“Every time you think, ’No, he wouldn’t, would he?’ Well, yes, he would…”

Fiona Hill is an expert on Russia and a biographer of Putin. Her interview with Politico is a good background to the current Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Some quotes:

Putin is usually more cynical and calculated than he came across in his most recent speeches. There’s evident visceral emotion in things that he said in the past few weeks justifying the war in Ukraine. The pretext is completely flimsy and almost nonsensical for anybody who’s not in the echo chamber or the bubble of propaganda in Russia itself. I mean, demanding to the Ukrainian military that they essentially overthrow their own government or lay down their arms and surrender because they are being commanded by a bunch of drug-addled Nazi fascists? There’s just no sense to that. It beggars the imagination.

This visceral emotion is unhealthy and extraordinarily dangerous because there are few checks and balances around Putin.

Putin has articulated an idea of there being a “Russky Mir” or a “Russian World.” The recent essay he published about Ukraine and Russia states the Ukrainian and Russian people are “one people,” a “yedinyi narod.” He’s saying Ukrainians and Russians are one and the same. This idea of a Russian World means re-gathering all the Russian-speakers in different places that belonged at some point to the Russian tsardom.

I’ve kind of quipped about this but I also worry about it in all seriousness — that Putin’s been down in the archives of the Kremlin during Covid looking through old maps and treaties and all the different borders that Russia has had over the centuries. He’s said, repeatedly, that Russian and European borders have changed many times. And in his speeches, he’s gone after various former Russian and Soviet leaders, he’s gone after Lenin and he’s gone after the communists, because in his view they ruptured the Russian empire, they lost Russian lands in the revolution, and yes, Stalin brought some of them back into the fold again like the Baltic States and some of the lands of Ukraine that had been divided up during World War II, but they were lost again with the dissolution of the USSR. Putin’s view is that borders change, and so the borders of the old Russian imperium are still in play for Moscow to dominate now.

But amid all this, Ukraine was the country that got away. And what Putin is saying now is that Ukraine doesn’t belong to Ukrainians. It belongs to him and the past. He is going to wipe Ukraine off the map, literally, because it doesn’t belong on his map of the “Russian world.” He’s basically told us that. He might leave behind some rump statelets. When we look at old maps of Europe — probably the maps he’s been looking at — you find all kinds of strange entities, like the Sanjak of Novi Pazar in the Balkans. I used to think, what the hell is that? These are all little places that have dependency on a bigger power and were created to prevent the formation of larger viable states in contested regions. Basically, if Vladimir Putin has his way, Ukraine is not going to exist as the modern-day Ukraine of the last 30 years.

The more we talk, the more we’re using World War II analogies. There are people who are saying we’re on the brink of a World War III.

Hill: We’re already in it. We have been for some time. We keep thinking of World War I, World War II as these huge great big set pieces, but World War II was a consequence of World War I. And we had an interwar period between them. And in a way, we had that again after the Cold War. Many of the things that we’re talking about here have their roots in the carving up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Russian Empire at the end of World War I. At the end of World War II, we had another reconfiguration and some of the issues that we have been dealing with recently go back to that immediate post-war period. We’ve had war in Syria, which is in part the consequence of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, same with Iraq and Kuwait.

All of the conflicts that we’re seeing have roots in those earlier conflicts. We are already in a hot war over Ukraine, which started in 2014. People shouldn’t delude themselves into thinking that we’re just on the brink of something. We’ve been well and truly in it for quite a long period of time.

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