Fiona Hill on Putin, Ukraine, Global Challenges

The former U.S. presidential advisor and Davis Center alumna speaks with Russia Matters about all the above, plus turmoil and elections worldwide, Trump, and the Russian leader's adeptness at using others' weaknesses to his advantage.

This interview was originally published on the Russia Matters website.

Russia Matters founding director and Davis Center associate Simon Saradzhyan sat down with Fiona Hill, former presidential advisor and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council from 2017 to 2019, to consider Russia and its war in Ukraine. Hill, an alumna of the Davis Center's master's program, is currently a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, a member of the Harvard University Board of Overseers, and chancellor at Durham University in the U.K. 

During the April 5 conversation, which ranged from the dozens of elections globally in 2024 to the state of the war, Hill painted a picture of a world in flux, in part due to Russia’s actions. Hill believes that Vladimir Putin, having just come through his most recent “election” with nearly 90% of the vote, finds himself in “a better position than most other leaders.” The Russian president “can probably assume that America is going to be in some degree of turmoil” as its own presidential campaigns ramp up, and as “half of humanity” goes to the polls this year “there could be a lot of opportunity … for Putin,” particularly with regard to the war against Ukraine. As the world readies for the possibility of a second Donald Trump presidency — a factor that is already influencing decisions and actions around the world, according to Hill — Putin is thinking about the advantages he may reap. However, Hill cautions that the assumption that Trump will prove a friend to Putin comes with a caveat: “If Putin looks like a loser” or like he is humiliating Trump in some way, “Trump will react badly and lash out.”

Regarding Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Hill notes that Russia’s successful interventions in Georgia in 2008 and in Syria in 2015 primed Putin for an easy win in Ukraine, but, due to his own static thinking, he “didn't understand how Ukraine itself over 30 years had become much more complex.” “What he didn't predict, because he doesn't look at that, was the social roots of Ukraine's resistance,” Hill argues. She describes the Russian leader as “predictably unpredictable,” meaning that he will reliably “try to do something that no one’s expecting,” as was the case with the demise of Yevgeny Prigozhin two months after his June 2023 mutiny. Ultimately, for Putin, the war in Ukraine is a “final showdown,” Hill says, one in which he “seems to be willing to certainly fight to the last Ukrainian, but even potentially to the last Russian.”

See below for the full interview, which has been edited for length and clarity.* 

SS: With all the elections going on, the past elections in Russia, the general elections, quite a few in Europe —

FH: Sixty-four elections this year across countries.

SS: And then, of course, in November [in the United States].

FH: And then some regional elections, including in Germany … and in Turkey.

SS: So if you were to look at Western-Russian relations, U.S.-Russia relations, the war [in Ukraine] through the prism of all of these elections, where does the vector point?  

FH: Well, it depends … and maybe we could flesh that out some more because, if we take it from Putin’s perspective, he's one of the first through the gate of elections, in terms of the national general election. And from his perspective, it went pretty well. He's over-fulfilled the plan in terms of turnout, at least on the surface. And in terms of the outcome, not quite 90%, but pretty much close. That's, you know, far exceeded anything that he's done in the past.

It was obviously not an election; it's more of a plebiscite or a referendum on him, in support for the Russian state, with him and the state being fused together. It wasn't exactly an election of particular choices, about, you know, the future of Russia or between different personalities, like many of the other elections are, and really it was more of a "how do you feel about the Russian state in this time of war, conflict," and a vote of confidence in Putin himself as the leader from here to not quite eternity, but, you know, certainly … 2030, and then potentially till 2036. And so, from Putin's perspective, he's got through that.

Obviously, we've had the attack on Crocus [City Hall concert venue] … which was suddenly marring [things]… He's been able to pivot to deal with that. But he's in such a better position than most other leaders. You've had in Turkey, you know, for example, [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan appearing he got through his presidential election, but obviously [he] couldn't aspire to the kind of manipulation of elections that Putin could do, even though Erdogan did many of the same things in terms of marginalizing opposition figures. I mean, obviously, not quite the extreme cases that we had with Navalny, for example. But now Erdogan has been undermined by regional elections. You know, in other countries, they're not just plebiscites, they actually are elections. Yes, choice of characters and of programs, and of, you know, future perspectives. And what we've just seen in the Turkish regional elections in major cities, you know, if you had something like that in Russia, in different circumstances, you might actually see something different. We know from previous elections, where Putin actually did put himself up to more scrutiny, and particularly going to regional elections. … When there were real candidates running, we often did see different outcomes in cities like Moscow, St. Petersburg, or Yekaterinburg, or, you know, we've seen different developments in Tomsk and Omsk and Vladivostok, etc. 

Turkey kind of shows that you might be able to appear somewhat unassailable at the top, but regionally things are different, because regional demands, regional needs remain unchanged. That’s often not settled at the national level. If you're living in a big city like Istanbul … you've got a lot of real-time issues that need to be resolved. They can't be just slogan'ed away or locked up in terms of national temperature. And that has really shown the weaknesses in the Turkish system. And I'm sure Putin’s watching that very closely, because those same kinds of weaknesses at the municipal and regional level are definitely there in Russia. That could be quite revealing. 

You know, you look at what's coming up in Germany. And although there's not a national election, there are regional elections in Thuringia, Brandenburg, and Saxony and people kind of think that this may result in the rise, in a really meaningful way — it's already rising in polling — of the Alternative for Deutschland [party, also known as AfD], which suggests that Germany could end up on a very different path from where it is, in the future, and Putin obviously is watching that because you might end up with a right-wing populist, not resurgence, but new-surgence. 

In Europe, we haven't got national elections in France, but there's an expectation that there will be soon. Macron won't be able to run, so Marine LePen looks kind of like the — we've already had the National Rally, we've already had [Giorgia] Meloni in Italy. But you've got elections, as you said, even here in the United States, and the number will be consequential in terms of political directions for the future… There’s likely to be a general election in the U.K. … maybe in October, the fall, and then elections in so many other countries. India, elsewhere. Half of humanity is going to the polls, and there could be a lot of opportunity in here for Putin, and, most significantly in this context, from Putin's perspective, is Ukraine. 

Because Ukraine has not had an election — Ukraine was supposed to have an election, has not yet had it yet, is not likely to have it given the war. And Putin will be able to raise questions about [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky’s legitimacy. So, all of these other elections in other places — or the absence of elections in the case of Ukraine … — are for Putin [an] opportunity for manipulation, exploitation, and propaganda points. And also, you know, potentially the change of circumstances in his favor. … So you can be sure that from the perspective of Putin, how Russia can influence or give a nudge to political trends that might move outcomes in the direction more favorable for them, that will be uppermost in the mind. And there's lots of talk in the media about leaks of information about what the Russians have been planning on doing, people like [the Kremlin's deputy chief of staff Sergeyi Kiriyenko and others. … There's a lot of stuff percolating around — the media here is poring over concerns about, you know, what's been planned [for] interventions in those elections.

SS: If you were to look at elections in major countries — some of the potential outcomes you warned against already, but what about others? Where do you think the Labour Party might take Britain’s attitudes toward the war? Where might Trump?

FH: This is very different. In the U.K., you actually see a unanimity on foreign policy. There might be differences on domestic policy, but this is more on the socioeconomic issues, because Britain is in a real dire state at the moment, actually, in terms of economic divergence, diverting away from the rest of Europe, not just on the kind of macro level, micro level, and you've got regional — massive regional — inequality in Britain. And there's just this general feeling in polling in the U.K., on — from everybody, every political persuasion and every gender, every age cohort — [that] the country’s headed in a really terrible direction. But foreign policy, there's not; it's not divisive foreign policy.

SS: So Putin shouldn't hold his breath.

FH: He shouldn’t hold his breath on the U.K., but others, particularly the United States, become much more important from his perspective. Because when it comes down to, of course, the United States, we already see that Ukraine has become a major political debate topic, which it shouldn't be under normal circumstances. But these are abnormal circumstances and domestic and foreign policy become fused together in the United States. And they haven't necessarily in the U.K. but have in France to some degree, when you've got Marine LePen, and others, [French politician Éric] Zemmour, and others, you know, pushing back against involvement in Ukraine. All in the regional elections in Germany — AfD, but also on the left, the Sahra Wagenknecht Alliance movement — also pushing back against support for Ukraine. Meloni has taken a different tack in Italy, though sometimes, you know, these things don't quite play out as one might think.

But from Putin's perspective, these elections, outside of the U.K., but in the United States and other parts of Europe, either regional or national, could play in his favor. When you think about India or other countries and their elections, it's probably not significant. But it's just if there's more entrenchment of authoritarian systems, or leaders Putin already knows, [leaders] he knows how to deal with. His preference is also … often for the devil he knows, rather than the devil he doesn't. I mean, in the case of the United States, he knows both Trump and Biden. [As for] Biden, Putin just tried to make this point that he’ll work with anybody he likes. Biden is of the old school… It's probably true that he [Putin] knows how he can deal with Biden [but] if Biden wins again in November, there will still be a lot of questions. … We have talked about operation successor, you know, the likelihood of Biden making it all the way through his full term. I mean, it’s the question, right? How do you pass on to this next generation? 

I think, no matter what, Putin can probably assume that America is going to be in some degree of turmoil, because our electoral system is under siege, under question, and our politics are in flux. I think there's plenty of opportunity for Putin to take advantage of the situation.

SS: He can do what Yeltsin did?

FH: Yes, exactly. Well, the United States, following Yeltsin, and kind of cycling through all sorts of suggestions of who's the heir apparent in the Democratic Party or for the presidency — there's lots of ways you can manipulate that. And then, you know, how do the MAGA right of the Republican Party react to a second defeat from 2020 to 2024? Is there a way of, kind of, encouraging insurgency and backlash? Or what happens to the Republican Party? Is a third party or a third candidate like Robert Kennedy [Jr.], RFK, going to basically upset the whole situation here? I think, no matter what, Putin can probably assume that America is going to be in some degree of turmoil, because our electoral system is under siege, under question, and our politics are in flux. I think there's plenty of opportunity for Putin to take advantage of the situation. But it's also just the ability to discredit the United States, because we are ourselves asking so many questions about the health of our democracy, our electoral system, and Putin can very easily point, as he always has, toward the fact that how is the United States — the big shining beacon of democracy — under these circumstances.

SS: But going back to Trump, do you think the policy toward … Russia will change … if Trump is president?

FH: Well, a lot of it depends on where the circumstances are in November, January. Honestly, I mean, there's already a Trump factor that's changing things, right? Because there's an assumption in lots of parts of the world that Trump has won already. … What the polling is also suggesting is that Trump is the putative past and future president. And if you've talked to people outside of the United States, in Europe, they're already assuming he’s coming to this. There's all these efforts to Trump-proof systems for NATO. Security is already underway. I think if you go to, like, Brazil, South Africa, or talk to people, they also assume that Trump is on the way. … Trump talks about envoys, people like Rick Grinnell are running around the Balkans and elsewhere, talking on Trump's behalf. People are already factoring Trump in. So, I mean, even before we've got to November or January, yeah, we've got people acting as if … Trump, rather, is president. Putin [is] already kind of thinking about how he can … take advantage of all of this, when it comes to Ukraine, because the assumption is that Trump will give him a friend, right?

SS: Do you share that assumption?

FH : Yeah, I mean, but there's also, I would say, a kind of a caveat to this — because if Putin looks like a loser, or Putin looks like in some way that he is dissing Trump or is disadvantageous to Trump, to humiliate him and show him up, Trump will react badly and lash out. The whole debate now about assistance to Ukraine … all of that is being driven by Trump and a lot of congressional debates about Ukraine are being driven by Trump. The assumption, not just Trump as the Republican candidate — remember, we haven't got past the convention yet — but also coming back as president and everybody maneuvering to get themselves into various positions. And, you know, a lot of it really depends on how Europe acts now and reacts. … But if, for example, Ukraine were winning on the battlefield, and people are talking about Ukraine in different circumstances, Trump likes to associate himself with success, not with loss, which is why Putin is doing so much to take advantage of this moment that looks like a moment of loss.

SS: Can you elaborate on that a bit? How do you see things on the battlefield? Where are they headed?

FH: It would have been harder for Trump to make this case if Ukraine looked like it was still doing what it was doing earlier. I don't mean … the summer offensive, but the rolling of Russia’s gains back before Russia was able to dig in the trenches and put all the minefields … down. And that's the problem. … Ukraine, obviously, is being pushed to do the similar kind of defensive position. But, of course, for Ukraine, that’s very hard, because then that looks like they're building a solid border, right? Whether we think about that or not, if you think about the physicality of minefields, and walls, and trenches, and all the rest of it, you're kind of creating, just like we've seen in the case of Korea and elsewhere, the … DMZ [demilitarized zone] and the contact line, you're creating a border that, maybe, you know, not a de jure [border], but [it] becomes facts on the ground. You're creating fortifications. And that's really why Ukraine hasn't done that. Because it seems that it's already acknowledging that line because that line becomes physical, just like the Berlin Wall back in … the 60s, so that kind of becomes problematic. So there's that … [and] the question of mobilization and basic armaments, because this has become a World War I-style battle of mass armies, with mass ammunition, as well as the 21st-century battle with the drones. And the land war is different from the drone war, obviously.

But a lot of it’s psychological, it's a confidence game. It's not just about the numbers… I mean, there are many different ways of saying that Russia has, and it's certainly a Pyrrhic victory, if it's Russia, was on the winning side, so to speak. I think, you know, our terminology is difficult, because we're thinking that Russia is winning, because Putin, he's willing to expend just incredible amounts of manpower and money and equipment at this particular point. It's not about prevailing. … With Ukraine, obviously, the debate about mobilization and changing the draft, Ukraine's … trying to preserve its capacity, its people, but Putin seems to be willing to certainly fight to the last Ukrainian, but even potentially, to the last Russian, seeing this as kind of a final showdown. 

And again, that's the World War I image, right? The mass armies… And that's the complicated picture that we're in now. We have to be able to give Russia not just some of … the impression but show the reality that Ukraine can withstand this, that Ukraine has the wherewithal to keep Russia at bay, to really turn the tide … with the equipment that it needs, support for manpower, but also the security guarantees and the diplomatic assistance.

So part of it is, you know, the diplomatic battlefield, as well as getting other countries to push Russia and say, “okay, enough is enough.” Just like we've seen with what's happening with Israel and Gaza, when you get a tide turning against you, to the tide turned against Putin. But he doesn't see that happening at this particular juncture. So we need more effort in that regard. 

When the Indias and Chinas don't just tell him “please don't use nuclear weapons,” but say, “look, you need to give something up,” not just telling Ukraine that you need to capitulate. But when … Putin feels that his regime is under some threat, or his position is under some threat [the tide will change]. Stalin was, during the Winter War with Finland, was the one who actually initiated peace, not just to get Finland to capitulate, because he didn’t want Finland to go away, he wanted to take Finnish territory back again. … There's lots of different things that were happening, but [today] you have to basically have Putin feeling that continuing this war is not to not to his advantage. And that's the challenge.

SS: Here is a question from RM student associates: In October 2023, you stated that we made a mistake in the very beginning — when the war in Ukraine was portrayed as the battle of democracy versus autocracy. Many in the Global South didn't buy it either.

FH: Yeah, I still believe it.

SS: Can you elaborate on that? And how would you portray the conflict?

FH: We set it up in a way that, you know, the good guys versus the bad guys, the black and the white, the values struggle, the systems struggle. And it's pretty complicated, because that also, of course, opens up a lot of questions about — we're getting back to elections, right? Where we started off — about, well, if Ukraine doesn't have an election this year, how legitimate is this? How legitimate is the Ukrainian system? A lot of the players in the world that we really need to get to push on Russia to change the calculation are not democracies… We were, you know, kind of suggesting that we're not going to talk to non-democracies.

Of course, look, a lot of the rest of the world wonders about American democracy, as many people within America are wondering as well. A lot of the threats to American democracy are internal, not external. And, you know, there's always that sense of American hypocrisy, the mismatch between our words and our deeds that are seen over and over again. The United States seems to boost democracy when it suits it and, you know, kind of support autocracy when it suits it. And in the international system, the United States is quite willing to make common cause with autocrats or authoritarian systems or not be championing democracy that doesn't fit into its interests. So this is, you know, kind of where a lot of countries watch … the reaction with Saudi Arabia, for example, or the position on Venezuela. There's a classic case in point. We were pushing back against [Nicolás] Maduro’s self-coup and his repudiation of [Juan] Guaidó and the transitional government and the elections one moment and making Venezuela a pariah. Next minute, we're like, “oh, hang on, we need Venezuela's oil, and we need to … bring them back into the fold.” Or we're having secret talks with Iran about energy issues when … kind of pushing back against Iran's theocracy and autocracy. … And sometimes we don't pay attention to repression if it's in a country that we want to keep on our side. So creating this black and white division between autocracies, authoritarian systems, and democratic systems, particularly when most countries are imperfect as democracies, was a mistake. 

And it did actually also mean that … we were kind of picking and choosing and overlooking some of those problems we should have been focused on, the issues that were really at stake, which is the future, more pluralistic, democratic systems. Because, obviously, what Russia was doing was reacting in many respects to Ukraine's, sometimes very fitful but also very serious, efforts to reform its political systems. Really what we were saying was [the] things that we would never allow to happen again, the violations of territorial integrity, international law, and sovereignty. And again, the United States is an imperfect vessel for making those points. But we could have engaged with other countries on this because of our own, you know, moves against Afghanistan and Iraq after 9/11… Most European countries have not, basically, invaded their neighbors. I mean, the Russians will point toward Kosovo, and the whole Yugoslav wars and recognition of Kosovo, [the] forcible change of boundaries because of the war between Serbia and Kosovo and everything that was happening there. But as a general principle … European security was trying to hold the line of no border changes, particularly not through war and violence, and trying to maintain sovereignty and territorial integrity. The rest of the world — lots of parts of the world — believed in that. 

[Putin] thought that Zelensky would flee … and not fight and that Ukrainians wouldn't fight. That was kind of his mistake. I guess we assumed that he would know that they would. Then again, did Ukrainians themselves know that they would fight that much?

SS: So what is the right term, in your view: Global South, the rest of the world, the global majority, the world majority?  

FH: The risk of using all these terms is we end up in a competition. The global majority, you know —

SS: Should there be competition for it?

FH: There shouldn't. We actually need a more expansive system… We've come to a point now where there's a change in systems. It's evident in the offing that we don't have West against the rest, of Pax Americana. We're in a state of flux, where we have a lot of global problems, demographic change, going suddenly to 8 billion people, climate change, technological change. Demographic change not just in terms of sheer numbers, but also in age cohorts. We have aging societies in Europe and the United States, but also in Japan, and Korea, and, actually, also China, and massive youth borders in other parts of the world

But a lot of the challenges we have are global, and so how do we think about creating a more responsive global system that encompasses everybody, and that we don't have to be talking about these various divisions? And the more that we do talk about democracies versus autocracies, or the West versus the rest, or the Global South and the North, we’re really kind of denying the sets of problems and challenges that are more encompassing. 

And, in fact, one can make a case that we have a Global North and Global South inside of our own countries. About a third of the populations in Europe, and in the United States in very specific places — particular regions, city areas, for example — are doing pretty poorly. We've had a divergence of development for two-thirds of the population… You know, 60% of the U.S. population who don't have higher education, for example, though some of them have training, and how that puts people on different paths, in terms of poverty, and life outcomes, life expectancy, incomes, wages.

The population of the United States and Europe are worse off than they were 20 years ago. … [There are] pressures building up as well. And some of those are similar to things that have emerged in what we used to call the developing world. We've got a lot of economists, like Dani Rodrik here at the Kennedy School and others… Development economists are looking, turning back and looking at what's happening in the United States and elsewhere. So-called Western societies, you see the same problems. And Russia has those problems as well. I used to work on regional inequality, looking at places like the North Caucasus or the Urals or other parts of Russia of urban-rural divides. You know, we've all got these issues of trying to deal with inequality and divergence of development paths. And so what we've got globally is also domestic. … Labeling it is not helpful, because we're never going to come up with something that's satisfying.

SS: I agree. Going back to Russia, during your very interesting presentation here [at Harvard Kennedy School] in February, you said that, in some respects, Putin is very predictable. And I think he's always tried to be unpredictable.

FH: Well, predictably unpredictable, right? Because you know, he's going to try to do something that no one’s expecting.

SS: I was wondering, in what aspects did you find, as an expert on this leader, him predictable and in what aspects you found him unpredictable?

FH: Well, here’s an example of [Yevgeny] Prigozhin. We knew he [Putin] was going to take him out, right? But it wasn't predictable about the timing, when in fact he got everybody, including Prigozhin, lulled into a false sense of security. You and I, and many others, I'm sure, were, right from the beginning, were thinking, “well, if he [Putin] doesn’t … have him [Prigozhin] bumped off in some way or dealt with, what's that telling us about the system?” 

That would be something unexpected, that means more weakness in the system, or, you know, he's letting this pass for some reason. This is, you know, this seems like he can't leave this [the mutiny] unchallenged, and leave this not dealt with. Prigozhin has got to be seen, for the sake of system maintenance, to be punished severely, with his life, because he took life. And it took exactly two months. And Putin did it in a way that was of his own choosing … in a predictably unpredictable way, if that makes sense. 

SS: What about foreign policy?

FH: In foreign policy … [t]here’s certain things that you know he’s going to have to do. Now, I, actually, got caught out — and I'll be the first to say this — by the intervention in Syria. I didn't see that coming. I saw the interventions in Ukraine, and, you know, the war in some fashion. I mean, I thought he was going to do something; I didn't necessarily think it was — even though all the intelligence was pointing in that direction of full-on, multi-vector attack — but I don't know whether he intended himself to do that. He thought everything would play out in a different kind of way.

But the intervention in Syria, I didn't see that coming. Maybe, you know, because you can't always track everything. But just again, that necessity of having a 360-degree perspective on the whole totality of Russia's foreign policy. The French saw it [the intervention in Syria] coming. I remember I was warned by a very serious French journalist: The Russians are going to intervene. And I thought, well, why would you do that? And ultimately it was because he saw [Bashar] Assad was about to fall. And, after the fact, I could describe why it happened. But I didn't see it coming. I didn't predict that happening

SS: Especially the way he intervened, with reliance on airpower.

FH: Right. And that actually then led him [Putin] into difficulties later when it comes to Ukraine, because he predicted based on his own experience, and the ease with which he was able to intervene in Syria —

SS: And in Georgia.

FH: Yeah. Georgia.

SS: It all worked.

FH: A small application of military power. [Putin believed] that he could do the same in Ukraine. But what he didn't predict, because he doesn't look at that, was the social roots of Ukraine's resistance, because he doesn't think about people. He thinks about elites, and he thinks about small amounts of people, [but he] doesn’t think about people en masse.

SS: Or he thinks of them as fellow Russians or corruptible.

FH: Or fellow Russians. Or corruptible or that they're not going to have individual agency or collective agency. So, I mean, he thinks about them. It's not quite true. I think you're right to correct me there — not like he doesn't think about people, but he thinks about them in different ways from how they’re actually going to act. He doesn't believe in genuine national sentiment. He doesn't believe in altruism. He doesn't believe in self-sacrifice, things like this. … And he didn't, you know, kind of predict [Volodymyr] Zelensky.

There are obviously ways in which you can get caught out on Putin. What surprised you the most? 

SS: I was surprised by what he did in Ukraine. I was arguing that he’s going to do some limited intervention to regain leverage and signal to Zelensky to accommodate [Russian] interests. I didn't realize there was going to be a full-fledged attempt to subjugate Ukraine, Kyiv, as I looked at his costs and benefits. And the costs were clearly greater. But he saw these [costs and benefits] differently than I did.

FH: That's right. And I think that's actually also something that's important to bring out perhaps, that we don't know the kind of information that Putin has. So we know the kind of perspectives that he has, the way that he thinks, but if he wasn't brought that information, that actually shows that they kind of lost the plot, they lost track. They were accurate in the case of Syria and other cases. But they weren't accurate [on Ukraine]. They didn't understand how Ukraine had changed because he [Putin] understood a certain type of Ukrainians, or a certain type of people. But he didn't understand how Ukraine itself over 30 years had become much more complex. And it fits into his thinking about how when he talked to Tucker Carlson about seeing Hungarians, about national costuming … he has a fixed view, a static view of some places.

And he doesn't get out much. I mean, these days. He thinks he gets out a lot and meets with various people and he gets information brought to him. But you know, people don't challenge him. And he’s not out and about just kind of walking around, seeing things. And if he had Viktor Medvedchuk coming in telling him stuff — yeah, we saw him in the United States, the huge mistake about Iraq, when, you know, Ahmed Chalabi and Viktor Medvedchuk are the same problematic people: They come and tell you something that they want to tell you and the way that they see things and you trust them. And … they’re your sources of information, not others.

SS: Right. In my mea culpa I explained why I had not thought there would be an attempt to take all of Ukraine. I stressed how important it is to try to see these costs and benefits through the eyes of the decision-maker, rather than your own.

FH: That's right. … So that’s why I was wrong in the case of Syria, because I was like, why would he do this at this particular time given this, this, this? And I didn't realize, I mean, he knew more in the case of Syria than I obviously did. But we knew more in the case of Ukraine than he obviously did. … I knew he was going to do something in Ukraine. But I didn't think he was going to try the whole thing. I thought he would stagger it or something. But the fact that he thought that Zelensky would flee, looking at a [Viktor] Yanukovych [example] and not fight and that Ukrainians wouldn't fight. That was kind of his mistake. I guess we assumed that he would know that they would. Then again, did Ukrainians themselves know that they would fight that much?

SS: I think it's just the general idea of seeing someone as a comedian on your TV or at your VIP corporate parties. You don't really think of him as someone who's going to dig his heels in and resist.

FH: That’s right. And maybe [Petro] Poroshenko wouldn't have done that, or somebody else wouldn't have done it the same way. Putin’s view of people is that they're very weak and venal. And that, remember some of the things that he said all the time, that people are just interested in, you know, mostly power and money and pornography. He doesn't believe that people have something else and somehow, you know, we missed that Zelensky had something real within him. Maybe Zelensky himself didn’t realize. But as an actor, you actually have the role of the moment.

SS: That could be the case as well. You never know how you're going to behave until you are tested in stressful situations.

FH: And Putin hasn’t actually behaved well under stress in many respects. When you … think about just recently what happened to him, [or] during the standoff, during the riots in Dresden. I mean, he tends to back away

SS: Well, the [Prigozhin] mutiny, where he sort of disappears.

FH: He was paralyzed — disappeared — while he was trying to figure out what to do … which is what Stalin did.

* Questions were drafted by RM student associates Conor Cunningham, Olga Kiyan (both are Davis Center REECA students), and Mikael Pir-Budagyan, as well as RM managing editor Angelina Flood and RM founding director Simon Saradzhyan.

Russia Matters Project, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Russia Matters is a project launched in 2016 by Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.

Senior Fellow, Center on the United States and Europe, Foreign Policy Program, Brookings Institution

Fiona Hill is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and was formerly a U.S. presidential advisor on security.

Founding Director, Russia Matters, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School

Simon Saradzhyan co-founded and leads the Russia Matters Project at Harvard Kennedy School's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.