kingdom.

The discussion, titled “The World Putin Wants: The Invasion of Ukraine and the Threat to the International Order,” is part of the University’s assembly series. The assembly series has been a tradition at WashU for 70 years, and has featured speakers such as Eleanor Roosevelt and the Dalai Lama. According to Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Initiatives Mary Mckay, Hill’s visit underscores the global focus of the new “Here and Next” strategic plan. 

Mckay spoke to Student Life following the event about the University’s emphasis on “global perspectives” under the new strategic plan.

“One of the guiding principles [of ‘Here and Next’] emphasizes and elevates global perspectives,” she said. She said that this principle extends to both undergraduate and graduate education, as well as research.

“A global perspective should influence the research that is done at Washington University,” she continued. “There needs to be an eye on partnerships that matter across the globe.”

Mckay explained that Dr. Hill adds to the University’s global perspective mission because she is a “deep content expert in her area” of international conflicts and is able to bring the “globally interested” WashU community together. 

Hill was introduced by Vijay Ramani, the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and International Affairs, and she sat down with Anthropology and Global Studies professor James Wertsch, who moderated the discussion. Ramani highlighted Hill’s expertise on international conflicts and Soviet history, as well as the success of her 2021 book There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century.

Wertsch began the talk by asking Hill, “what does Putin want?”

In response, Hill first talked about how Putin has been in power for 23 years and that his own interest is now intertwined with the interest of Russia as a whole. 

Hill then described Putin as a man who wants the world to believe his false narratives.

“Putin is a storyteller, but it is a distortion of stories,” she said. “He is someone who tells stories for a living to make a connection to people, to recruit them, or to get them to do what he wants.”

Hill also provided context for Putin’s upbringing. She said that he was born in 1952 and grew up in the ‘70s—the peak of Soviet power– and later joined the KGB.

Putin is proud of his military background and loves to tell stores that make him seem tough, sly and clever, Hill explained. He also has a reputation of being a history lover, which Hill said was the “most dangerous part of his personality” due to his lies being masked as historical truths.

Hill then addressed the debate on whether or not the invasion of Ukraine was justified.

“Isn’t it the case that…Putin felt provoked by the expansion of NATO,” she said, referring to what some people say about the conflict. “Shouldn’t we be carving up Ukraine now to find a way of resolving this [conflict]?”

Hill added context to the Ukraine-Russia conflict by reflecting on European history and the continent’s changing borders. Territories, like Crimea, have been occupied by many societies over time, so staking a claim to the land will depend on how far you go back, she said.

“Every European country has a checkered history,” Hill said. “Most European countries fall into the same category as Ukraine. They’ve [became] independent at different points, with different empires, and their borders have changed.”

“After World War II, we said ‘no more forceable change of borders,’” she continued. “What Putin is trying to do is gloss over the fact that he and Russia signed on to [the agreement] after World War II.” 

As for the relationship between the United States and Russia, Hill summed it up in a quote from There Is Nothing for You Here.

“Russia is America’s Ghost of Christmas Future,” she wrote.

In the discussion, Hill expanded upon this idea, saying that Americans on both sides of the political spectrum tell false stories about the other party. Russia is a warning about letting myths turn people against each other.

“Putin wants us to have totally lost faith in our democracy,” she said.

Another topic that Hill addressed is the possibility that a replacement for Putin is waiting in the wings. She said that many of Putin’s former political rivals are now dead, and others do not pose a threat to him.

“Putin is testing out the waters and signaling [to his country] that maybe he is the best bet,” Hill said.

After discussing more of Putin’s goals and Dr. Hill’s background, Wertsch asked a concluding question: “what can we do?”

Hill said that because Putin has been dissuaded from using nuclear weapons, we have been shown that a “way out” of the Ukraine conflict is possible. She discussed reinvigorating the United Nations as a possible effort to combat Russia. 

On a smaller scale, having discussions to promote diplomacy is helpful, Hill said. She urged the audience to push back against false narratives and get “our own house in order.” 

“Sometimes you have to stand up and do something,” she said. “This is one of those times now whether we like it or not.”

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