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Explaining Putin’s Many years-Lengthy Obsession With Ukraine

By , in Politics , at February 19, 2022

We spoke with Fiona Hill, a former Trump adviser, about how the Russian chief’s view of historical past has led him to the brink of warfare.

Winston Churchill as soon as described Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a thriller, inside an enigma.” It’s a phrase that might equally apply to Vladimir Putin, the Kremlin’s chief, as the world awaits his next move on Ukraine.

To raised perceive him, we reached out to Fiona Hill, one in all Washington’s foremost specialists on the Russian president. Hill has served in a number of U.S. administrations as an intelligence officer and coverage adviser, most just lately as senior director for Europe and Russia on the Nationwide Safety Council below Donald Trump.

She spoke with us about Putin’s longtime obsession with annexing Ukraine, her worries about how he’s closed himself off from exterior data and his non-public boasts about his skill to “purchase anybody” in the USA and Europe.

The next excerpts have been edited for size and readability:

How would you consider the administration’s dealing with of this disaster thus far? What’s labored and what hasn’t?

I believe they’re dealing with it in addition to they are often, given the circumstances. Writ massive, what the administration is doing proper now could be definitely what I might advocate doing. However I don’t know whether or not we are able to say if it’s going to work or not. The actual take a look at goes to be over a protracted time period. I don’t assume that is going to be a brief, sharp disaster.

What do you imply?

Putin’s been attempting to get a grip on Ukraine for years now. They minimize off the fuel to Ukraine in 2006. He’s been in energy for 22 years, and the entire of that point, he’s had Ukraine within the cross hairs a technique or one other, and it’s intensified over time. Putin needs to be the one who, on his watch, in his presidency, pulls Ukraine again into Russia’s orbit. And he could possibly be president till 2036, when it comes to what’s potential for him.

Is that this basically ideological for him, or geopolitical?

It’s about him personally — his legacy, his view of himself, his view of Russian historical past. Putin clearly sees himself as a protagonist in Russian historical past, and is placing himself within the place of earlier Russian leaders who’ve tried to assemble in what he sees because the Russian land. Ukraine is the outlier, the one which acquired away that he’s acquired to deliver again.

And does that imply that he’s behaving irrationally right here?

No, I don’t assume he’s being irrational in any respect, from his perspective. He’s in a unique body from the place we’re. He’s dwelling in historical past and his narrative of historical past. He additionally is a component of a bigger group of safety individuals in Russia who’ve been against NATO growth; they need the U.S. out of Europe.

However it looks like he’s made his safety scenario worse.

That’s from our perspective, on the surface. We don’t know precisely what he’s saying internally. From his perspective proper now, he’s put the squeeze on Ukraine and the Ukrainian financial system is getting crushed. He’s acquired all of our consideration. We’re all working round doing nothing however discuss him. As he would say, he’s acquired us listening to him now. Whether or not we’re listening to him on the phrases that he needs us to is one other matter.

And also you assume he’s keen to pay a really excessive worth to get Ukraine — that he’s keen to bear prices that we might see as exorbitant?

Putin thinks that he might be extra aggressive and wait us out and take extra ache than we are able to. His purpose is to make us cut up aside, to principally capitulate with out truly doing something. So he’s going to maintain the strain up. I can’t say whether or not he’s going to invade. However he’s definitely going to provide us each impression that he’s going to do it, and he needs to attempt to discover operational shock. He needs to catch us out.

Tyler Hicks/The New York Instances

When he appears to be like on the West’s response, how do you assume he’s studying the alerts?

I don’t know what alerts he’s truly getting straight, past what they provide him in media compilations, what he could be listening to. And that’s a part of the issue. We don’t understand how good his intel is. And in some circumstances, we expect it won’t be nice, as a result of he definitely hasn’t learn the temper in Ukraine in addition to you may need thought. He clearly thought that we’d all disintegrate internationally. He didn’t most likely anticipate the Western resolve that he’s acquired within the type of NATO and European unity, however we don’t know what individuals are telling him.

Folks could also be spinning to him that he’s executed an incredible job — you already know, that we’re all capitulating. He’s acquired a parade of European leaders coming and he’s attempting to check them and see what they need to say. He’s on the lookout for daylight between them, after which he’s making his personal evaluation.

Do you assume the USA must squeeze Putin tougher? To impose punishments now slightly than ready for some set off to set off one other spherical of sanctions?

That may be a mistake, to set off proper now. It doesn’t work with simply such crude messaging. You might have to have the ability to present the trigger and impact of sanctions once you put them on and off. In any other case, the view then turns into, effectively, there’s nothing we are able to do anyway. As a result of the Russian perspective is that every one the U.S. does is put sanctions on international locations regardless of what they do. We might simply feed that narrative.

And we already are doing loads of issues. But when we put unilateral sanctions on, upfront of extra motion from Russia, we’ll have misplaced the allies. And Putin most likely is banking on a few of that.

Final night time, I used to be at dinner with a European overseas minister and one in all their below secretaries. They usually had been relating discussions that they’ve had with the Russians, the place Putin’s instructed them bluntly that they’ll purchase anybody they like in the USA or in Europe.

The Russians assume that they’ll simply outmaneuver the USA and the entire allies on sanctions and all the things else. They usually’ve been very profitable at that, as a result of they’ve lobbyists inside our personal techniques who foyer for them. You may go down a protracted record of people who find themselves on the board of Russian corporations or do consulting for Russian corporations.

Clearly, it’s all the time been for political leverage. And Putin explicitly says: I should buy anybody. I don’t, by the best way, imagine that he can, as a result of I do know individuals who work with the Russians and keep their integrity. However from Putin’s perspective, that’s very sturdy signaling.

You’ve sat it on conferences with Putin. Does he simply sort of rant about his view of historical past?

He has his personal rationality, and, previously, he’s been far more measured. However I do know lots of people who’ve been by way of Moscow just lately, and so they’re saying the man appears much more closed off to the information. We’re not likely positive what sort of data he’s getting, and he appears extra embittered. And is it the impact of Covid? Is it as a result of he’s been stewing in his personal juices for too lengthy? We will’t actually make sure what precisely he’s considering proper now. You’ve acquired to hope that some saner voices are forcing a recalculation.

Robert Cohen/St. Louis Publish-Dispatch, through Related Press

What to learn

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Al Drago for The New York Instances

Valentine’s guests on the White Home

On Politics frequently options work by Instances photographers. On Valentine’s Day on Monday, Jill Biden led second-grade college students from Aiton Elementary Faculty in Washington on a tour of the White Home. Right here’s what Al Drago instructed us about capturing the picture above:

I might hear college students cheering as their mini yellow faculty bus pulled up the driveway on the South Garden. The primary girl’s presence was a shock, and once I noticed her strolling with the scholars, they had been leaping up and down and holding palms along with her.

I like this photograph as a result of you’ll be able to see how keen the scholars are to maintain shifting, because the woman in entrance pulls her classmate ahead. The scholars toured the North Garden, Cross Corridor, the White Home movie show, and extra. Biden, a longtime advocate for educators who continues to show at Northern Virginia Neighborhood Faculty, apologized to the visiting instructor for giving her college students chocolate that might make them hyper later within the day.

I captured this photograph as Biden was strolling in between preplanned photograph ops. Particularly in masking politics, I’m all the time on the lookout for these extra human, in-between moments.

Is there something you assume we’re lacking? Something you wish to see extra of? We’d love to listen to from you. Electronic mail us at onpolitics@nytimes.com.

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