Trump’s Former Russia Guru Explains His Putin Complex

Fiona Hill
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images
Julia Ioffe
January 21, 2022

With more than 100,000 Russian troops lurking on the border of Ukraine, and the terrifying possibility of all-out war in Eastern Europe for the first time in decades, I was grateful to speak this week with Fiona Hill, a legendary scholar of Russia and Vladimir Putin. I’ve known Fiona for several years as a member of Washington’s foreign policy establishment—she’s a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution—and I was relieved when she accepted a post as President Donald Trump’s senior advisor on Russia. At least someone in the White House knew what they were doing, I thought. 

Of course, I was also relieved when Fiona left the Trump administration, in July 2019, which allowed me to talk to her once again. Last year, she published a book, There Is Nothing for You Here, which explores the parallels between post-industrial regions of the U.S. and Russia, as well as her hometown in County Durham, in the U.K., where her father was a coal miner. We discussed all that, below, in addition to the current crisis on the Ukrainian border: why it’s happening now, whether Putin will invade, and where we go from here. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Julia Ioffe: You grew up in the post-industrial north of England, which, in your descriptions of it, sounds like a British West Virginia. When you worked in the Trump administration, did your personal experience give you some insight into the kinds of people who voted for President Trump?

Fiona Hill: Absolutely. I’ve seen in the U.K. context, when I was growing up there, there was a lot of appeal of populist politics then, too. At that time, it would have been on the left: all kinds of different factions of the Labour Party that were more extreme than others, and you had people talking revolution and Trotskyism and the Socialist Workers Party. It would have been almost like the Bolshevik era in Russia. You had people taking to the streets in protest and whipping people up. There were an awful lot of grievances emerging then that were economic, socioeconomic, cultural, because culture was related to work. In the north of England, we had our own dialects, yes, but the miners had their own language, their own cultural societies, their own brass bands. If you want to talk Marx, it was the cultural output of the means of production. And so when industry disappeared, the communities went with it. And the kind of sense of well-being disintegrated as well. And that meant people were very susceptible to appeals from other places. Now, the same place that I grew up in has gone from left to right, so in a forty-year span, they’ve gone from some interest in radical left-wing politics to supporters of the U.K. Independence Party, the party that’s basically saying all your problems are because we’re part of the European Union. And though this isn’t a place with many immigrants to speak of, people feel that somehow they’re being stepped on because of all the immigrants coming into London or elsewhere in the U.K. 

So yes, it gave me a real insight, and I’ve always been thinking about the parallels. I also have extended family in the United States, in the Midwest. And my husband’s family is also from the Midwest, from places like Kenosha County, Wisconsin. I was seeing the same thing happening here. That’s why Trump was fixated on campaign promises like building the wall and kicking out immigrants and pulling out of all kinds of international treaties. He was presenting these as very simple responses, quick fixes, and the only reason they weren’t fixed before was because there were all these people exploiting his voters.

Speaking of pulling out of treaties in a performative way: One of the reasons that the Russians are citing for what they’re demanding from the U.S. now is that Trump pulled out of the I.N.F. missile treaty in 2019. You were there for the lead-up to that announcement. What do you think of the Kremlin’s argument?

The process was already underway when I left. And just to be very clear, the Russians were violating the treaty and had been for years. I guess the question is, well, why now? I guess because there was an opportunity to do something. There was a hope and an aspiration there for Trump: he wanted a bigger treaty. He wanted his own arms control treaty that would include intermediate tactical and strategic nuclear weapons. Pulling out was one way of kick-starting a new treaty because we were just arguing all the time about Russia violating the treaty, and the Russians were saying, no, you’re violating, and we’d say, no, no, you’re violating, just going round and round. 

But the problem was everybody was fighting about what was going to come next. We realize now that the Russians did not feel that they got any sense of where we were headed. There was all this stuff on the nuclear agenda and we were trying to sequence sensible, normal meetings. But there was just a lot going on, like the cyber intrusions and just the fundamental vagaries of the American political system. And in the Trump administration, of course, there were lots of personnel changes, including of the national security advisor, there was a constant campaign going on. It was not normal. And, you know, it was all about him. And so I can only imagine how the Russians felt through all of this. I had a pretty good idea, but they were probably infuriated.

Yes, and as much as Russian officials love being unpredictable, they also like their protocol and their bureaucratic procedures. How much did Trump understand any of these details about the range of these missiles and what a follow-up treaty would and wouldn’t cover?

I mean, he could figure the general gist of things, but he wasn’t in the details. He wasn’t the details guy. In his view, he would just go sit down with Putin, and they would charm each other and then they just say—just like we thought Reagan and Gorbachev might have done back in the day—that the deal they both agreed to was to go to nuclear zero and then everybody could else work out the details and he just saved the world. I think honestly that’s what he was thinking. He thought of himself as Reagan. People may think this is preposterous, but that’s kind of where Trump’s head was. He thought that when he went to Helsinki, as I describe in the book, that he was going to basically be doing more Gorbachev and Reagan. He would come out of the summit with some treaty or some agreement that he could throw up and say, Hurrah, I’ve achieved something! And then other people would work out the details. Of course, none of that happened.

One of the details that’s come out, I think it was in Stephanie Grisham’s book, that was so amazing was that Putin brought very attractive translators on purpose to distract Trump, which reminded me of Putin bringing his dog to scare Angela Merkel, who he knew was scared of dogs.

It was just that in one of the moments in Osaka, in Japan. There’s very rarely any women whatsoever on the Russian side, except [Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman] Maria Zakharova and maybe some translators. For this meeting, the Russians had one their male translators on the docket and then the Russian protocol people spotted the fact that Trump was bringing in all these people: not just boring old me, but also Stephanie Grisham, who is very attractive and is obviously going to draw attention, as well as his daughter Ivanka, who is just the height of glamor, and Jared Kushner. And I think the Russians were like, Well, okay, we can also play this game. And so they swap out the male interpreter for a very lovely, and incredibly talented, female interpreter, and then Putin makes a point, which he never does, of introducing her to Trump, like, See what I’ve got, and basically inviting Trump to look at her throughout. She was embarrassed, you could tell, but she’s a professional interpreter, so she took it in stride, but we were all like, Oh, please. So I said to Stephanie Grisham, Look, this is what you’re going to have to contend with, because this is Stephanie Grisham’s first time on the job and I’m about to leave, this trip to Osaka is my last gig. And I said, you have to keep an eye on this because you may think it’s not a big deal, but this is manipulation!

How did Trump respond to it?

He was like, Ohhhh, nice to meet you! and leans towards her. And Putin kind of leans back and goes, Yeah...

Was it as bad as it seemed from the outside? Because from the outside it seemed like Putin was constantly eating Trump’s lunch.

Putin speaks in long, complicated sentences, and Trump has to listen and he’s not cued into what Putin is saying in Russian, so Trump has to listen to the interpreter, whereas Putin’s got every advantage because Trump speaks in very simple sentences, something that everybody can understand. But Putin has been learning English enough to completely understand what Trump is saying and also prepare himself for whatever zinger he’s going to come back with. He’s got just the time of Trump talking and the whole time the interpreter is interpreting what he already understands, right? So it’s a total advantage. So all these things took time, by the way, because Putin talks in long sentences and he doesn’t shut up and he puts all of these different points out there. And Trump’s kind of just listening to the mood music. And I don’t know what he’s thinking, but probably it’s something like, This is great, me and Vladimir. This is going well, it’s fantastic. And he’d make these little jokes or whatever, but they’re totally not on the point that he’s supposed to be on, so then Putin just kind of goes right back at it.

You and I have spoken about this before, but what was it about Putin that Trump liked so much?

It’s the badass that he thinks Putin is, the guy who struts the world stage, doesn’t care, doesn’t have any checks and balances, can do whatever he wants. Fabulously rich, powerful, strong. Think about all the ways Trump always just described him. In Helsinki, Trump said, He’s been very strong and very powerful.

Is it that he wants to be like Putin?

He makes it very clear. And the people around him know he wants that. It’s not just that he wants to emulate that, though. It’s that he thinks that’s what he is, and he wants to sit down with people who reflect his own image of himself. And that’s Putin.

I can’t interview you and not ask you about Ukraine. Personally, I can’t quite wrap my head around the “why now?” The situation Putin says he’s fed up with in Ukraine has been building for a long time, yes, but why now? Why didn’t they do this in 2015 or while Trump was in office? 

I think Trump was pretty unpredictable and they had no idea how he would react. He might just say, Okay, take Ukraine, whatever. And then that would create all kinds of craziness, all kinds of chaos. Also, look, Trump wanted to privatize Ukraine for himself. What was going on at the end of the Trump administration was that Trump was basically doing to [Ukrainian president] Volodymyr Zelensky—withholding military assistance and a visit to the White House in exchange for a favor—the same kind of thing that Putin does. I don’t think Putin liked that one little bit. Trump was literally all over the place. 

I once overheard [Putin spokesman] Dmitry Peskov say to someone, Did he really say that? They couldn’t get their heads around Trump at times. They couldn’t believe their good fortune of the chaos and the craziness. But they also found the lack of follow-up infuriating. Russian Ambassador [Anatoly] Antonov would be sent to talk to me and say, Why didn’t this happen? Why didn’t this happen? Why didn’t we move forward on this? I think they thought we were stuck in a Trumpian Groundhog Day. They weren’t going to get any treaties out of him. He promises things and then nothing happens. And then there were all kinds of sanctions they didn’t expect because Congress is a big player and they realize that Trump actually couldn’t deliver on stuff. 

So I think they’re hoping that Biden can deliver even though they think he’s weak, because they know Biden. They’ve known him for a long time in different capacities. They know all the people around him: [Secretary of state] Tony Blinken, [Deputy Secretary of State] Wendy Sherman, [Undersecretary for Political Affairs] Toria Nuland, [National Security Advisor] Jake Sullivan, who was just a kid when Putin came into office. These are people they know. There are people that they’ve dealt with and they’re serious and that they won’t have to explain where Ukraine is.

Wait, did that really happen? Trump didn’t know where Ukraine was?

Not with Ukraine, but at one point, Trump did express surprise that Russia has a border with North Korea.

Oh wow, good.

Putin really didn’t like that one! So, they don’t have to explain things like that to the Biden team, they know what the C.F.E. treaty is. Or, you know, they know that Trump doesn’t like NATO, but that actually doesn’t then help you when you’re bargaining with him. Because I mean, how can you negotiate if the guy’s like, Take it! I don’t want it! I’m being flippant here but, if you can imagine from Russia’s point of view, how do you bargain with somebody who doesn’t care?

Yeah, that’s a good point.

So then in comes the Biden administration. They care. It’s business as usual. They care about this. They care a lot. They send [Secretary of Defense Lloyd] Austin to Kyiv to talk about Ukraine’s European perspectives again, and then NATO looks like it’s starting to come into Ukraine with all of the exercises and the arms sales. Meanwhile, Zelensky is moving ahead with his “anti-corruption” initiative (or not really), but he’s fighting the oligarchs, he’s fighting with [Kremlin-friendly oligarch Viktor] Medvedchuk, which obviously annoys Putin. There’s rumors last summer that Zelensky might be trying to get rid of the Donbas. So they’re starting to think that, if Zelensky doesn’t care that much about Donbas and there’s a willingness now to get rid of it, it removes it as leverage. And then there’s all these visits and all these statements from the Biden administration, and the I.M.F. makes an agreement with Ukraine, and suddenly it seems like Ukraine is heading in a different direction. 

I also think that it’s fallout from the precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan: All these rifts emerged within NATO because Joe Biden moves quickly and everything falls apart, so they look weak. Biden looks weak on the home front. Chancellor [Angela] Merkel leaves and [new German Chancellor] Olaf Scholz and the S.D.P. and others come in and there’s a feeling that they might be more malleable. There’s the energy crisis emerging in Europe at the same time that the writing’s on the wall that, eventually, there’s going to be more diversification away from fossil fuels after COP26 in Glasgow. The Brits are fighting with everybody and especially fighting with the French over fish and sausage and all kinds of silly things and undermining the British-French military cooperation. Poland’s on the outs with everyone. There’s all this stuff going on in Belarus. And I just think all of this comes together and they think, we should move now.

I also think that they want to get Biden’s undivided attention. [Georgetown professor] Angela Stent talks about this, that the administration wanted to park Russia. But Russia didn’t want to be parked. So they have to move now. They have to move fairly quickly because the U.S. is going to move on to China again, and then there’s all the American domestic politics and the midterms. After the midterms, Biden will be in trouble. He won’t be able to negotiate anything. I guess they probably think the same as we do, that the Congress will shift to Republican control and then Ted Cruz and all these other people in Congress will decide that they want to slap sanctions all over the place again. Biden is a trans-Atlanticist, Biden cares about NATO. This is the time to have a showdown and you’d rather deal with him before the guy who didn’t know anything comes back again.

Right. And Biden is the Ukraine guy. It was his portfolio starting in 2014.

Absolutely, and also NATO. So it’s Ukraine and NATO and it’s the future of the United States and Europe. But now the Russians are throwing in Venezuela and Cuba, though they did that before, actually, in 2019. They’re throwing in Japan and threatening the Sea of Okhotsk and stirring up the neighborhood to see if they can stir things up with the Japanese. They’re playing on multiple fronts here. The danger, of course, is of going too big. I think they’ve decided to just throw it all in. Putin’s just pissed. The window for him to do something will probably close fairly soon, so if he doesn’t do something now, the opportunity’s gone. Ukraine moves on.

And look what he’s got going on closer to home. He’s been very successful in crushing Armenia’s autonomy. Belarus has gone in the direction they wanted it to. Kazakhstan—fantastic, they get to use the Collective Security Treaty Organization [a post-Soviet military alliance] to show they can do that. They’ve got [Alexei] Navalny locked up in a penal colony. I mean, what better time, right? You’ve got everything. Nobody’s going after you. There’s no security threat, it’s just B.S. You want to bring Ukraine in because they’re the outlier and you want to get them while you can.

You mentioned NATO entering Ukraine and the fear in Moscow that Ukraine will join. But then I also hear from people in the administration that say Putin knows as well as anyone that Ukraine’s not joining NATO.

Of course he does. That’s why it’s a red herring. It’s not what this is about. He wants us to fixate on him and he wants to see what we’re going to offer. We shouldn’t be offering anything on Ukraine. We can talk about the future and NATO and we can negotiate that, but not at the expense of Ukrainians or anyone else. The E.U. has put on a moratorium on enlargement, and NATO could obviously do that. Putin knows that. And it is more likely to do so if he doesn’t put pressure on.

Right, because now, because of what Putin’s doing, you have Sweden and Finland knocking on NATO’s door.

Well, they already have the door open. They don’t want NATO to close it. What he probably doesn’t realize is that Sweden and Finland and Norway, which is right next to them, and Denmark, and the Baltic and Nordic countries, don’t want the door closed either. 

Putin has been trying for a long time to renegotiate the terms of the surrender of 1991. So is it just about having buffer states between Russia and NATO?

He’s thinking 19th century, 20th century. We’ve all kind of moved on, though probably we shouldn’t have. Mitt Romney was not wrong, Russia is our geopolitical foe, it’s just that we don’t play a geopolitical game the same way we used to. President Trump wasn’t interested in taking countries over, he’s a real estate mogul. He’s interested in acquiring some real estate to build a tower on, he doesn’t want the whole country with it.

Except for Greenland.

Yeah, but that was a real estate job, right? I mean, that was obviously pretty silly. But that was not the Russians’ mindset. They’d say, Of course, you’re in the geopolitical game! And I said, no, we’re not. Yes, we really are worried about what Russia’s doing, like all the subversive activities, but it’s not the same kind of system challenge the way it was during Cold War. We’ve moved on, and they don’t want us to move on.

Russia wants to also play in the Asia Pacific a bit, the way North Korea does. There was one moment when Trump realized all this, too. This is when Putin announced the novel nuclear weapons and then he shows a demonstration by video and you see a missile hurtling towards what looks suspiciously like Florida. And I was in this meeting and Trump says, Who does that? Why did they do that? Real countries don’t do that. And I was like, Oh. He suddenly saw how Russia was like North Korea, and he had thought that Putin was more than that. Why did he have to threaten him like that? Even to Trump it seemed silly.

Did it change anything in terms of Trump’s approach to Putin?

You know, it actually made him think a bit differently after that. He was quite interested in having a major nuclear weapons deal, but he did start to wonder, did Russia feel really weak rather than feeling strong? I think it propelled him toward now thinking that we have to look very strong in an arms race, because these guys are playing this in a strange way. He saw Russia as saber-rattling the same way that Kim Jong Un was.

And that’s kind of what’s happening again now. The Russians are saying, we’re going to send missiles to Venezuela and Cuba. Like, really? I mean, we weren’t ever going to put missiles in Ukraine. If they’re still in the Cold War framework, of course, that’s what they would think and they mirror image it, so of course they think that we’re planning on doing this. Because they would want to do it. They would do it if they could.

Do you think Putin’s going to invade Ukraine? And if so, what form would it take?

I do. I think it’s really the form that it’s going to take. There is still a chance that he won’t, right? And we have to really keep on going with diplomacy. But Putin has run a risk now. He said he’s going to do all of these things. He said he’s not going to invade Ukraine, but so what? They’ve said that the last time and the last time and the time before that. So we don’t buy that one. But he can’t be caught out as bluffing. If we call his bluff, he has to do something, because otherwise none of his threats are credible. He has to do something, and they’ve said “military-technical response.” They’ve been shooting down satellites. There was this cyberattack. They’re showing that they could do an awful lot more. 

The thing is, he’s got no one to stop him at home. He’s got no press resistance at all, no opposition. He’s got everybody running around with their heads cut off abroad. So unless there is a unified pushback, he can do things in the manner of his choosing. I know there’s a lot of East Europeans and a lot of Ukrainians saying, Oh, this is just a bluff, he keeps doing this. But you know, the more they say that also, the more likely it is he’ll do something to teach them a lesson.

Can Putin mass all these troops and logistical forces at the border and then pull them back without losing face?

I guess he can if he keeps pushing it out further and further, like say he’s going to put missiles into Cuba and Venezuela, and then say, Well, we’re not going to do that after all. Even though we know they were never going to do it in the first place. I think this is the problem when the stick and the carrot are the same thing, when you threaten a lot and then you just don’t do it—but you’re not giving anything up. He’s not going to give up his positions in Donbas, right? He’s not going to give up Crimea.

The other thing is that he can spin it any way he wants. He can mute the media response on the outside that says otherwise, and just pretend internally that the U.S. capitulated and that Russia has secured something.

And from our side, could we get a moratorium on, say the Finns and the Swedes joining NATO?

We can have a major talk about European security and rules of the road, post-INF, New Start, cyber. We’ve got a lot of things already on the table. We should do something like the big Helsinki-like conference again, like the 1970s. We can reconstitute something. We can talk about a lot of things here. But we must not, we must not capitulate on Ukraine’s independence or sovereignty. We have to have a very strong, principled stand on that.

Do you think the Biden administration understands that?

I think so, yeah. I mean, there are things that we can do. Ukraine could walk back its [stance on NATO]. They’ve done something similar before. But that has to be their choice.

Could we pressure them to do that quietly?

I mean, anybody could, but you’d have to make it very clear that that it’s not gunboat diplomacy, but even us talking about it makes it more likely that that is what it would look like.

Okay, last question: People I talk to in Moscow, as well as some in the U.S. government, say that some of this is a product of Putin’s COVID isolation for the last two years; that he barely sees anyone because to see him, you have to quarantine for two weeks; that he’s not getting good information. Do you think that’s plausible?

I think it could be, honestly. I really do think that there’s something strange going on there. He seems more emotional, more focused. Maybe he’s been sitting there, stewing the whole time about this. There’s a good case to be made for that because it’s very strange. There are many people, myself and others, who have followed Putin for his entire time in the presidency and we’re all sort of wondering whether there’s something else going on. Is something wrong? Has this made him confront his mortality? There are other changes around him. Lots of people did get sick around him. Does that make him feel that time might be ticking, in ways we would never have credited?

There are rumors in Moscow that, you know, he’s sick, and that’s one of the reasons for the isolation, that he’s had to have certain medical procedures—that aren’t Botox.

He could be taking steroids for inflammation. It could be anything And people around him are not well. This is speculation, but you know, there’s something going on there. Because often these things are driven by personal issues. You go back in history and there’s all kinds of things like that. Look at Yeltsin. We thought he had a cold when he disappeared in 1996, and he was actually on the operating table having open heart surgery and nearly dying. I think it’s very much worth considering.