Fiona Hill on Ukraine, Dec 2023

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‘We’ll Be at Each Others’ Throats’: Fiona Hill on What Happens If Putin Wins The veteran Russia watcher is deeply alarmed as Washington reaches an inflection point on the war in Ukraine.

Fiona Hill, former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the U.S. National Security Council, during an interview for Bloomberg Fiona Hill is a keen observer not just of Russia and its leader, but also of American politics, having served in the White House as a top adviser to both Democrats and Republicans. | Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images


12/12/2023 11:43 AM EST

Maura Reynolds is POLITICO Magazine's deputy editor for ideas.

It was nearly two years ago that Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and in recent months, the fighting appears to have ground to a stalemate. Aid from the United States has helped Ukraine get this far — but now Americans are asking, how long should they continue to support Ukraine in its war against Russia? At this point, just what are the stakes for the United States?

Since the war began, I’ve turned to Fiona Hill periodically for insight into what’s driving Russian President Vladimir Putin, and where America’s interests lie. She’s a keen observer not just of Russia and its leader, but also of American politics, having served in the White House as a top adviser to both Democrats and Republicans, including President Donald Trump. Since she left the Trump administration (and after a star turn testifying in his first impeachment), she’s become a highly sought-out voice on global affairs as well as the domestic roots of authoritarianism in countries around the world.

When we spoke this week, she made clear that the decision of whether Ukraine wins or loses is now on us — almost entirely. As Congress debates how much more money to authorize for Ukraine’s assistance amid growing Republican opposition, she says that what we are really debating is our own future. Do we want to live in the kind of world that will result if Ukraine loses?

Hill is clear about her answer. A world in which Putin chalks up a win in Ukraine is one where the U.S.’s standing in the world is diminished, where Iran and North Korea are emboldened, where China dominates the Indo-Pacific, where the Middle East becomes more unstable and where nuclear proliferation takes off, among allies as well as enemies.

“Ukraine has become a battlefield now for America and America’s own future — whether we see it or not — for our own defensive posture and preparedness, for our reputation and our leadership,” she told me. “For Putin, Ukraine is a proxy war against the United States, to remove the United States from the world stage.”

Hill sees U.S. domestic politics as the main obstacle to Ukraine’s ability to win. She has long warned, including in a book published after she left the White House, that high levels of partisanship in the United States promote authoritarianism both at home and around the world. She’s been talking to some lawmakers about Ukraine, and she’s worried that their partisanship has blinded them to the dangers the country faces if Putin gets his way.

“The problem is that many members of Congress don’t want to see President Biden win on any front,” she said. “People are incapable now of separating off ‘giving Biden a win’ from actually allowing Ukraine to win. They are thinking less about U.S. national security, European security, international security and foreign policy, and much more about how they can humiliate Biden.”

“In that regard,” she continued, “whether they like it or not, members of Congress are doing exactly the same thing as Vladimir Putin. They hate that. They want to refute that. But Vladimir Putin wants Biden to lose, and they want Biden to be seen to lose as well.”

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Ukraine is fighting the Russian invasion on several fronts: military, financial, political. In each of those areas, is Ukraine winning, or is Russia?

We have to think about where we would have been in February of 2022. Russia’s intent was to decapitate the Ukrainian government so it could take over the country. That’s what we all anticipated. We anticipated that [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelenskyy would have gone into exile, the Ukrainians would have capitulated, then there would be a very messy insurgency against the Russian forces. So if we start from that point, militarily, and we look at what’s happened over the last two years, we can actually say that Ukraine has won in terms of securing its independence, and has won by fighting Russia to a standstill.

But then we get into the details. Because, of course, the standstill is the main issue at hand. The Ukrainians were initially able to take back quite a lot of the territory that the Russians seized in the early phases of the invasion, but then the Russians dug in. We had all the hype around a counteroffensive this past summer, a lot of expectations built up inside and outside of Ukraine, especially here in the United States. If we look at other wars, major wars, often these much-anticipated individual battles don’t turn out the way that the planners or the fighters actually anticipate. Now we are in a scenario where having not succeeded in reaching the stated goals of the counteroffensive, we’re basically positing that Ukraine has somehow lost the entire war.

Zelenskyy in Washington: 'Putin must lose'

SharePlay Video Ukraine has succeeded so far because of massive military support from European allies and other partners. So in that regard, we’ve now reached a tipping point between whether Ukraine continues to win in terms of having sufficient fighting power to stave Russia off, or whether it actually starts to lose because it doesn’t have the equipment, the heavy weaponry, the ammunition. That external support is going to be determinative.

So it’s maybe too soon to answer the question of has Ukraine won or lost militarily.

How about in the financial and diplomatic arenas?

It’s a question of whether Ukraine has enough resources, financial resources, not just to keep going on the battlefield, but also to keep the country together at home. And up until now you’re still seeing a lot of European countries stepping up. Not just you know, the United States, but definitely the EU, Japan, South Korea and others. Japan recently made an offer of additional major financial support. The Germans have said that they’ll make sure that the Ukrainian economy will continue to not just survive, but thrive, and over the longer term, they’ll help rebuild. This is still somewhat positive.


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On the political side, however, we’ve got the problems of the policy battlefields on the domestic front. Ukraine has now become a domestic political issue in a whole range of countries, not just here in the United States, but in countries like Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Germany and many more. And that’s an issue where it’s going to be very hard for Ukraine to win. Because when you get into the transactional issues of domestic politics, and you’re no longer thinking about national security, or these larger imperatives, then Ukraine dies a thousand deaths from all of the transactional efforts that domestic politicians engage in. Most political constituents, no matter the country, can’t really see beyond their own narrow interests.

So Ukraine isn’t losing yet. But depending on the domestic situation in the United States, and with its European allies, it could? It could start losing very soon?

That’s right, we’re at a pivotal point. There’s a lot of detail, but the bottom line is that we are at an inflection point, a juncture where it could very rapidly tip, in fact this month — December and January — into a losing proposition for Ukraine.

What do you think Putin sees when he’s watching the debate taking place in the United States right now?

He does see the entire battlefield of the military, financial and political arenas tipping to his benefit. Putin really thinks that he is on the winning side. We’ve just seen in the last few weeks, something that looks rather suspiciously like a preparatory victory tour [by Putin] around the Middle East, visiting the UAE and Saudi Arabia, stepping out again in “polite company,” preparing to go to other major meetings. And then the coverage in the Russian press — their commentators are crowing with glee at the predicament of the Ukrainians, clapping their hands, literally and figuratively, about the peril for Ukraine in the U.S. Congress.

“We’re at a pivotal point.”

Fiona Hill

One thing that we need to bear in mind here is that Putin turned for assistance to two countries that should give Americans and members of Congress pause — Iran and North Korea. Russia has had significant shortfalls of ammunition and sophisticated technology because of sanctions and other constraints. Ammunition has come from North Korea, which continues to provide Russia with all kinds of rounds for shells, and Iran has stepped up with the production of drones. Iran and North Korea both see this as a kind of international opening for them. If Russia prevails on the battlefield, you can be sure that Iran and North Korea will get benefits from this. We already see Russia shifting its position on the Iranian nuclear front, and we also see Russia making a major shift in its relationship with Israel. Putin has gone from being a major supporter of Israel, to now an opponent, and has switched from what was always very careful public rhetoric about Israel to pretty antisemitic statements. Putin never denigrated Jews in the past. On the contrary, he presented himself as a supporter of the Jewish population. This is a dramatic shift and clearly because of Iran. Now, whether Iran asked Putin to do this, I honestly can’t say, but we can all see this deepening relationship between Russia and Iran. That is a real problem for the administration and for others who are now looking at the Middle East and trying to figure out how to stop a broader war with Lebanon, with the Houthis in Yemen, and all of the Iranian proxies, because Iran and Russia have become fused together now in two conflicts.

China is not neutral in this either. So not only do we have North Korea, but we also have one of North Korea’s major patrons, which is China. Although we have not seen China supporting Russia in the war in Ukraine in the way that North Korea and Iran have, China continues to give Putin a lot of economic, political and moral support. China sees this as an opportunity to put pressure on the United States. China’s also learning an awful lot of lessons from this war, about how the United States and Europe and other countries are likely to react in other contexts. If we step back and allow Ukraine to lose, well, are we going to do the same in the case of Taiwan?

And this also brings in another couple of places, South Korea and Japan. We tend to fixate on what the United States is doing, and all the machinations in Europe, but the South Koreans have found ways of getting supplies of armaments to the Ukrainians through back channels via other countries that are purchasing the weapons. Japan has just given Ukraine a significant tranche of money, because they know only too well that a military failure for Ukraine is going to shift the entire balance in the Indo-Pacific.

You said a loss for Ukraine would shift the entire balance in the Indo-Pacific region — you mean shift it toward China?

Yes, it’s highly likely that that would be the case. And that’s why Japan and South Korea are desperately trying to help out Ukraine because they see the larger geopolitical implications of this.

But it’s not just China and Russia who are learning from this war. So are we. We’ve seen the impact of drone warfare and we’re thinking about how we deal with this ourselves. We’ve been kind of shocked to see how much wars like this take up ammunition stocks — this is not the type of war that we’ve fought for a very long time. When we’re thinking about our own defense, our own national security, we need to be looking very carefully at this conflict. The way that Putin has played with the idea of using tactical nuclear weapons, the use of drones on the battlefield, the use of mines, the use of ships and blockades in the Black Sea, the difficulty of pushing forward in a counteroffensive against these deep entrenchments, how various military systems including defensive equipment actually perform in real time and conditions. We can see how effective our ATACMS were, for example, our Patriot batteries. This is, in a way, a proving ground for our own equipment.

Other countries elsewhere in the world have been watching, seeing Russia adapt and learn lessons, do more with less. The Russians have ramped up their military production. They are on a war footing. They now have a war economy. And although Russia has been dependent on North Korea and on Iran for some weapons, they’re starting to produce their own. So what you’re seeing here is a Russian military buildup on the back of this war that will become a menace to its neighbors and those don’t have to be just the neighbors in Europe, but can be further afield. Remember, Japan still has a territorial dispute with Russia.

Putin initially thought he would just go and take Kyiv, and obviously, that didn’t happen. How do you think Putin now would define a win for himself and for Russia?

Well, there’ll be multiple ways he will define it, one of which is defeating the United States, politically, psychologically and symbolically. If the United States doesn’t pass the supplemental [bill to approve aid to Ukraine], and we get this chorus of members of Congress calling for the United States to pull away from Ukraine, Putin will be able to switch this around and say, “There you go. The United States is an unreliable ally. The United States is not a world leader.” And there will be a chilling effect for all our other allies. In the past, Putin has actually, for example, approached the Japanese and said, “Look, we can be your interlocutor with China. The United States is not going to be there to assist you in a crunch.” And that’s certainly what this is going to look like. The Japanese, the South Koreans, the Vietnamese, others that we have bilateral treaties with, are going to wonder, “OK, the United States made such a push here to support Ukraine, along with other European members of NATO, and now they’ve just walked away from it.” And you put that on top of Afghanistan and the withdrawal, also the withdrawal from Iraq, withdrawal from Syria, and the whole fraught history of United States interventions in the last two decades, and Putin will be able to present a pretty potent narrative about the United States’ inability to maintain its commitments and forfeiting its role as an international leader. So that that becomes a major political win.

And that’s aside from the obvious win of being able to turn the tide on Ukraine, because Putin will now see an opportunity to partition Ukraine. The partition will be along the existing ceasefire lines, he’ll start to push, and others will be pushing, for a negotiation. We’ve already heard former President Trump saying he would solve the conflict in 24 hours, and many other senators and people who would be supporting Trump in an election, basically saying we need to get this over with, pushing Ukraine towards the table. That’s not the position of this administration, to be very clear. And that’s not the position of many in Congress and Senate. But we’ve definitely got those voices.

So for Putin, he will see this is a very propitious moment, to re-up the idea of a negotiation for a ceasefire on his terms. And, of course, we’ve got all of the drama around the issue of a ceasefire in the Middle East. There may also be a push from many other countries to say, let’s stop, we need to focus on the disasters in Gaza, let’s just get Russia and Ukraine to put their war to one side. Putin’s already playing into this, trying to get other countries to say, “Look, we’re always dealing with Europe’s problems. We need to be dealing with the Middle East here. This is more consequential for everyone.” Putin is likely hoping that there’ll be pressure put on Ukraine that way as well, to come to the negotiating table because of the international imperative to focus on the Middle East crisis. There’s been the revival of an idea that was a peace agreement on the table back in the spring of 2022, and a lot of talk around this issue along with a lot of propaganda and a lot of misinformation and disinformation about the prospects for a negotiated solution.

For Putin it would be a win to have a partition of Ukraine on his terms. We know from Russian public opinion, that there is a mounting desire for the war to end. That’s even reflected in some of the polling that is done close to the Kremlin. We’re seeing a majority of Russians who are polled saying that they would like the war to end. But they’re not saying that they want to give up the Ukrainian territories that Russia has taken or that they want to pay reparations to Ukraine. So Putin knows that there is a desire to end the war, and if he gets a partition through a ceasefire with limited cost to Russia it will boost his popularity ahead of the Russian election, which is coming up. And he’s just declared himself, surprise surprise, as the candidate — the only real candidate — for yet another six-year presidential term.

Russia’s presidential election is scheduled for March. How does the war in Ukraine play into Putin’s reelection bid?

It’s pretty critical. But it’s critical in that he has to have a win. A win, as I’ve just said, would be a distinct end to the war with a ceasefire and the partition of Ukraine. Any Ukrainians who are in the occupied and partitioned territories of Ukraine will be forced to become Russians, we’re already seeing that. It’s not just the deportation, and kidnapping, abduction of Ukrainian children from the conflict zones who are then being turned into Russians, literally, and in many cases, through adoptions. But it’s the fact that Ukrainians living in the occupied territories are being forced to take Russian passports and Russian citizenship to be able to get basic payments for their jobs, pensions, et cetera. Putin has already made it clear that he no longer thinks that there is a separate Ukrainian identity or language or heritage, and that Ukrainians are nothing but Russians.

A partition of Ukraine would not create a north and south Ukraine or an East and West Ukraine, along the lines of a partitioned Ireland or partitioned Korean peninsula or partitioned Germany after World War Two. This would be a rump Ukraine and an annexed territory that Russia will say is Russia, just like they have with Crimea. Putin will see that as a major win, because that will give him a platform for push back and later attempts to try for more, and because he will also have discredited the United States politically, and created a whole wave of knock-on effects internationally.

This would greatly complicate rump Ukraine’s ability to move forward and rebuild. Putin will basically say to Ukraine, you could have done all of this, handed over these territories to us without hundreds of thousands of people dying. And then there will be a constant flow of Russian propaganda and influence operations against Ukraine in which Russians will accuse the Ukrainians of violating the ceasefire, or manipulating negotiations, and will stir up political strife. This will not end. It will go on forever.

It will be a great win for Putin because he will be able to move on to the next part of the game while everyone else is stuck in place. He thinks in terms of bouts and tournaments. Like the judo professional he was before, in his youth. If he doesn’t win the first bout outright, he might win the second and still move on to victory.

What happens to the West if Putin wins?

We’ll be at each others’ throats. There’ll be no way in which this is going to turn out well. There’ll be a lot of frustration on the part of people who thought that this was the easier option when we reel from crisis to crisis. There’ll also be the shame, frankly, and the disgrace of having let the Ukrainians down. I think it would create a firestorm of recrimination. And it will also embolden so many other actors to take their own steps.

One key challenge is going to be the nuclear front. There’s several different ways in which we can look at the nuclear front. There’s the moral imperative. We pushed Ukraine to give up the nuclear weapons that it had inherited from the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. And we gave assurances along with the United Kingdom, that Ukraine would not end up in the situation that it is in now. We guaranteed its territorial integrity and sovereignty and independence and also assured Ukraine that we would step up to help. This opens up a whole can of worms related first to the moral jeopardy of this, that we obviously don’t stick to our word.

But also in terms of nuclear weapons, we could face proliferation issues with Japan, South Korea, other countries — even NATO countries who currently see themselves covered under the U.S. nuclear umbrella. They will start to worry about how much we would actually support them when they needed it, and how vulnerable they are to pressure or attack by another nuclear power. Think about the dynamics between India and Pakistan, for example, or China and India, or China and South Korea and Japan; and the predicament of leaders in other countries who will be thinking right now that, “I’m going to be extremely vulnerable — so perhaps I should be getting my own nuclear weapon.” You’re hearing talk about this in Germany, for example. You hear it all the time in places like Turkey, and Saudi Arabia, we know that they have nuclear aspirations. So this opens up a whole set of different discussions.

So you’re concerned that if Putin wins and Ukraine is partitioned, that will set off a nuclear proliferation race.

There is a very good chance that it will, because it will open up the question — you had a country that gave up nuclear weapons, didn’t keep any at all, was given guarantees of its security, and then it got invaded and partitioned.

You’ve written about the failure of the United States and the UK to provide adequate opportunity to all of its citizens. You’ve talked about the United States as being in need of a bigger “infrastructure of opportunity.” What do you say to Americans and members of Congress who feel like the money that we’re using to help Ukraine would be better spent right now at home?

That it’s actually being spent at home! That’s the irony. Because every time you send a weapon to the Ukrainians, it’s an American weapon. You’re not buying somebody else’s weapons to go to Ukraine. It’s also a fraction of our defense budget.

It’s really a circular process here. We are providing weapons to Ukraine, we’re buying them from major manufacturers of defense systems here in the United States, which are obviously providing jobs for the people who are making them. And then we’re going back and we’re ordering more because we’re replenishing and upgrading our own weapons stocks. This is all part of our own system. These defense manufacturers account for huge numbers of jobs across the whole of the United States, so arming Ukraine means significant job creation and retention across the United States and also in Europe and elsewhere.

People in Congress know that, it’s just that they’re playing a different game. They want to play up this issue of “it should be spent at home” because of the transactional nature of congressional supplemental bills.

Let’s just put it frankly — this is all about the upcoming presidential election. It’s less about Ukraine and it’s more about the fact that we have an election coming up next year. The problem is that many members of Congress don’t want to see President Biden win on any front. People are incapable now of separating off “giving Biden a win” from actually allowing Ukraine to win. They are thinking less about U.S. national security, European security, international security and foreign policy, and much more about how they can humiliate Biden.

In that regard, whether they like it or not, members of Congress are doing exactly the same thing as Vladimir Putin. They hate that. They want to refute that. But Vladimir Putin wants Biden to lose, and they want Biden to be seen to lose as well.

“The problem is that many members of Congress don’t want to see President Biden win on any front.”

Fiona Hill

For Vladimir Putin now Ukraine has become a proxy war. It’s not a proxy war by the United States against Russia. We’re trying to get Russia out of Ukraine, period. But for Putin, Ukraine is a proxy war against the United States, to remove the United States from the world stage. He’s trying to use Gaza, and Israel like that now, as well. He’s trying to whip up anti-United States sentiment wherever he can. I’ve just come back from Europe and from a whole host of conferences where there’s just so much rage and grievance about the United States and Putin is fanning the flames.

Putin sees Biden as a major opponent. He is an obstacle for Putin to be able to win on the battlefield of Ukraine. So Putin wants Biden to fail. Putin would be thrilled if Trump would come back to power because he also anticipates that Trump will pull the United States out of NATO, that Trump will rupture the U.S. alliance system, and that Trump will hand over Ukraine. So right at this particular moment, Putin sees an awful lot that he can get out of undermining Biden’s position.

Now, the problem, of course, is that currently many members of Congress and others are thinking about whether they want to run to be vice president for Trump, and what they should perhaps do now to support Trump and pave the way for his presidency. So the idea of giving Biden anything that could positively affect the election is just a bridge too far.

We have a situation now where perhaps Biden is the only person who can actually break the legislative logjam. Members of Congress and senators, many of whom I know from my own discussions with them absolutely support assisting Ukraine and get the importance of this moment, still can’t get past the domestic politics. Biden is going to have to somehow persuade them that if they rise to the occasion, helping Ukraine is not going to give him some kind of political boost and a consequential win.

This is the best possible position that Vladimir Putin could possibly have. He’s got no problems for his own election in March of 2024. Is there seriously going to be any kind of opposition to him? He doesn’t have the equivalent of the New York Times and Washington Post writing articles about how old he is or how he might have tripped walking downstairs or, in the case of Vladimir Putin, how much Botox did he use this morning? There’s no one trying to put his family on trial. There’s no one digging into every little part of his personal and political history. Putin is just home free.

Biden on Ukraine aid: 'We can't let Putin win'

SharePlay Video We’re not doing anything to put Putin in political jeopardy. We’re just fighting with ourselves all the time. And we can’t see past that. Biden’s got to try to help Ukraine, but can he get enough people to see past the election and also see the jeopardy we are in? We are in peril. We don’t see it. There’s such an anti-American wave that’s out there in the world. People want to see America fail and pulled down to size.

Ukraine has become a battlefield now, for America and America’s own future — whether we see it or not — for our own defensive posture and preparedness, for our reputation and our leadership.

American leadership is still very important. But other countries are starting to make plans for a world without us at this particular point. And you can be sure that Vladimir Putin, and President Xi and many others will be pretty ecstatic if we give up on Ukraine. And that could happen just as soon as December or January, because if Congress goes home for the holidays without passing the supplemental, and everyone’s back in their constituencies, there’s a lot of stuff that can happen in their absence, in that vacuum, that void that we have created. Everybody else in the rest of the world would be wondering, not just, “Where is America?” but, “What on earth has happened to America?” And if President Trump thinks that he’s going to be the leader of the free world when he comes back into office — well, think again. There won’t be a free world to be leading at all. And that’s not an overstatement. That’s just a fact.

National security ought to begin at the border of the United States. We shouldn’t be fighting about it all the time. We’ve got ourselves dangerously polarized along partisan lines, even though most Americans are not that polarized on this particular issue. I think the majority of Americans can see the importance of Ukraine. The majority of members of Congress and the Senate, irrespective of party, can see this as well. But the dynamic in our domestic politics has gotten to a point of such friction that our own position in the world is imperiled.

If the supplemental passes, and the U.S. does not step back from its support for Ukraine, where do we go from here? What’s the best-case scenario for going forward?

It’s still going to be difficult. Is there a win in here for Ukraine? Again, a win for Ukraine is having fought off Russia. A loss for Ukraine is everybody else stepping back — “You’ve made it this far, but we’re not going to help you anymore. Now, we’re going to leave you to your own devices.” Ukraine is the largest country in Europe, after Russia. Just think about the significance and symbolism of a partitioned Ukraine, one that seems very unlikely to be able to be joined together again.

So the best case scenario is, of course, one in which Ukraine continues to be able to hold its own and if we helped build it up militarily, where it can make another push or another series of pushes. If we think about World War Two and other wars, there were multiple offensive efforts, counteroffensives, and you just kept on trying until you succeeded. It will be very difficult to have an absolute victory over Russia. But what you want to have is Ukraine in a position to have a negotiation, a diplomatic solution, on its terms, not on Russia’s terms. A solution in which Ukraine is recognized as the party in the right, as the aggrieved party by the whole of the international community, and where Ukraine is, if not completely in territory, but materially and in every other way possible, made whole.

Another aspect of having this war resolved on Ukraine’s terms is that Russia is going to have to pay for or contribute to the reconstruction of Ukraine in some fashion. That is another major reason why Putin would see the U.S. and its allies stepping back as a major win, because then there’d be no leverage whatsoever or pressure put on Russia for rebuilding Ukraine. Russia could just step back, wash its hands of all of this and let everybody else fix what it broke.

So the best possible outcome here, beyond Ukraine being able to prevail on the battlefield, is a negotiated settlement that is in Ukraine’s favor, that leads to commitments to its security and reconstruction, and leads to some soul searching in Russia. That’s not going to happen under these current circumstances. The only way that that happens is when Russia believes that everybody else has the fortitude and staying power for this conflict. And right now, that’s not what we’re displaying at all. Actually, we’re looking pretty pathetic, I can’t think of any other way to describe it. And for Putin, this is just such a gift. This is such a gift.

What happens to Putin if he loses?

It’s problematic for Putin if he loses, or if he’s seen to lose and is diminished. He thinks he’s got clear sailing to be president in Russia from here to eternity, at least his eternity. He’s got two more six-year terms that can take him up to 2036 when he’ll be in his 80s. He will have been in power longer than any other Russian ruler in history. That’s his legacy. And if he loses the war in Ukraine, he no longer looks like the person who should be at the helm of Russia; and you’ll get a lot more machinations behind the scenes and questions about his ability to manage things.

Putin doesn’t seem to have many internal threats at this particular juncture. But that could change very quickly if he’s seen to lose in a definitive way, if he’s not accepted in polite company around the world, if the UAE and the Saudis don’t want to see him. If Putin looks like a loser and not a winner, people won’t be eager to host him. It’s while he still looks like a winner or somebody who could be a winner that people want to see him.

The problem, however, is an awful lot of countries don’t want to see Putin lose either, because they want Putin and Russia as a counterweight. Some countries, ironically, want to see Russia as a counterweight against China. That’s where Japan and India and others in the Indo-Pacific come in. Others want to see Russia as a counterweight against the United States. And so there will always be a push, just like the Chinese are doing, to try to prop Putin up. But if he looks like a loser who is significantly reducing Russian power on the world stage and damaging others’ interests in the process, then there may be more international pressure for the Russians to get their act together, resolve this war and move on.

How will China respond to a Putin loss?

They’re very assiduously trying to make sure that he doesn’t lose but probably also trying to make sure that he doesn’t win outright. The Chinese don’t necessarily want to see Ukraine completely lose and be partitioned. They make a case all the time about sovereignty and territorial integrity. That’s the base of their claim on Taiwan, for example. So it could be awkward for them. But, then again, I’m sure they’ll find some narrative to finesse it as they certainly don’t want to have Putin lose. This would be very negative for China, it would have all kinds of reverberations for China’s own claims against Taiwan. And for Xi personally, he has a lot invested in his relationship with Putin. This would raise questions about his judgment and about the costs to China of propping up Russia at the expense of other relationships.

What we need to do here is look for the best possible diplomatic solution, one in which Ukraine becomes an asset rather than a liability, where we use the war in Ukraine to try to stabilize the international system. The situation in Ukraine has so much riding on it at this point, and the longer this war goes on, of course, the more complicated it is.

“This is a moment for him to get rid of not just Pax Americana, but America as a major global player.”

Fiona Hill

But by giving up now, we’re basically giving up on ourselves, and giving up on European security and our own international position. This will have knock-on effects, very negative knock-on effects, including on our own domestic affairs.

So the big question is, again, is Putin winning right now?

He’s about to, and it’s on us. We’re at the point where it’s on us. If we leave the field, then he will win. His calculation is that our domestic politics and our own interests override everything, and that we no longer have a sense of national security, or of our role in international affairs. This is a moment for him to get rid of not just Pax Americana, but America as a major global player.

But the decision’s ours?

The decision is ours, this decision is entirely ours. We’re just falling all over ourselves to engage in self-harm at the moment. Ukraine shouldn’t be a partisan issue. I just hope that people are going to be able to dig deep, and realize the moment that they’re in.