The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists published an article by her last year: Fiona Hill (2016) Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand (Bulletin 72:3 2016).
She also talks about Putin in this podcast from the Legatum Institute dated 05/03/2015, titled, "Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin with Fiona Hill." she is the co-author with Clifford G. Gaddy by that title, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin (2013).
The Bulletin article is an interesting combination of pragmatic observation and some dubious psychological assumptions merged with stock Western images of Russia.
She affirms several broad assumptions that seem to command a remarkable amount of consensus across the political spectrum about post-Soviet Russia:
Even though the superpower nuclear arsenals were retained, US leaders thought that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they had created a new framework for relations with Russia, and that the new Russia, under President Boris Yeltsin, had agreed to that new framework. Putin sees it differently. Russians (at least Russians like him) never agreed to accept the role the West assigned them in the new framework – the status of a large but second-rank European country ... If treaties were signed, or pledges made, says Putin, it was because post-Soviet Russia was too weak to say no. It was a fragmented and chaotic state, on the verge of bankruptcy, kept on life support by International Monetary Fund (IMF) loans. The Russia of the 1990s that the West so admired was, in practice, not a sovereign country.This consensus narrative usually includes the disintegration of the USSR with fairly rapid declarations of independence by various former Soviet republics, notably including Ukraine and Georgia, as well as the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Per capita income and standards of living declined sharply in Russia, as President Boris Yeltsin's government brought in the IMF and Western economic advisers and applied the neoliberal economic shock therapy they recommended. The result was similar to those in all places the neoliberal prescription is applied: low wages, high unemployment, decline of state services. And the privatization which is part of the package turned many senior Soviet officials and managers of state enterprises into the now-notorious Russian oligarchy. The two decades after the USSR's fall saw two nasty wars in the Muslim Caucasian republic of Chechnya.
In foreign policy, things generally went in a way that many Russians regarded as retrogression. The progressive expansion of NATO, including the Baltic states. The Kosovo War. The invasion of Iraq. Georgia and Ukraine pursued closer ties with Europe and aspired to join NATO themselves. All this was perceived by Russians as a threat to their national security and an insult to their national pride.
Hill doesn't go into all those events in her article. But she agrees with the broad line of the account. At the moment, there doesn't really seem to be a notable difference in this narrative between those who are New Cold War enthusiasts and those with more pragmatic and less war-oriented views. It's just that the hawks look at that sequence and take the position of, so what if they perceived things that way? We do what we want and the Russians just need to sit back and take it.
And most narratives agree that, in one way or another, Putin became a popular figure by improving the country's economic performance, fighting corruption or at least organizing it better, and becoming more assertive in foreign policy. Putin is generally understood to have regarded the fall of the USSR as a geopolitical disaster and humiliation for Russia. Hill writes, "For him, the Soviet-era international paradigm has not changed so much."
And although she takes a dim view of Putin, she also reminds her readers of the need for practical negotiation on common problems and common interests. "Russia demands and what Western leaders are willing to give may be irreconcilable. But that is what negotiation is all about – moving toward mutually acceptable positions. To negotiate, you have to talk, even to those you do not like, including Russian President Vladimir Putin."
Those are all encouraging signs of pragmatism. There is nothing in her article glorifying the pursuit of the sort of ethnic nationalism and religious chauvinism that America's alt-right and their counterparts in Europe find so attractive about Putin's politics.
Hill's descriptions of Putin strike me as more questionable. As the title of her book indicates, she views Putin as being overwhelmingly defined by his role as a KGB officer.
As a former KGB agent, Putin operates very differently from a president who climbed the ranks of a political party – including both of his predecessors, first post-Soviet Russian President Boris Yeltsin and last Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party and President of the USSR Mikhail Gorbachev. Operatives like Putin usually have political oversight, political handlers, and an institutional frame. Putin himself was subject to these constraints in his previous career. Today, Putin has no such constraints. There are no significant checks and balances on his presidential power.And if you're thinking, hey, wasn't some other Russian leader a KGB guy, too? Yes, but Hill dismisses the precedent as follows, "No other leader has worked his way, as Putin did, through the back corridors of the intelligence services to become the president. Former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov was chairman of the KGB for 15 years, but Andropov never actually served in the agency; he was a career Communist Party functionary."
Now, obviously people are heavily shaped by their personal experiences. But she seems to be trying hard to making the case that Putin is more of a spy than a politician: "Putin, by contrast, was not a Communist luminary. Nor had he any high-profile executive experience before coming to Moscow in 1996. Since ascending to the presidency in 2000, he has fused intelligence, security, politics, and even oversight of the commanding heights of the economy into one Kremlin-based operating system rooted in informal networks of power."
I'm reserved about this view, because we heard from various commentators in the lead-up to last week's Putin-Trump meeting about how Putin's KGB training provided him with particular specialized training in charming, deceiving and cajoling people. But then a lot of normal diplomacy is about charming, deceiving and cajoling people, too. And it's not as though Russian politics has been known for its cordiality and lack of intrigue.
She notes, "He and his Kremlin spin doctors have worked hard at making him as inscrutable and unpredictable as possible to increase his tactical advantage." That sounds plausible enough. But spin doctors are also a standard part of politics and corporate public relations. Nothing especially KGB-y about that.
At least in this article, it's not clear on what she bases the following judgment:
But Putin does not know the West well. He has limited experience living abroad – in Dresden in East Germany from 1985–1990. This was hardly a window on the West. Although Putin speaks German, and speaks it well, he has only a handful of contacts with European and US political and business insiders, some of whom he met as deputy mayor of St. Petersburg in the 1990s. Putin does not have deep insight into the way our societies work, nor does he care to obtain it.But then we hear all the time these days, especially from Democrats and the mainstream media, about how Putin's government is running a super-sophisticated political subversion operation in Europe and the United States. Gene Lyons writes, expressing an opinion that seems to be common among Democrats and liberals these days, "the single greatest threat to the integrity of Western democracy is the Kremlin." (Trump’s G-20: A World-Class Presidential “Kayfabe” National Memo 07/12/2017)
So it's a bit hard to imagine Putin being so incurious about the West. He's certainly shown a great deal of sophistication in dealing with Germany since he's been head of the national government.
Stock Images of Russia
We've seen the resurgence of various cliches about Russia like those we commonly heard during Cold War 1.0. Like various tales about Russian drunkenness. So it's worth being cautious about such shopworn claims, such as assuming that particular priorities in present-day Russian policy are due to some centuries-old territorial or cultural obsession.
Hill stresses the inscrutability of Russia and Russian politics for Westerners. This aura of inscrutability gave us the word "Kremlinology," which has come to stand for trying to understand any kind of impenetrable goings-on. Applying the term to understanding the Trump Family Business Administration gives the term even more nuance.
Of course, Russia tries to keep state secrets. So do all other countries. It's axiomatic that more authoritarian governments are more difficult to analyze than more democratic ones. But elections over the last year or so in North Atlantic countries (Trump, Brexit, Macron in France) suggest that even the most open liberal democracies may have their own kind of inscrutability.
With Russia as an adversary, which is how the US has generally viewed for most of the last 100 years, charging them with "inscrutability" in their government affairs serves a couple of useful purposes. One is that it makes them sound more mysterious and therefore more dangerous, perhaps at the cost of adding an exotic element to its image that also has its appeal. It also reminds us of how luck we should feel to have specialists who can explain the mysterious Rooskis to us.
Most Americans don't speak or read Russian, including me. But I have enough familiarity with a couple of other languages to do a double-take when I see comments like this:
To Russian ears, Putin is very clear about what he and Russia really want, but his plot-driven analysis and way of trying to communicate his demands do not work with Western interlocutors.I'm going to make a generalization here that goes way beyond my own personal knowledge and guess that political rhetoric in nearly every language on earth is "loaded." Except maybe for your random isolated tribe in the jungles of Paraguay or Brazil. Yes, most Americans, including highly educated ones, are unlikely to be familiar with the nuances of political phrasing in other countries. Even English-speaking ones.
Putin’s language is loaded in Russian – a simple translation into English of what he says does not convey the deeper meaning behind the words and expressions. The language of Russian politics and diplomacy that Putin favors is inherently “alpha male.” [my emphasis]
But that "to Russian ears" comment is another example of making Russia sound exotic and mysterious.
But this judgment of Putin's foreign policy outlook doesn't seem to rely too much on pop psychology or stale stereotypes:
Everything Western leaders and analysts say about Russia’s internal weakness – economic, ethnic, political, and religious – or about the inevitability that Putin will fail in securing his objectives, or that the state will be pulled apart by domestic tensions, gets Putin’s antennae up. It is a signal to him that the United States and the West are “at it again” – trying to play with opposition and other groups to bring down Russia. Whenever we talk of Russia’s weakness, we increase Putin’s and other Russians’ sense of vulnerability. In feeling threatened, they react forcefully. Putin doubles down, he does not draw back. From his perspective, it is the West that needs to back off or be pushed back.Which sounds like the kind of situation that requires deft, careful diplomacy well informed by sound intelligence and real expertise.
So far, that does not seem to be the approach of the White House she serves.