Skip to main content

Ukraine invasion is ‘all about history’

Northwestern Buffett hosts talk with Russia expert and former White House official Fiona Hill
ukraine art gallery
A bubble-wrapped marble bust waits with a small selection of relics to be moved in one of the galleries of the Potocki Palace, home of the Borys Voznytsky National Gallery in Lviv, Ukraine. Galleries and museums across Ukraine have been moving their artworks and historical items into storage, in advance of any possible rocket strikes or other military action. Getty Images

The mind of Russian President Vladimir Putin baffled analysts months ago as they sought to determine whether he will invade Ukraine. They wondered whether it made any sense for him to do so. Some thought he was just bluffing.

But Fiona Hill saw it coming.

The longtime Russia expert and former White House national security official understands Putin’s mind.

“This invasion is all about history,” Hill told attendees on Monday at an event hosted by the Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs. “Putin is actually fighting for his version of history.”

Video: Watch the fireside chat with Fiona Hill

Hill then recounted instances that illustrate Putin’s obsession with history.

When Putin said several years ago that the greatest catastrophe of the 20th century is the collapse of the Soviet Union, he wasn’t necessarily fawning over the bygone days of communism. Instead, he was lamenting the loss of another incarnation of the Russian state, Hill explained. “Putin has lambasted Vladimir Lenin,” Hill added, because the revolutionary leader’s biggest mistake, Putin thought, was creating a separate Ukrainian republic inside the Soviet Union in 1929.

When Hill travelled with a White House delegation to Moscow, she noticed that Putin’s room — famed for its long table — has four statues. The first one is Peter the Great, the man credited with consolidating the Russian empire. The second is Catherine the Great, seen as the one who incorporated the lands Putin is fighting over right now — the Crimean Peninsula, the Donbas region, and other areas that have suffered the heaviest bombardment like Mariupol. The third is Nicholas the First, who tried to expand Russian influence in the Black Sea.

And because of Putin’s infatuation with history, Hill said she doesn’t see an endpoint in this conflict.

“How would you negotiate history?” Hill said.

Annelise Riles, executive director of the Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs, moderated the conversation. She asked Hill about the nuclear saber-rattling coming out of Russia in recent months, and also the arguably similar rhetoric by former President Trump when he was in office. 

Hill explained that, unlike what many people think, Trump was “more measured” on nuclear issues. “He … genuinely believed that nuclear weapons were … the most serious existential threat and he said this repeatedly,” Hill said. “It just got lost in the mix of all the other things that he said.”

She also revealed that when Putin flaunted his nuclear missiles’ ability to reach Florida in 2018, she heard Trump say, “real countries don’t do that.”

Putin’s “big miscalculation”

Hill said that Putin made a “big miscalculation” by assuming that his invasion of Ukraine will occur during a period of weakness for the West. The U.S. had just withdrawn from Afghanistan, creating a sense that Washington is entering a period of retrenchment, somewhat courting a public opinion that was increasingly frustrated with the “forever wars.” The European Union was also weakened by Brexit and the ensuing bickering between France and Britain over sausages and fishing rights. In Germany, Angela Merkel ended her political tenure and handed over the reins to Olaf Scholz, seen at the outset as an amateur in global politics.

“From Putin’s perspective, this was the moment,” Hill said. Instead, Putin galvanized the Western alliance, transformed Germany’s long-held meekness toward military spending, and even inspired countries such as Finland and Sweden to join NATO.

Think of your career as a “big arc”

Hill’s advice to students is to think of their career as a big arc. “I never expected I’d end up where I am, but I kept on trying to broaden my horizons and learn as much as I could about a broad range of issues,” Hill said. She would always look for opportunities to work with people she could learn from. “Every time I have done that, it has opened another door,” she added. 

“Fiona Hill is one of the most important experts on Russia and global affairs of our time and one of America’s great role-models of principled leadership,” said Riles. “It was breathtaking to watch her move seamlessly from Medieval history to present day arms control negotiation. But it was just as inspiring to see first-hand her commitment to civic dialogue in the generous way she engaged our faculty, students and members of the wider community."

Ian Kelly, Ambassador-in-Residence at Northwestern and former U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, said that Hill is perhaps the best analyst of Putin’s Russia today. “It's always a treat to hear Fiona Hill speak,” Kelly said. “What made her NU presentation so interesting and illuminating, however, was how she put Putin's behavior in a deep and clear historical context.”