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Politics and Government

Ex-intelligence officer Fiona Hill says Putin is making 'hostage standoff demands'

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Biden administration is warning that Russia is ready to invade Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAKE SULLIVAN: There is a credible prospect that a Russian military action would take place even before the end of the Olympics.

SHAPIRO: That's national security adviser Jake Sullivan earlier today. Meanwhile, the U.K., the Netherlands and other countries are telling their citizens to leave Ukraine immediately. Israel is evacuating relatives of embassy staff. This comes as the U.S. and other NATO members continue to try to find a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Shortly before Sullivan's briefing today, I spoke with Fiona Hill. She's a former intelligence officer and National Security Council member who has spent her career focused on Russia. I began by asking her what President Vladimir Putin hopes to gain from this crisis.

FIONA HILL: What he wants to ensure is that Ukraine doesn't go anywhere in the sense of Ukraine not just drifting but moving definitively towards the West, towards European institutions. Russia, under Putin, has already taken action to try to head off the prospect of NATO basically taking Ukraine in as a member. And that's a really key point of all of this, that Ukraine will never become a member of NATO after the open-door promise that NATO made to Ukraine in 2008. But also even in terms of the European Union, the Russians tried to block Ukraine from signing an association agreement with the EU.

And the other broader message that Putin is sending to Ukraine through essays that he's written with his version of history of Ukraine and Russia being inextricably tied together since time immemorial is suggesting that Ukraine doesn't have the right to have any independent domestic, political, economic, historical, cultural, linguistic or even foreign policy and security policy. So Putin has laid claim to Ukraine in a major way.

SHAPIRO: What message do you think Putin is trying to send the U.S. by doing this?

HILL: Well, basically, Putin is right now, with all of this placement of forces, basically saying, I've got Ukraine where I want it. I can invade at any moment - this is certainly the warnings the U.S. has got - and you need to accede to my demands. Otherwise, Ukraine gets it, essentially.

This is, again, classic hostage standoff, and the demands have been made clear. He's basically saying, no Ukraine and NATO, no NATO expansion, U.S. needs to pull back its positions in Europe.

SHAPIRO: Putin has had these demands for a long time, and so why do you think he's putting this pressure on now?

HILL: He sees a moment that perhaps will not return, where it's probably a weak point for Europe, with changes over in government in Germany, for example, fights with the U.K. after Brexit, Poland and other countries being on the odds with the European Union, France about to have an election.

He also sees the United States a lot weaker domestically than it has before. The withdrawal from Afghanistan, for example, is a sort of a twofold view for Putin - weakness on the United States' part but also a willingness to pull out over the heads of Europeans without consultation. And he sees in the person of Joe Biden someone who understands European security, knows the backstory and the history of all of this and may be somebody who is more conducive to being able to negotiate with than, you know, say, President Trump if he comes back again in 2024.

Plus, Putin himself has to get reelected in 2024 for the presidency. He wants to, you know, as he said, stay in power longer, and he wants to show a big win to his own population.

SHAPIRO: Looking at the broader global picture, in order to position troops on the border with Ukraine, Russia moved tens of thousands of forces away from the eastern border with China. Putin recently put out a joint statement with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. Do you think this signals a new global alignment, where Moscow and Beijing are more united in a shared goal of countering Western power?

HILL: It does. And it's countering U.S. power, you know, more than the West, per se. The statement about NATO from China was quite striking because, of course, there's no world in which NATO threatens China. So China's making also a very pointed statement about NATO and about the United States. The United States isn't there, but NATO is.

I think this is obviously a major change, one we should be paying attention to. As you framed it, this statement has enabled Russia to redeploy forces from the Far East. It's kind of China, saying, look, we're not going to do anything. We've got your back here. You do whatever you need to do - although it's also notable that China hasn't necessarily indicated that it would be pleased with the prospect of a full invasion of Ukraine because China itself has its own set of relationships with Ukraine.

President Xi recently complimented President Zelenskyy of Ukraine on the 30th anniversary of Ukrainian independence. But certainly, in terms of the pressure that Russia is exerting on Ukraine, China has facilitated this. And it could set a precedent for what China intends, you know, to do elsewhere, not just in Taiwan, but we have to remember that China has other territorial disputes, including with India in the Himalayas and, of course, all the disputes in the South China Seas.

SHAPIRO: As you've described it, Putin holds a pretty good hand here. What do you think the biggest risks for him are?

HILL: Well, there are a lot of risks here in terms of miscalculating. I think one is that, you know, perhaps didn't even expect the unified response that we've had from the West.

But, you know, in terms of Ukraine, it's highly possible that they didn't envisage that there would be - and still maybe don't - a major response from Ukraine in terms of Ukrainian military or the standing army and of the civilian militias, for example. They probably didn't foresee that there would be such a swift movement by the United States and European allies to, you know, pull together a response. They were definitely caught off guard by the United States first announcing that it was seeing this massive troop buildup.

There's also the prospect of miscalculation on the domestic front. It's not entirely clear that the Russian population would be particularly behind a major military operation in Ukraine, or even, you know, a massive confrontation with the West, absent some really clear pretext. And this could, you know, backfire immensely for Russian interests in Europe, which are not just security interests but economic and trade and, you know, people to people, not just Russian oligarchs living, you know, in Europe, but, you know, ordinary Russian citizens and ordinary businesspeople and students, you know, and other citizens, for example.

And then, you know, there's also this, you know, broader risk of timing. If this drags on, this could also put a lot of pressure on Putin himself, you know, against the backdrop of his own need to seek reelection in 2024. I mean, he was obviously hoping for something that could be a fast turnaround. And the longer this drags on, yes, you know, that might enable him to stoke divisions in the West but also could put more pressure on him at home.

SHAPIRO: That's former intelligence officer Fiona Hill. She served on the National Security Council and is currently a senior fellow for foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. Always good to talk with you. Thank you.

HILL: Thanks, Ari. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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