On March 1, Grand Valley State University hosted Dr. Fiona Hill, former head of the United States National Security Council and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, to participate in a discussion on the conflict between Russia and the United States. Ukraine. Throughout the hour-long conversation between Hill and Professor Polly Diven, topics such as Hill’s experience as a graduate student in the Soviet Union, Vladimir Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine, and the likelihood direct involvement of the United States in the conflict were discussed.
With the Pere Marquette Room full of attendees, Hill opened the discussion by recounting the experiences that led to her receiving a full scholarship to Harvard University. Born in the North East of England, Hill is the daughter of a coal miner and was the first person in her family to attend university.
While finishing high school and college, Hill experienced the Euromissile Crisis, which was a nuclear standoff between the Soviet Union and several Western nations.
“We actually thought there was a real risk of miscalculation, and in November 1983 we came very close to nuclear war because the Soviets at the time misinterpreted a series of American exercises” , Hill said. “They thought the drills were preparation for an offensive, maybe even the first strike against the Soviet Union.”
This experience, along with other world events related to the threat of nuclear war and the American and Russian conflicts, inspired Hill to study Russian and modern history at Harvard. She eventually became a foreign student and chose to study in Moscow, where she watched former Russian President Mikhail Gorbachev and former US President Ronald Reagan sign the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. This treaty effectively ended the Euromissile crisis, but the distant attitude between Russia and the United States persisted.
After finishing the story of her educational journey, Hill spoke about the similarities between the tense atmosphere of those years compared to today.
“We’ve come full circle and these circles continue to expand,” Hill said. “The same things that worried me in 1984 are the same things that we all worry about now.”
On the current Russian invasion of Ukraine, Hill echoed the sentiments of other Russian experts and said a full-scale invasion was the worst-case scenario. She said there were many other ways Russia could have made the situation worse that would not have involved invading Ukraine.
“Like other people, I hoped that would not be Vladimir Putin’s option,” Hill said. “Putin had created a whole range of options for himself to choose from.”
Although Putin has prepared for many different militaristic situations, Hill said, he did not expect such a massive support system to rise up behind Ukraine.
“It was a huge miscalculation in many ways because he thought, going back to 2014 and what happened in Crimea, that Russian speakers in Ukraine would be sympathetic to Russia and uprising,” Hill said. .
Although he probably expected fierce resistance from the Ukrainians and their military, the global condemnation and massive sanctions against the Russian economy from most of its trading partners was something Putin never expected. not seen coming. Because of this mistake, Ukraine and the rest of the world seem to be putting up much fiercer resistance than Putin and the Russian military expected.
“Did he expect people like you to sign letters of support, or people to send goods and supplies to Ukraine?” said Hill. “He wouldn’t have expected it, and I certainly didn’t expect the German government to turn around and spend 2% of its GDP on NATO support in its budget or to stop the Nordstream 2 pipeline.”
Hill moved on to Putin’s justification for invading Ukraine, which boils down to his belief that the country is still rightfully part of Russia. She also said NATO expansion played a role in Putin’s decision to invade at that time. Countries like Ukraine and Georgia, which both border Russia, were on track to join the pact in the near future and Putin doesn’t like having a powerful Western alliance so close to Russia.
Besides these reasons, Hill said Putin had another reason to justify the invasion: he thinks Russia still has a target on its back.
“It’s basically the idea that Russia is always under attack,” Hill said. “If you look at all his speeches, they go back to the 17th century Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth that traveled all the way to Moscow, Russian National Day is actually the day Poles were expelled from Moscow.”
Hill explained that Putin views any expansion of NATO, or really anything resembling a military entity, closer to Russia as a huge red flag and threat to the country. In Putin’s mind, Ukraine and Georgia’s decision to join NATO was about as important as a red flag.
“We really thought then the Russians would launch some kind of pre-emptive action against this, and we saw that in Georgia in 2008 when the Russians went all out,” Hill said. “We thought they would do it in Ukraine too, but the Ukrainians pulled out of NATO.”
At the end of the event, Hill took questions from the audience. The first question Hill received from a student was about the differences between this conflict and the annexation of Crimea in 2014.
“I’m sure Vladimir Putin is wondering the same thing,” Hill said.
She went on to explain that Crimea is full of native Russian speakers, many of whom were supportive of the idea of being under Russian rule for various reasons. As a result, Putin and Russia moved in and took control of the region with relative ease. Those who supported Russia’s justification remained in Crimea and most of those who opposed it moved to other parts of Ukraine.
“The Russian government thought it could be successful again in the Donbass region and maybe as far as Odessa,” Hill said. “They thought all these Russian-speaking towns around the coast would also rise up, but that didn’t happen, and in fact people pushed back.”
Another student asked what the US response has been so far and whether President Biden’s opposition to sending US troops was the right approach.
“Putin is absolutely paranoid about NATO intervention, that’s why he put his nuclear forces on high alert, to scare NATO because believe me, he would find a way to use some sort of nuclear weapon,” Hill said. “The idea is to scare us all, to make us back down so he can go on.”
As Hill covered earlier in the discussion, Putin still believes that Ukraine rightfully belongs to Russia, so the final question in the event asked if he would have invaded Ukraine even without the possibility of the country joining. NATO.
Hill’s response touched on the fact that Russian citizens are locked in a barrage of propaganda that accuses Ukraine of being infiltrated by neo-Nazi nationalists and other outsiders. In Russia, Putin is using these blatantly false accusations as justification for the invasion and spreading this message through as many media channels as possible.
“People in Russia thought certain actions were justified because they thought it was the United States trying to take over Ukraine or NATO trying to take over Ukraine” , Hill said. “Only Vladimir Putin made the decision to invade and only he and the people around him knew he was going to launch a full-scale invasion.”
A few days after the event, Diven shared her favorite parts of the event.
“I loved that students and faculty had a chance to ask lots of great questions,” Diven said. “I was also happy to hear Dr. Hill talk about his humble beginnings and how GVSU students can go on to do great things too.”
She also pointed to the incredible timing of the event. The planning process began in the fall semester of 2021, so it’s pure coincidence that Hill ended up speaking up in the midst of the conflict.
“The timing couldn’t have been better, Dr. Hill helped us all better understand the tragic events unfolding in Ukraine,” Diven said. “She met Putin several times and helped us understand his state of mind. She also made a clear distinction between blaming Putin and his cronies and not blaming ordinary citizens of Russia.
More about Hill and his experiences with Russia and Ukraine can be found in his new book, “There’s Nothing For You Here.”