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From the file

The Backstory | A series of in-depth conversations with people who have the power to shape events

Episode 2: Fiona Hill

Episode 2: Fiona Hill


Andrew Neil talks to the British-born Russia expert about Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and how she went from a deprived town in the North East of England to advising three US presidents


Andrew Neil, narrating: Hello, I’m Andrew Neil and this is The Backstory, a series of in-depth interviews with people who have the power to shape events and to influence our understanding of them. In this episode, I’m joined by a woman who went from being brought up in poverty in the northeast of England to working in the White House and testifying before Congress in President Trump’s first impeachment inquiry. Fiona Hill is a foreign policy expert who specialises in Russia and Vladimir Putin. She’s worked for Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and as an advisor to Donald Trump when he was in the Oval Office. 

Her book, There’s Nothing For You Here, recounts her childhood in the decaying, coal mining town of Bishop Auckland, her move to Moscow, then Harvard, and then onto the White House. During the interview, we discuss Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine, his motivations and her assertion that her accent and working class background limited her professional chances in the United Kingdom and that America offered the opportunities her home country couldn’t. This is The Backstory from Tortoise.

Andrew Neil: Fiona Hill, let’s start with Ukraine. Is there any way in which this ends well for President Putin?

Fiona Hill: Well, look, I think part of the problem, Andrew, is that our definition of ending well and Putin’s definitions of success of victory are just remarkably different because for Putin, teaching Ukraine a lesson, teaching the rest of us a lesson, and in many respects subjugating Ukraine, even destroying Ukraine so that it can’t exist as an independent country with its territory intact – so it’s dismembered in other words – and as a country that’s forging its own path in international affairs is part of the goal of launching this invasion.

So basically a Ukraine that’s left in rubble, that’s dependent on handouts from the international community, that’s left in fragments territorially, and again is facing a long-term confrontation with Russia, irrespective of what that looks like for Russia itself, can be cast as a victory for Putin, because again, part of his goal in launching the invasion of Ukraine was to make sure that they didn’t succeed. 

Andrew Neil: So it’s clear that Mr. Putin wanted, I think either to reduce Ukraine to the status of a puppet state, or even to subsume it into some kind of greater Russia. Are you saying now that that’s unlikely to be the successful war aims now, but if he kind of neutralises the country and reduces chunks of it to rubble, that that can be claimed a victory?

Is that now the war aim? Is that the fallback war aim?

Fiona Hill: Well that might be part of the goals to start with but yes, I mean, I think that that’s kind of what we’re seeing unfolding right now. Putin is the kind of person who has a broad goal and different ways of achieving it. So he’s a contingency planner, he’s not a Clausewitzian military strategist.

He’s somebody who, you know, has just said – his goal was to subjugate Ukraine in whatever fashion that was possible and he will adapt his basic prosecution of the war and to whatever it is that he can attain at that particular moment, and then wait to see and reassess where things are headed as to, you know, what he does for the next phase.

So right now we are absolutely seeing the efforts to consolidate control, military control, over the eastern part of Ukraine, Donbas, Donetsk and Luhansk. All of these cities, the port cities around the sea of Azov like Mariupol and the other cities beside it which have been reduced to rubble, making sure to consolidate the swath of territory to the north of the Crimean peninsula, and also if he can exert control over the Black Sea region all the way down to Odesa and even further because there is a chunk of Ukraine after Odesa that connects to Moldova and the secessionist area of Transnistria with Moldova.

So it denies any access with that kind of formulation for Ukraine to the Black Sea and that seems to have been part of the Russian plan since 2014 to be frank.

Andrew Neil: When he went into Crimea?

Fiona Hill: That’s correct because at that point in 2014 when the annexation of Crimea took place, we saw an effort by the Russian government, by the Kremlin to seed revolts, insurgencies, and revolutionary movements hopefully through political activists on the ground in Ukraine itself, Russian speakers in all of those places that we’re seeing the Russian military moving in today, under their framework, the rubric of Novorossiya, New Russia.

This is a Russian Imperial exercise in many respects, it’s something that Catherine the Great did. She tried to create a New Russia, Novorossiya, in that same territory after annexing Crimea from the Ottoman Empire, you know, back in the day and Putin was thwarted in 2014 because there wasn’t a great upsurge of support, even then for the Russian political subversion. 

And we’d all petered out, apart from the rebel movements, the secession movements in Donetsk and or Luhansk, and even then that was partial within those administrative regions. So Ukraine was dismembered then in 2014 with the annexation of Crimea, that was a success for Putin and not a shot fired, gets control of the Crimean peninsula and can project power into the Black Sea but now we’re seeing through this military action, that effort to take control of that territory where there was more of a politically focused subversive activity in 2014, and one could make the argument, you know, as you just did there, that was perhaps, you know, past the war aims all along and that some people are even saying that the full invasion of Kyiv and elsewhere but that’s because the Russians are saying that too, was in a way a diversion because that was all along the goal of Putin.

But as I was saying earlier, really Putin has these broad goals and he’ll do whatever he can at the moment, whatever is achievable, but the whole aim is the same. Subjugate Ukraine, dismember Ukraine, make it impossible for Ukraine to exist as an independent country doing its own thing in world affairs.

Andrew Neil: But even if he succeeds in that and it’s as yet, not certain that he will, you might call it a more limited war aims, he doesn’t get Kyiv but he has certainly caused major problems and occupied big chunks of Ukraine. Even if he does all that, I mean, has any leader of a major country made a more catastrophic mistake with this invasion? Has he not done incalculable damage to himself, to Russia’s standing in the world, to the Russian economy?

I mean, if he does what you’ve described to Ukraine, I mean he and Russia will have pariah status.

Fiona Hill: Absolutely look, I mean, from everybody else’s perspective and every rational perspective from again our rationale, that’s exactly the case. But for Putin, and if you look at some of the things that he said, you know, for example, he doesn’t want to see a world in which there is no demand for Russia, a world in which Russia isn’t a dominant player and he certainly wanted to dominate Eurasia, Europe in large respects as well, particularly the eastern part of Europe. And if he can’t dominate that, then destruction is his other alternative. And I mean, from our perspective, of course, that seems absurd, it’s the ultimate ferric victory but basically from Putin’s point of view, he threatened Ukraine and he menaced Ukraine, he has delivered what he had threatened and he’s taught everyone a lesson.

A lesson that he can be completely ruthless and that he’s willing to go the whole way in terms of wreaking havoc and carnage to basically press his own agenda. Now, the knock- on effects from this, of course, as we were saying, they’re catastrophic and for Russia, the pariah status, the destruction of the economy, of the economy as not, not completely, of course, but the economies which has been built upon the last 30 years since the 1990s with incredible efforts.

All of the things that ordinary Russian business people and ordinary Russians have built for themselves, not just Russian oligarchs that we tend to fixate on, all the promises that he made about making Russian solvent and a major European and global player again, that seems to be completely out of the window. And of course he is, where we’re talking about all the time now basically inflicting the potential of famine on the world – higher gas prices, higher petrol prices, higher food prices by destroying in many respects the potential of Ukraine as the breadbasket to Europe for the growing, the planting season for Ukrainian grain, is out the window now in this time of war.

Russia, Kazakhstan, as well as Ukraine, being the major grand producers in the Black Sea region, huge swathes of Africa are dependent upon them. All of these things all kind of come together in one hell of a mess frankly but Putin right now does not seem to care so much about that, he’s not really open to being persuaded to take a different tact because he wants to be able to declare a victory and to say that he’s achieved his aims. 

Andrew Neil: Well you’ve said that a Putin, Mr. Putin lives in his own bubble, that he’s a germaphobe, that he’s got a tendency to shoot the messenger. When I first read that, I thought it was Donald Trump you were describing but it was President Putin. 

Fiona Hill: There’s a lot of similarities among all kinds of people.  

Andrew Neil: All that must surely have got worse since the invasion went wrong?

Fiona Hill: Well yes and I mean look, there’s been a lot of speculation about Putin and Putin’s health. The video, you know last week that was going around showing him gripping the table in a rather strange way with his right hand and people said he was jiggling his foot, perhaps he has Parkinson’s, again, we have to be very careful about that speculation.

I mean, it may well be the case that he’s unwell but you know, a lot of that is then wishful thinking and wondering whether, you know, as you’re saying that some of the weaknesses, the frailties, the vulnerabilities of Putin might be brought out by all of this, that this kind of might change the tide of things, I’ve actually seen him, you know, on many occasions, because you know, I’ve spent quite a bit of time not just observing him but actually seeing him in action. I’ve seen him gripping not just tables but chairs in strange ways with his hands before. You know, maybe these might just be, you know, personal physical quirks as far as I could see on the leg issue, he was tapping his foot, looking more like with impatience. 

I almost kind of was joking with someone that it looked almost like he was trying to press some ejector button under the table that may be Sergei Shoigu, the defence minister who was meeting with him, that if he didn’t like what he said, he was going to press a button and Sergei Shoigu would be somehow thrown out of the room, propelled through the ceiling or something.

Putin’s always got that kind of look in which he looks irritated with the people that he’s meeting with. He slouches back in his chair but it’s true look, he seems to have been under tremendous strain as many of us have been during Covid. He’s been isolated. He’s definitely been paranoid about catching Covid or anything else because he’s become the wild card in the political system.

He has basically become the only person as he says it and the people around him, that stands between Russia and the abyss. The state is me and there’s no successor in sight because there can’t be because Putin doesn’t want to look like a lame duck because by being a lame duck president in Russia means you’re a dead duck because it means that somebody is trying to manoeuvre around and… to try to take your place.

And if it’s somebody seeking to take his place in the context of basically a wartime scenario, it’s much more likely to be one of the hard men, the security people around Putin in that term and so he’s probably being extraordinarily watchful and, you know, trying to keep ahead of the game with everybody, making sure that nobody else can take advantage.

So even these, this talk about illness is probably exacerbating the situation for Putin.

Andrew Neil: It sounds, Fiona Hill, as if what you’re saying is that if Mr. Putin brings Russia down, then he’s going to try and bring the rest of us down with them. And I wonder how that can change because it’s not the Russian way is it to put a bullet in his leader’s head? 

Fiona Hill: No, it’s absolutely not. I mean, yes, Russia has its history of palace coups during the Romanov and general Tsarist period but if you think in the Soviet period, either leaders tended to leave by their death in office, quite a few of them, and if there was a palace coup so to speak, they were sort of moved over and somebody else came in, you think of Krushchev for example. 

Andrew Neil: Yes.

Fiona Hill: And you know, one could sort of see that scenario but you know look, for that to happen, there has to be a lot of blame apportioned to Putin and the very small coterie of people who made the decision to invade Ukraine and I don’t think they’re going to see that just yet. We’re seeing a lot of rallying around the flag, running around Putin because of the propaganda and the way that the invasion has been depicted as a special military operation. I think a lot of people in Russia – those who haven’t left who have obviously been opposed to the war – do believe that the war is all Nato’s fault, the West’s fault, the United States’ fault, that Ukraine is collateral damage.

They don’t believe a lot of the things that are happening. It’s going to take some time for that to filter. They think that the sanctions are meant to persecute Russia, to bring it to its knees. That’s what Putin’s been telling them, you know, for years and years. That propaganda’s really had an impact and so it’s really going to take some time for this to sink in.

It’s going to have to be as a result of the inability of the Russian military to get traction and for the people around Putin in the actual system itself to see that this is not going anywhere and to then find a way of sort of declaring victory and changing the whole perspective.

And that means that we have to stay united. We the west. And that in itself is extraordinarily difficult so it’s dependent on us as well. 

Andrew Neil: It does seem that under Mr. Putin, Russia has gone back to being a sort of a one man band. I mean post-Stalin, which was pretty much a one man band, Russia was governed, of course it had the general secretary whose names we all knew but it was a kind of collective leadership in the Politburo. 

Am I right in thinking that there is no equivalent of the Politburo now under Mr. Putin? He’s the man and that’s it. 

Fiona Hill: Yes. That’s what makes it so dangerous on the one hand and also so fragile on the other because Putin has no political party that supports him.

He’s basically not even a movement behind him. The parliament, the Duma, is a rubber stamp. United Russia, the ruling party is not even part of it, so he’s not even the head of it. There’s only the constitution and his popularity and the small group of people around him obviously they don’t even function that much as a brain trust or though obviously some of them do have some influence but we’ve seen in those bizarre setups on television about him giving them orders, them sitting on one end of the vast table and him at the other, which is meant to convey a sense of power and isolation and him making all the key decisions.

But there’s also within all of that embedded, we also have to bear in mind about 60 per cent of the Russian workforce, of the Russian population, is dependent on the state. So if the state runs out of revenues and the state gets into trouble, it does eventually have some kind of impact and would have an impact on his popularity. Because people work for the bureaucracy, the Russian bureaucracy is huge and has even grown under Putin. Because in a way, he’s creating all of these levels of dependency of people on him himself. And look at different points in his own presidency, Putin has said it’s a huge mistake to have everything in the hands of one man.

That was one of the rationales for bringing Dimitry Medvedev into the fold and making him President and crediting that weird tandem that we’ve all forgotten about, you know, 10 years ago before he came back into office again. He’s constantly talked about creating more of a  sort of a privy council, the National Security Council equivalent was supposed to be that.

Bringing more people in, devolving authority and responsibility and accountability, and none of that seems to have happened. And so, you know, we know that around the world every time you look at a system like this, even if the person in, who’s the case in point, Mugabe in Zimbabwe, Maduro and Chávez before them in Venezuela, the Castros in Cuba, an incredible amount of fragility builds up in the system.

I mean, they can keep on going for a long time but at some point, something has to give and partly what has to give is Putin himself. 

Andrew Neil: Now you’ve advised three US presidents on Russia. Mr. Bush, the second Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama, and Mr. Trump. Did they get anything right? 

Fiona Hill: Well look, I have to clarify very quickly that I didn’t do much advising of Trump because he didn’t really listen to anybody so that would kind of, you know, I think one should be much more modest describing what you actually kind of did at that point.

In terms of, you know, Bush and Obama I mean, these were all in, you know, very clearly defined frames. I was in the National Intelligence Office at the time, you know, going and giving them assessments.

I think if you look at the longer trend of US and Russia relations, there’s been an awful lot of wishful thinking about the trajectory of Russia for a long time. That’s why we have to be very careful about engaging in it now.

There’s often been an assessment that you could wait Russia out and that Russia was incredibly weak and that Russia wasn’t going to prevail on the international stage because not factoring in, you know, this propensity which we’ve just talked about as if, you know, Russia was going to go down, then it was going to take everybody down with it, which is the kind of the thinking of Putin. And Putin is the constant through those three presidencies in which you know I was playing this role. Putin has been in power now for 22 years. He’s not that much of a surprise. We’ve seen him in action for all this time. 

He came into the presidency against the backdrop of a brutal war in Chechnya, within Russia’s own territory in which the population of Chechnya were brutalised and Grozny, the regional capital, was reduced to rubble. Many times we’ve seen him you know, carry out all kinds of atrocious assassinations. Litvinenko, the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with polonium here in London, the poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury, and the killing of Don Sturgis, a British citizen.

The assassinations of all kinds of people. Boris Nemstov, former Deputy Prime Minister of Russia, gunned down brutally on a bridge in front of the Kremlin, for example. Every time you look around, you can see signs of just how ruthless Putin is. And yet we, over successive administrations in the US and Europe, have continued to treat business as usual with Russia under Putin, you know, not bearing in mind that this guy is a KGB operative who has a grab bag of dirty tricks and has no checks and balances around him. And so I think, you know, where people have got it wrong is really by not paying sufficient attention all the time to the way that Putin’s going to react to things, you know, judging how we perceive things and trying to assess what we’re going to do about it.

I mean part of that problem is because, you know, as you just said there were three different presidents. It was more presidents who’ve kind of gone through Putin because Clinton, you know, obviously had the very beginning of Putin’s presidency, two terms of George W. Bush, two terms of Barack Obama, one term of Trump now, you know, with Biden and so many national security advisors and senior staff, and, you know, people talk about the deep state in the United States but there isn’t one, it’s a very thin state.

So you’ve not had any kind of consistency of dealing with him and we really needed to have mechanisms that were knitting us all together on the West with Nato, the European Union’s sort of constant attention to this really very hard, we used to call it the hard target, with a very difficult country and leadership to deal with so we should have been really paying proper undue attention all this time. 

Andrew Neil: You argued against offering Ukraine a path to Nato membership when George W. Bush was president. Now, assuming Ukraine survives this invasion intact, emerging still as a sovereign nation, would that still be your view? 

Fiona Hill: So just to clarify, this was Ukraine and Georgia and basically the appeal for a membership action plan went to Nato in 2008. And the circumstances of it basically need assessing.

So first of all, in the run-up to the Nato summit in 2008… April 2008. Georgia and Ukraine had given no indication in the months before that that they were going to ask for a membership action plan and when they did in January of that year, it was very late in the game. And I was the national intelligence officer at the time and the team that I was working with assessed that there was an incredible opposition to Ukraine and Nato being offered, Ukraine and Georgia rather, being offered a Nato membership action plan at that juncture and there was no way that that could be overcome.

And so the advice in an analytical sense was, don’t put it on the agenda because you’re not going to get it in and the Russians will take that as a sign of weakness and, you know, and then we’ll act accordingly and that’s exactly what we saw happen. We saw that that was put on the agenda in Bucharest, there was a lot of opposition and compromise came out of all of this led by some of the US allies that basically said, “Okay, Ukraine and Georgia are not ready right now for a membership action plan but they will one day become members of Nato.”

We’ve never done that before for any other country, any other… “but not now.” And there was no plan. And what happened was within four months, Russia invaded Georgia. So the whole point of when we should have been considering this was yes, if you’re going to offer Ukraine and Georgia a membership action plan, then you’ve got to already start thinking about security guarantees.

What are you going to do in the instant that Russia takes some action? And what are we going to do over the longer term? But we didn’t do any of that. And that’s been part of our problem the whole way along with the expansion of Nato. 

Andrew Neil: But by the end of last year, the beginning of this year, there was no prospect of Ukraine joining Nato and certainly not in the foreseeable future. And we had been told we better not offer that anyway because it will only provoke Mr. Putin but we didn’t offer it. And there was no prospect but he still invaded. 

Fiona Hill: Yeah, absolutely. I think that just proves that it’s not all about Nato. It’s something, you know, much deeper and fundamental.

All of these things are melded together in Putin’s mind. Nato is just an affront for him. He can’t even accept for himself that other countries wanted to join Nato. He always has to say it’s Nato aggression as if there was some sort of free-standing Nato entity that the general secretary was some, you know, kind of autocratic dictator who’s forcing countries to come into Nato and we know that that’s not how it works.

But for Putin, the idea that countries would have an alternative that used to be part of the Russian empire or the Soviet Union, that for him… he can’t imagine that because as far as he sees it, they’re all part of Russia and the Russian world.

And so Putin is in many respects going down the well-trodden post-imperial, post-colonial path that we’ve seen time and time again in history. He thinks Ukraine belongs to Russia, Ukrainians are Russians. He can’t believe that Ukrainias who in the Imperial period were called little Russians, want to be something else, want to be citizens of a different country, want to chart their own path.

He thinks they have to be right back in the fold again and so everything that he is doing is basically done on the predicate that these countries are not real. As he told George Bush in 2018 in Bucharest when Ukraine was trying to get this membership action plan, he said, “you know, George, Ukraine isn’t a real country. Part of it’s in Eastern Europe and the other part was given to us.”

This is all about repossessing property. It’s not about the people and he’s treating Ukrainians now like traitors, somebody to be destroyed like he would do with Alexander Litvinenko with polonium, or Sergei Skripal with Novichock because they dared to cross Russia and to forget who they are. He thinks that they’re subjects of the Russian Imperium, not citizens of their own country.

Andrew Neil: You’ve said that Mr. Putin might well be prepared to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine. If he does, how should the West respond? 

Fiona Hill: Well, we should be getting ahead of it. We shouldn’t be just sitting around waiting for something to happen. You can be sure that he’s thinking. Look, he used polonium, he used Novichok. In Syria, they used chemical weapons and the Russians saw all of this.

It’s meant to intimidate and scare the hell out of everybody. He’s already used nuclear weapons by talking about this.

During the Soviet period, I mean, Andrew, you and I will remember the Soviet period, you know, we had the war scares of the 1980s, of the stationing of SS20 and Pershing missiles and we knew that the Soviet Union had plans to use nuclear missiles under certain contingencies. They also had biological and chemical weapons. Putin is the kind of person who’s a throwback to the 1980s. He talks all the time about the Euro-Missile Crisis and that sense of intimidation of Europe, but the Soviet Union never engaged in that kind of nuclear blackmail. 

He’s gone down the path of Kim Jong Un. If you don’t do what I want, I’m going to blow you up. I’m going to put my finger on the button and send a missile. I’m going to use a tactical battlefield nuke so you will surrender. So you will step back.

We have to understand what it is that he’s doing and why I say we should act now is because we’re supposed to have the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty review in August at the United Nations and Putin’s just blown that out of the water because the message of everything that Putin is doing is right now is everyone needs a nuke. Everyone needs a nuclear weapon. The big countries, I mean, some of them already have them like China, for example, who want to prevail over their neighbours and half of their own territorial political disputes, they can exert their will with a nuclear weapon.

I mean why we’re not intervening full on with Russia is because they’ve got nuclear weapons and he’s telling all the other countries who want to self-protection, through this action in Ukraine, he’s saying you need a nuclear weapon to protect yourself, just like you have that stalemate between India and Pakistan and other regional rivalries because Ukraine once had a nuclear weapon.

So did Belarus and so did Kazakhstan and they gave up that arsenal that they inherited from the collapse of the Soviet Union under pressure from the United States and United Kingdom because we didn’t want to see the proliferation of nukes, loose nukes, that was the whole mantra of the 1990s and we promised Ukraine and other the countries, we’ve done this all the time that if they don’t seek nuclear weapons, we can guarantee their territorial, integrity and independence.

Well if you’re in Japan and you’re looking at this you’re thinking huh? Where’s my guarantee? You know, out in east Asia for example, the Asia Pacific, South Korea, the sam. They have agreed to be under the United States’ nuclear umbrella.

And when it comes to North Korea or China, after seeing what Putin is doing, they cannot be sure at all. So we have to get ahead of this. Putin has already used nukes in the sense of this political intimidation. The fact that everyone’s talking about it. 

Andrew Neil: So what does getting ahead of it mean?

Fiona Hill: So getting ahead of it means we have to, I mean, we’re having a problem right now, looking at the United Nations and seeing that this is not the instrument that we hoped it would be but we have to start that international diplomacy now ahead of the non-proliferation review session.

We can’t wait until August. We need to be doing it now. We need to go and talk to all of the other nuclear powers and say, look what Putin’s doing here. We need to move quickly on getting the agreement with Iran, for example, to show that we actually can do something on the nuclear front. You know, we’ve been trying to isolate North Korea but you know, basically Putin is doing exactly the same thing as Kim Jong Un. He’s behaving like a nuclear bully because it’s a weakness. This is a sign of incredible weakness on the part of Putin. 

Andrew Neil: Why did you decide to work for the Trump administration?

Fiona Hill: Well, it wasn’t so much working for the Trump administration as serving the country. I’d already been the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia through Bush and under Obama, and I was not expecting in any stretch in my imagination back in 2016 when the presidential election campaign started that I would end up in any of the presidential administrations.

I’ve never been a partisan political person. I’m obviously politically engaged but not in any kind of partisan manner. I’m not a member of a political party. I’ve never been part of a political campaign but I had, you know, served already in government for several years and I’d worked with an awful lot of people who were going to be detailed into the Trump administration.

And look I’d been following very closely all of the reports on Russian interference and I was really worried about it, and I’ve written some articles about it and all the given all the work I’d done before this as an national intelligence officer, I was, you know, pretty clued into at least, you know, the kind of larger framework rather than the details of what Putin and the Kremlin were up to. 

This had such a devastating impact on US politics. When I was asked if I would contemplate going in, I felt I had to. I mean, it wasn’t exactly an easy decision, I had a lot of back and forth. I had a lot of warnings from people I worked for, you know, given the nature of Trump and I will admit to some naivety about the nature of US politics as well.

I mean, I thought the national security would prevail when I got in there, given the people I knew that I was going to be working with, they would have uppermost as they had in the discussions about how to handle this, you know, difficult issue. But of course, everything was just about Trump and his personal predilections, his personal vulnerabilities, and his, you know… we’re all very familiar with it where there’s, you know, his malignant narcissism and Putin you know, played on that vulnerability and manipulated Trump through flattery and things.

I didn’t really think he had any more compromising material on Trump than everybody else had but it was just that, you know, vulnerability that Trump had to someone sort of coming in and pushing them in different directions, most people could do that I, you know, I hadn’t fully appreciated that when I first entered. I thought that, you know, even Trump could be persuaded that you needed to push back against Russia given, you know, what they had actually done in 2016, but of course, it turned out that he himself couldn’t accept even the idea of Russian interference because he then felt himself that put a big cloud over him winning the election and all of that played out in this, you know, really dreadful way that we all saw unfold, you know, in front of our eyes, and even on the outside and it being on the inside and all of this, obviously it proved much more difficult than I’d thought it would be to keep the national security and foreign policy issues at the forefront.

Andrew Neil: There’s been endless speculation about why Mr. Trump had, or has this admiration for Mr. Putin but isn’t it actually quite simple? I mean, he’s never really met a strong man he doesn’t like. He wants to be a strong man himself. It’s this attraction to the strong man and they’re nearly all men anyway in government. That’s why he admired him. He wanted to be a bit like him?

Fiona Hill: That’s absolutely right. I mean, for him Putin kind of blazed the trail. He’s the first populist president of a major country in the 21st century and maybe we can think of other populous leaders of course but you know, Putin comes into office in 1999 saying he’s going to make Russia great again. He becomes iconic you know, up until the invasion of Ukraine, a lot of people were still talking about the genius of Putin, the way that he looks, you know all of these different personas he adopted over the past 20 years. He was just sort of the epitome of the man who’s got it all together and Putin was always talking about that.

He was always talking about Putin being strong and powerful and I described in the book I wrote recently “autocrat envy” and Trump was open about this. I remember his interviews with Bob Woodward. It’s just exactly, as you said. He said to Bob Woodward, “You know, I like the strong guys, the tough guys, you know, I don’t like the others.”

I mean, it’s basically any hint of weakness and Trump ran away from someone. So for example, you know, he, initially he was okay with Theresa May and Angela Merkel, for example. It wasn’t just that they were women but you know that was already a bit of a strike against them but it was when they started to lose elections in his view, even though he himself, you know, barely scraped by in 2016.

When Theresa May went for the snap election and while she didn’t lose, she really reduced her majority.

Andrew Neil: Indeed.

Fiona Hill: Trump suddenly saw that as a sign of weakness. It’s probably a reflection of vulnerability himself – of thinking, you know, hang on and the same with Angela Merkel even though she won reelection again for an unprecedented number of terms and coalition governments. I mean, there was this incredible feat actually in German politics but Trump saw that the fact that her share of the electorate had gone down again as a sign of weakness when the same happened with Erdoğan in Turkey for a while, he wondered whether Erdoğan was weak. He actually openly opined on this issue and kept asking people about it.

But of course Erdoğan’s ever the strong man, always, you know, kind of coming back and being quite brutal and ruthless in his own context and that was kind of what Trump was always looking at. That’s why he always doubled down. He could always be a winner. He could never be a loser and for Putin, it’s the same kind of thing. 

Putin always has to look like a win even when the rest of us are looking at it and thinking my God, if this is a victory, it’s a ferric one.

Andrew Neil: Was January 6th 2021 an attempted coup?

Fiona Hill: Of course it was. I mean, it was so obvious and it really was. There was a straight line between the circumstances that led up to the first impeachment trial with Donald Trump basking Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine to do him a personal favour to open up investigations into Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, knowing full well that Joe Biden was going to be the candidate that he was going to be running against in the 2020 election. 

That effort to take the candidate out of contention, to hobble the election, and then talking for months afterwards, in any case after he was basically given a free pass after the impeachment about the fact that the only way that he could lose the election was if someone stole it, basically currying and, you know, already shaping out the playing field so that people would expect him to win to kind of pave the way for, you know, regaining and, control or maintaining control. The whole thing was so obvious. I don’t think, you know, it kind of took any particular deep analysis or deep understanding of the nature of coups to see what was going on.

And I think what’s critical now was the January 6th committee in the United States and all of the information that they’re uncovering. You know, I think that, we look at that evidence, the statements that the committee members have made so far, and we can see that we came, we the United States came incredibly close to still having Trump in power, having usurped power and prevented the constitutional transfer of executive authority.

I mean there but for, you know, the grace of Mike Pence, the Vice President goes to the whole of the United States’ democracy and Putin – slip of the tongue there, I think because Putin himself has amended the constitution to stay in power too. We had another coup in 2020, but it was, you know, Vladimir Putin making constitutional changes.

Thank God, you know, Vice president Pence didn’t do that for president Trump but we now know the immense pressure that he was under and the fact that many people around Trump, you know, were basically trying to pull this off. 

Andrew Neil: It must follow from what you’ve just said to me there, that you must fear a second Trump presidency?

Fiona Hill: Well yes I’m very concerned about it. I think there’s a very good chance that he can come back again. I mean, if you look at President Biden’s polling ratings, which I think are hovering around 40 per cent and under, the reaction of people to, you know, all of the difficulties that we’re seeing in the economy, I mean, actually the US economy has bounced back but the inflation, the rise of petrol prices. 

Andrew Neil: What is it you would fear? If he wins, what would you fear? 

Fiona Hill: What I fear there is in fact, the reelection of Trump in two different ways. One is through the Electoral College again with a narrow margin as we saw in 2016 and, you know, not winning the popular vote, which again then there’s huge questions about the future of American democracy. If once again, the electoral college basically for many people will just jettison the votes of millions of Americans who themselves would probably react very strongly to this. And then again if he actually wins in the popular vote, the fact that he’s winning on the basis of a lie. This is a man, Donald Trump, who said he won the last election, that the last election was stolen from him.

He has refused to concede defeat and who is basically telling people that he is still the President and that basically he’s manipulating the election system. That as somebody who’s been impeached twice and skirted through it and continues to try to basically bring down the United States electoral system, who was usurped the Republican party and destroyed in many respects as a result of that, the two party system in the United States has been the mainstay of representative democracy, who has thrown representative democracy out the window, saying there’s just him.

He’s created a kind of charismatic death cult out of the Republican party. I mean, this is of course the death knell of United States’ democracy and I think the tearing up of the constitution. The US is already in a constitutional crisis.

So, I mean, there are many different things I’m concerned about and I think for the United Kingdom, for any of the other Western powers watching all of this. We’ve just breathed a sigh of relief. Many people have breathed a sigh of relief from the narrow victory that President Macron has just had in France against Marine Le Pen, the perpetual permanent contender.

Andrew Neil: It was not quite narrow, it was convincing but it wasn’t a landslide like in 2017. 

Fiona Hill: Well that’s kind of, that’s really kind of what I mean to be fair but it’s kind of narrow, let’s just say narrower than we would have hoped for.

Andrew Neil: But he won by 17 points?

Fiona Hill: Correct but when we look at the same thing? Yes, I’ll mean fair enough. I guess I’m kind of, you know, putting the emphasis on that for effect. Marine Le Pen’s share of the electorate has increased over time, which shows that this is not the death knell of populism.

That’s the problem when we look at Trump. I mean, he lost in the last election in 2020 by the same kind of margins in the electoral college that he won the first time around in 2016 and there was a huge difference in the popular vote but he got 11 million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 and that in itself is a reason for concern because populous politics is not dead by any stretch.

And if Donald Trump wins or an acolyte of Trump wins, we are kind of setting the tone again for Europe and really will undermine the solidarity that we’ve had towards Ukraine and to pushing back against Russia. 

Andrew Neil: Let’s finish with a bit about yourself. You said in Congress and you write in your book that America gave you opportunities you could never have had in Britain. But there are plenty of examples of people from your background making it big in Britain?

Fiona Hill: Give me a few examples of Andrew, of who you have in mind. 

Andrew Neil: Okay, John Major one. He became a Prime Minister from a pretty ordinary background in Brixton, left school at 15. 

Fiona Hill: Yeah. And he went to a grammar school initially right? And he is a man yes?

Andrew Neil: Jim Callaghan was another one, was below decks in the Navy at 14. I mean, there, I’m not saying…

Fiona Hill: You’re naming a lot of men, a lot of men who went to grammar schools at a different kind of era, 

Andrew Neil: Well you had Margaret Thatcher who was a grocer’s daughter.

Fiona Hill: Margaret Thatcher went to grammar school and then went to Oxford.

Andrew Neil: You entered the University of St. Andrews which is one of the oldest and most prestigious universities in the world. I say that as its former Lord Rector. 

Fiona Hill: Yes but let’s, let’s think about how I did this and this is the significance of what I was trying to say in the book. 

I went to university in 1984 against the backdrop of a massive youth unemployment crisis in the United Kingdom.

90 per cent of people, didn’t matter what background they were from, had a hard time of figuring out what they were going to do next. Only five to six per cent of people leaving school in 1984 went to University. When I got to St. Andrews, let me just tell you, there was a tiny, tiny fraction of people who came from a working class blue collar background from the north of England. There were about five or six people that I knew in total.

Everybody else, the vast majority of people, if they weren’t from Scotland, where there were more diverse backgrounds was from, you know, the southern part of England who had gone to either a grammar school or a private school. This is again a very specific time in the 1980s. And later on in terms of the people from my background who moved off to professional life, they changed their accents, you know, and there’s again a very small fraction of them.

I knew nobody in my background who worked in the private sector when I was a kid, apart from a plumber, electrician, or somebody who runs a corner shop. In the 1980s where I grew up, everybody worked in nationalised industry. British something, coal, steel, rail, shipyard or in the National Health Service.

My dad went from being a coal miner under British coal when all of the mines closed down to being a hospital porter on the lowest rung in the National Health Service of the economic ladder. The only reason I got to go to St. Andrew’s was because my local education authority, county Durham from my comprehensive school, paid for me to get that education and then I went to Harvard because I got a scholarship.

So I did what I did because of the massive amounts of support, either from the local education authority or later from grants and fellowships. When I got my scholarship to Harvard in 1989, I actually had already applied to do a PhD or a master’s programme in the early United Kingdom but I didn’t have any funding, I was on a waiting list.

There is no way that I would have continued without that, I had no money whatsoever and I didn’t even have money for a transfer to go to somewhere. The reason I ended up going to Harvard is because they gave me a grant, they paid for my airfare, they set me up with accommodation, there was a whole support network.

So the story of my career is one where, you know, you can’t always take an opportunity because you don’t have the means to do so but where lots of interventions are necessary. And even the people you mentioned there, you know, in the case of Margaret Thatcher, her father wouldn’t have been able to keep his corner shop or his shop open in Bishop Auckland county Durham in the 1980s because everybody lost their jobs at once and didn’t have any money.

And if you go to the market street, the main street leading to the market in Bishop Auckland today, you’ll see all of the old family shops closed down or partitioned because in the 1980s they lost their customer base. So the argument of the book is not to kind of say that things haven’t changed.

Andrew Neil: Sure but my point to you was not that there isn’t a problem with social mobility, there is, I’ve spent my whole life trying to deal with it. And if anything, I think it’s probably getting worse not better. That’s not my point. My point is that I don’t see this huge difference between Britain and America. I mean how you described St. Andrew’s can be exactly how you can describe Harvard and Yale these days. They’ve become a lot more exclusive than they were before. If your parents went to Harvard or Yale, you have a 77 times more of a chance of getting there then if they didn’t. I mean, my point is that I don’t see this distinction between America and Britain anymore. They both have major social mobility.

Fiona Hill: Well, actually Andrew, that’s absolutely right. And that’s actually the point of the book because, you know, perhaps maybe how I should have started in response to that question is that when I said that America had given me opportunities that Britain did not, it was about a specific time and place.

There still is a kind of dominance of privilege within those institutions, just like you suggested and you know, very similar in, you know, the UK and other places as well and it’s exactly that problem that I described. That persistence of the inability of people to see a pathway forward, that social mobility, people like themselves reflected at the top of government, apart from a handful. I mean, you know, you can name a few people. That’s not sufficient, you know, for people to feel that they have a chance of moving ahead. Representative democracy has to represent people, you know, who can say, okay, that is my representative, that’s somebody I can relate to and that’s broken down.

And that is the root of populous politics, it’s those grievances and frustrations that people have… that feed those grievances frustrations, that feed the populous politics. And one of the reasons for writing the book was to exactly what you just said, that to highlight that. But the point that I was trying to make at the beginning of that about, well, where are the people, you know, like myself with a similar background [are]?

Although the United Kingdom has done an awful lot to overcome, I think gender, racial and socioeconomic barriers to opportunity, there’s a lot of mobility. The regional differentiation is still there.

Andrew Neil: You’ve been a US citizen now for 20 years. But where does your heart lie these days? Where is it for you Fiona Hill? Is it America or Britain?

Fiona Hill: Well look, I think all of us can have multiple identities and mutual, you know, multiple affections. Obviously I’m extraordinarily fond of my adopted country, the United States, my family is there, I’ve really made a life for myself there. I think America is an amazing place, it’s very complex, it’s got a lot of problems at the moment but it’s really, you know, an incredible country  and I’ve obviously never had any regrets of going there but I have to say my heart is obviously with my origins up in the Northeast of England.

And, you know, when I go home to Bishop Auckland where my mum still lives and all my, you know, extended family and friends are all from there, you know, I immediately feel right back at home. I mean the oddness for me and I think the thing that probably comes out in the book is, I’ve never lived any life other than a working class life in Britain. 

I only ever lived, you know, for most of my life in Bishop Auckland county Durham. I didn’t live anywhere other than there and St. Andrew’s university, which is obviously a pretty, you know, a different experience.

I never lived for any length of time in London, or any other part of the UK. And, you know, there are a lot of people in Britain and also in the United States, who never really leave their regions and those regions, you know, define them. And I think part of the thing about where my heart lies is, you know, I’d really like to have everybody sort of feel that sense of pride of place, and you know, that kind of sense of identity rooted in a place and the people, you know, in which and among you grew up and that you can feel really strong affinity for.

I have always kind of a great debt of gratitude for the fact that I came from such a definite place, even if it was in a particularly difficult time. You know, the Northeast of England county Durham is, you know, kind of a source of pride for me even though I left. And my dad said to me, “There’s nothing here for you, pet.”

You know, you need to go off and find the opportunity. I still feel very much shaped by that. 

Andrew Neil: Hence the title of your book, without the pet.

Fiona Hill, thank you for being with us. 

Fiona Hill: Thank you so much, Andrew, it’s been a real pleasure. 


Next in this file

Inside the interview: Fiona Hill

Inside the interview: Fiona Hill

In a bonus episode for Tortoise members, Andrew Neil reflects on his interview with former director for Europe and Russia at the US National Security Council, Fiona Hill

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