Transcript: Fiona Hill on

The following is a transcript of an interview with Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council during the Trump administration, that aired Sunday, April 3, 2022, on “Face the Nation.”

MARGARET BRENNAN: We turn now to former National Security Council senior director for European and Russian affairs, Fiona Hill. She’s also the author of There Is Nothing For You Here. Glad to have you back with us.

DR. FIONA HILL: Thanks, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It was extraordinary to have this conversation with President Zelensky, particularly at this moment as these images emerge of what has happened, the devastation in and around Kiev. He’s talking about looting, the reports of mass rape, mass graves. Is this how the Russian military always behaves?

DR. HILL: Well, this is clearly not a special military operation, is it? When we see all of these images and unfortunately, it’s following a pattern that goes back historically. I mean, look, a lot of this wasn’t talked about so much after World War Two, but when the Red Army moved into Berlin, there was mass rape of of German women in the city. And obviously, in the wake of World War Two, People didn’t really want to talk about that so much given all the atrocities that were committed by German forces and the Nazis. We’ve got these reports of-of looting in other settings as well, in Chechnya, also in Georgia, when the Russian military moved in in 2008, there was a lot of wanton destruction of Georgian equipment, reports of like deliberate defecation on the equipment, you know, for example, I mean, almost like stupid stuff that was basically meant to show unbelievable disrespect. But look, we see in many wartime scenarios all the way through history, these kinds of reports. But this was genuinely a special military operation to liberate a fraternal country from what Putin was describing as Nazis, you would not expect this kind of conduct either this is a complete breakdown of command and control, or it’s actually being sanctioned in some way to teach Ukrainians a lesson. Either way, this is actually pretty disastrous and obviously requires some kind of serious response in the international community.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You know, the United States expected Russia to launch an entire electronic warfare blackout in Ukraine when they did this. They haven’t. And in fact, one of President Zelenskyy’s most powerful tools is his ability to continue to communicate in the middle of this and to show these images to the world. Was this a big strategic failure by Vladimir Putin? I mean, why is he allowing this?

DR. HILL: Well, it’s a really good question, isn’t it? I mean, is it because they actually proved not to have the capacity? Is it that the Ukrainians are pushing back? Because there’s a lot of very technically savvy Ukrainians, a lot of companies. There’s obviously a lot of assistance that they’re getting from the outside world. I mean, we’ve heard, you know, assistance from Elon Musk, for example. A lot of it’s coming from individuals, not just from governments. But there’s been a lot of strategic blunders by the Russian government in this campaign. Clearly, there’s lots of things that they didn’t expect. First of all, that the campaign has gone on much longer. Second, they haven’t been able to decapitate the Ukrainian government. They haven’t taken Kiev. We’ve seen instead that they’ve just basically wreaked havoc and carnage all over the place, that they’re engaging in acts not just of what appear to be war crimes, which we’re now in the process of documenting, but of wanton destruction and, you know, this-this crazy looting that you’re seeing taking place. I mean, this is really, I think, raising a lot of questions about this much vaunted Russian military that we all actually expected to perform in a much better fashion across the board. And clearly, if the information has not been filtering up to Vladimir Putin, as we’ve been hearing from his commanders, this must be something of a shock to the system for him as well, which actually then raises a lot of questions about what is he going to do next?

MARGARET BRENNAN: Why is Vladimir Putin so concerned with the Donbass region, the eastern region?

DR. HILL: Well, this is the place that he first got a grip on in 2014 after annexing Crimea. I mean, we know that in 2014 that the Russian government, Putin in particular, had bigger ambitions. He talked about this remote region of Novorossiya, which extends from the Donbass region, all the way through all of these port cities on the Sea of Azov that we’ve seen completely devastated. Melitopol, Mariupol, Berdyansk, for example, to Kherson another of the cities that they’ve seized. And then all the way down to Odessa where we’re getting reports now that they’re fighting, or rather starting to shell Odessa and raising the question of fighting. This is a whole area that was seized by the Russian empire under Catherine the Great. Putin’s talked about it repeatedly. And for him, this zone now of southern Ukraine along the Black Sea, across the top of the Crimean peninsula, the Sea of Azov, extending to Donbass, seems to be the area that he’s wanting to make sure that he has a hold of no matter what.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to put up a map here because, you know, we keep hearing that much of the world is picking a side in this conflict against Russia. But actually, it’s really just Europe. It’s the Americas. It’s the West. Japan. Is the world actually really lining up against him or does he have quite a lifeline still?

DR. HILL: Well, he does still have a lifeline. This is what’s really problematic. I mean, the one thing that we have to be very careful about now, I mean, I know that President Zelenskyy is really making a massive appeal for more help from the United States, from the West, from NATO, and from other allies, the European Union. But we really need to get other international actors–


DR. HILL: –to step up. We’ve had Japan and South Korea, for example. There’s been protestations about the conflict in the United Nations General Assembly from countries like Ghana and Kenya–


DR. HILL: –But there needs to be more because Russia wants to portray this as a proxy war between the United States and Russia for Ukraine. That is not what this is.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I want to talk about that on the other side of this break. Stay with us, Fiona Hill. We’ll have to take this quick break. Stay with us.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Welcome back to FACE THE NATION. We want to continue our conversation with Fiona Hill, former top adviser on Russia at the National Security Council during the Trump administration. You know, Fiona, this is really these two personalities, Volodymyr Zelensky and Vladimir Putin. And it’s all about trying to change Putin’s mind. At this point, is there any succession plan if he is no longer running Russia?

DR. HILL: Well, there’s always a succession plan, at least in theory, which is, you know, if something happens to him normally, then either the prime minister or the speaker of the Russian parliament would step in and they would have elections. Now, under this current circumstance, there was just absolutely no way that Vladimir Putin wants to loosen his grip on power. 2024 he’s supposed to have a presidential election. In theory, as we know, he’s got two more presidential terms that he can contest, and that would take him until 2036. And Putin has, if anything, some staying power. He’s pretty much determined to stay in place. And there is absolutely no way that he would want to go out on the back in any way on the back of a disaster in Ukraine.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So this is in some ways solidifying his hold on power rather than weakening it?

DR. HILL: Absolutely, from his perspective. Now it doesn’t mean to say, of course, that that hold is fully consolidated. It’s very brittle. The situation right now, so many things can go wrong. So many things could be happening behind the scenes that we actually don’t know about. But for Putin himself, the absolute last thing he wants to do is go out in the backdrop of protests, backdrop of a failed war as other previous leaders in Russian history have. And there’s no way that he’s going to entertain any kind of idea of a palace coup. He knows the history. He knows how these things work. And the immediate group of people around him who helped plot this war are also going to rise and fall with him. So you can be sure that they’re trying to root out any kind of dissent, any kind of opposition at this moment. And also on the popular level, I mean, we’re hearing in public opinion polls that there’s a lot of support for Putin. I mean, it’s hard to, you know, kind of really gauge, again, how deep that support is. People are rallying around the flag, rallying around him, rallying around the Kremlin. And he’s going to make sure, of course, that any kind of alternate views are completely and utterly suppressed at this moment.

MARGARET BRENNAN: You’ve written extensively about Putin. I know President Biden has read your book on him. One of the things you write about is what’s happened in the past with ceasefire agreements in Chechnya. And that’s why I asked about security guarantees with President Zelenskyy. In the past, Russia has torn up peace agreements. Just re-invaded. Is that what Vladimir Zelenskyy is looking at now? The risk–

DR. HILL: Yes–


DR. HILL: I mean, he has to be very serious about this. And where- as he said, they’re fed up now on the Ukrainian side with paper agreements. They have to have something real and concrete, and that’s going to be what’s going to be difficult, because it can’t just be from the United States either. The previous agreement, the Budapest agreement, was with the United States, the United Kingdom and Russia. And obviously that was in 1994 when Ukraine gave up its strategic nuclear weapons. That became pretty meaningless. And so what Zelenskyy is looking for, obviously, as you said, is some pretty concrete guarantees from a range of countries. He talked that- about the- the circle of countries that might be involved, and it has to be outside of Europe as well. 


DR. HILL: This is part of the problem. 


DR. HILL: As Putin is making this a proxy war, he’s saying to everyone else, this is like the Cold War. This is like Korea or Vietnam. This is not the case. Putin has decided to invade a neighboring country. It’s a post-imperial–


DR. HILL: –land grab. It’s based on history, his grievances, his view of Russia’s place in Europe. And basically it has to be addressed in an international context. So they need wide ranging international security guarantees.

MARGARET BRENNAN: It is a global problem now–

DR. HILL: It is. 

MARGARET BRENNAN: –Fiona Hill, thank you for your analysis.

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