Fiona Hill talks Putin’s goals in Ukraine, Russian election interference

Fiona Hill, former deputy assistant to the president of the United States.

Image via Pitt Global webpage

Fiona Hill, former deputy assistant to the president of the United States.

By Bella Markovitz, Staff Writer

Fiona Hill believes that “the way we select our president is pretty much a beauty contest.”

Foreign affairs specialist and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Fiona Hill, spoke at an even hosted by Pitt’s Center for Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies and Ridgway Center for International Security Studies on Wednesday night at Alumni Hall. She spoke on Putin’s intentions and strategy in the war with Ukraine, Russian interference in the 2016 election and what led her to begin studying Russia.

Hill served as senior director for European and Russian affairs on the national security council during the Trump administration. She also testified in the hearings leading up to Trump’s first impeachment. 

According to Hill, the American electoral system is “complex and decentralized enough that the Russians could not have directly interfered” with the election system itself. However, Hill said they can run political influence operations.

“We have political action committees, thanks to Citizens United we have a lot of money sloshing around in our democracy. So think about Putin, and the Kremlin operatives… and the Russian military intelligence, they were operating these kinds of activities as well as a massive super PAC,” Hill said. “The Russians pumped in billions and billions of dollars into setting up basically this internet research agency and all kinds of groups looking at how Americans were fighting with each other… Ultimately what they were doing was adding fuel to the fires of all our political fears.”

Lilyana Acharya, a sophomore undecided major, said she attended Wednesday’s event because of her own interest in Russia and the US involvement in the Ukraine crisis. 

“[Hill] seemed like a very deeply involved expert in this, so I couldn’t miss it,” Acharya said.

Acharya said Hill’s comments on the Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election stood out to her.

“Hill made the distinction between Russia electing Trump, and Russia using our electoral system to get us to elect Trump when they did, because people often make the mistake, according to her, that… Trump was involved in our political system in a very complex way,” Acharya said.

Europe experienced a nuclear war scare in the form of the Euro-missile crisis in 1983, and according to Hill,  it was against the backdrop of this scare that she began studying Russia “to comfort these fears.”

“We actually thought that that was going to be the end of the world,” Hill said, “I used to practice hiding in the closet under the stairs like Harry Potter and what we would do in the event of a nuclear attack.”

When asked if Americans must once again worry about Russia using nuclear weapons, Hill explained her understanding of Putin’s strategy.

“If Putin thought that this could have the political impact that he wants it to have, he would use [nuclear weapons],” Hill said. “But I’m not convinced he actually thinks it’s gonna have the impact that he wants.” 

Sean Jamison, a senior film studies and communication rhetoric major, said he learned a lot from the event about the European perspective on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

“I didn’t really realize how important the 1983 conflict was, or like the 1983 escalation of Cold War tensions was to Europeans. I didn’t realize that it was basically their equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Jamison said.

According to the event page, the conversation was “the inaugural event in a new REEES-Ridgway Center annual series featuring high profile scholar-practitioners who have had an important impact on recent world events.”

Director of REEES Nancy Condee introduced Hill as “extraordinarily insightful and incisive in her remarks,” and encouraged the audience to read her writing, including her recent memoir “There is Nothing For You Here” which Condee described as “part memoir, part history, and part policy.”

On stage, alongside Hill and Condee was director of the Ridgway Center Michael 

Kenney, a professor of international affairs. Kenney thanked Hill for not only coming to speak at the event but also for speaking to students in class beforehand.

Before the event, Hill visited and spoke to students in the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs intelligence studies seminar class taught by Kenney on Tuesday night. 

“She came for an hour and half and she answered our students’ questions, question after question,” Kenney said. “She gave a similar performance to what she gave tonight, just very detailed, complex answers. The students were incredibly pleased. She’s very gracious, generous with her time. So it’s just been a fantastic experience for us being able to host Dr. Hill.”

Kenney said Hill also visited two more classes on Wednesday morning — a nationalism course taught by associate professor Jan Musekamp and a GSPIA intelligence course taught by associate professor Julia Santucci. 

When asked what advice she would offer to someone in high school, Hill recalled facing a lack of resources at her own high school as a youth and how this inspired her to be creative in finding resources. 

“Go talk to your teachers. Get to know people in your community… Find out what kind of educational opportunities are out there, don’t take no for an answer,” Hill said.