In the Thick of It

A blog on the U.S.-Russia relationship
Fiona Hill

Fiona Hill Delivers Insights on Russia's Perennial Role in Global Geopolitics

March 21, 2024
Conor Cunningham

“Does Russia still matter?” That was the central question of a recent discussion with leading American national security expert Fiona Hill, hosted by Russia Matters and moderated by Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University, and former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula Dobriansky, at Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center. Hill’s answer to that question was in the affirmative, rooted in what she described as Russia’s perennial significance in global affairs, ranging from climate change to European insecurity and from Middle Eastern power dynamics to nuclear security. 

Russia's Enduring Significance 

It was Allison, a renowned expert on U.S. national security and defense policy, who opened the Feb. 6 discussion by observing that at the very least, Russia has a primary claim to global importance because of its nuclear arsenal. Agreeing with Allison’s opening remarks, Hill elaborated: “Russia is not going anywhere, and it will always matter … Russia will continue to matter and so will Putin.” She noted that while the state of relations with Russia is a “tragedy,” Russia’s intrinsic attributes, including its size and resources, allow Russia to significantly impact U.S. security. Despite facing international scrutiny and sanctions, Russia maintains an "incredible cultural impact" globally and remains an "influential player on the Eurasian landmass," according to Hill. 

She went on to advocate for a 360-degree view to understand the Kremlin's comprehensive strategy, which spans beyond mere energy politics to include nuclear power and technological advancements and combating climate change. Hill warned against underestimating Russia's capabilities and intentions, emphasizing the need for the United States to create a cohesive Russian strategy instead of reinventing its approach with each administration. Hill added that while U.S. presidents have come and gone, Vladimir Putin has been in power for nearly 25 years and remains “very predictable in certain aspects.”

During this introductory segment, Dobriansky underscored the importance of the Feb. 6 discussion with Hill as the kickoff to a seminar series, “Russia’s Past, Present, and Future,” which is designed to bring together the leading experts on Russia to provide a broad strategic view on Russia’s actions and ambitions from Europe and China to Iran and the entire Middle Eastern region.

Russian Aggression in Ukraine

Regarding Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, Hill stated that “Endgame in Ukraine for Putin is Ukraine’s capitation ... He is a maximalist and so is [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy ... Russia doesn’t want to give anything up.” She firmly stated that Ukraine would not accept a territorial settlement that compromises its sovereignty, echoing the broader sentiment that any negotiation must not presuppose Ukrainian concessions. Hill's analysis suggests a protracted conflict, with Russia aiming for a "victorious peace" to shift focus away from the war and toward future national rebuilding. 

During the Q&A portion of the event, Allision and Hill disagreed on the nature of possible negotiations between Russia and Ukraine. Allison rejected the notion that Zelenskyy and Putin’s maximalist objectives preclude negotiations to end the hostilities. Allison stated that he believes the war will most likely end in a negotiated settlement with Russia retaining some territory stolen since February 2022. Hill objected, reiterating that while negotiations are co-opted by Russia as a tool of geopolitical coercion, they will not be in good faith and therefore should not take place. Hill emphasized that while both sides remain entrenched—Ukraine will not accept ceding territory and Russia wants complete capitulation by Kyiv—negotiations are unlikely. She made historical reference to the U.S. mediating role as an outside party to the conflict in negotiations between the Russian Empire and Japan in 1905 as a possible inspiration for future negotiations between Ukraine and Russia; however, the United States is currently too directly involved and the negotiations, in their current format, would not be in good faith, unlike the 1905 negotiations. 

Regarding the approach to Russian leadership, Allison noted that both Hill and CIA Director William Burns share a theory of Putin: that the Russian leader is rational, “predictably unpredictable,” while Zelenskyy promotes a contrary theory, that Putin is out of control. Hill responded that there was nothing wrong with Zelenskyy’s theory, that Zelenskyy hopes to control Putin rather than contend with a government takeover by a different, truly unpredictable party. Dobriansky also stated that one of the ways Zelenskyy deals with Putin is by making him look dangerous.

Russia-China Relations

In her remarks, Hill also touched on the nuances of the Russia-China relationship, emphasizing that it transcends the simplistic notion of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Rather it is built upon a complex array of geopolitical, personal and economic factors. Hill mentioned that much of the Russia-China relationship is driven by U.S. policy toward these countries. This external pressure has inadvertently catalyzed a closer alignment between Moscow and Beijing, serving as a counterbalance to Western influence. She also pointed to the personal rapport between Putin and Xi Jinping, indicating that she was surprised that Putin is leveraging Xi’s affinity for Russian culture to effectively “manipulate Xi.” However, Hill emphasized that Putin is not interested in China per se, but in the Chinese market. 

Hill explained that Russia's growth has become increasingly dependent on Chinese demand for its raw materials. This economic interdependence has been further underscored by Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine, with China providing substantial economic, if not direct military, support to Russia. Hill points out that while China has expressed some reservations about the conflict, particularly regarding its investments in Ukraine and potential repercussions for its relations with Europe, this has not diminished its support for Russia. China’s steadfastness, Hill underscored, is partly due to concerns over the implications for Taiwan and the broader Asia-Pacific region, as U.S. rhetoric often links Russia’s aggression in Ukraine with potential scenarios involving Taiwan.

Russia's Ambitions in the Middle East

Delving into Russia's Middle Eastern strategy, Hill outlined Russia's historical ties and its evolving objectives in the region. Russia’s scope ranges from deep-rooted connections with Jerusalem through Orthodox Christianity to its support of national liberation and socialist movements during the Cold War. Russia, according to Hill, is working to refurbish these old ties and build new ones, selling itself “as a power broker in the Middle East.” 

However, Hill noted that following the events of Oct. 7, 2023, Putin pivoted toward enhancing relations with Iran at the expense of its once-comprehensive relationship with Israel. Having jettisoned Israel, at least publicly, Russia is deepening its relationship with Iran, one of the only active supporters of Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. Despite Russia’s growing reliance on Tehran, Hill stated that Russia's preference remains that Iran does not acquire nuclear capabilities. 

Putin’s Potential Successors and Late Rival

During the Q&A session, an audience member asked Hill about the extent to which Putin's political future is tied to the outcome of the conflict. She noted the uncertain nature of the political and domestic directions Russia might take, pointing out the presence of figures like Nikolai Patrushev and a cadre of technocrats who could step into leadership roles under various circumstances. Hill speculated on the implications of a hypothetical scenario where Putin is succeeded by a technocratic government, potentially led by someone like Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin, suggesting it could represent an opportunity to revisit the reformist zeal of the 1990s. However, anticipating Putin’s orchestrated victory in the March 15-17 presidential election (which since then has become a reality), Hill stated that to continue ruling, Putin will eventually need to turn national attention to a vision for the future, not simply a focus on the war with Ukraine.

The discussion ended with a question about any predictions on Alexei Navalny’s future and his role in shaping Russia’s future. Unfortunately, the untimely question came just over 10 days before Navalny died abruptly in a far-flung Russian colony.  

Photo by Benn Craig.