WASHINGTON – Even if the U.S. succeeds in deterring Russian President Vladimir Putin from ordering a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, he will remain determined to bring Ukraine to heel and has “a whole host of options of things that he can do,” said Fiona Hill, a Russia scholar who has served in the past three U.S. administrations.
Russia could hit Ukraine with paralyzing cyberattacks, hobble its economy or even poison the Ukrainian president, Hill said in an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
Hill’s sober assessment of the Ukraine crisis, which she says is far from over, came as President Joe Biden warned that Russia could invade Ukraine within days. Russia is believed to have some 150,000 troops near Ukraine’s borders, and Western leaders say Russia has moved in thousands more troops despite announcing that some were returning to their bases.
Hill, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of a book about Putin, is considered one of the world's leading experts on Russia. During her government service, she was a national intelligence officer in the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations, and was the senior director for Russia on the National Security Council under former President Donald Trump. She testified in Trump's first impeachment inquiry and was highly critical of his actions regarding Ukraine.
Ukraine has strong historical and cultural ties to Russia, but since the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union it has looked increasingly to the West, with aspirations of becoming a member of the European Union and NATO.
For Putin, who insists Ukrainians and Russians are “one people,” this would be a devastating loss.
“Just in the thinking of the Kremlin and Putin in particular, Ukraine belongs to Russia,” Hill said. “So by any kind of means … Russia intends to make sure that Ukraine is completely and utterly surrounded and constricted in every possible way.
“So it is entirely possible that Russia will choose to invade.”
She said it’s clear the Russians have been trying to create a pretext for an invasion.
“So we have to be very mindful that any of the reports that we get about any kinds of shelling or operations that may be carried out by Ukrainian forces are very likely to be the beginning of a pretext,” she said.
On Thursday, Russian-backed separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine reported an increase in Ukrainian shelling and said they returned fire. Ukraine disputed the claim, saying separatists shelled its forces, and hit a kindergarten, but they didn’t fire back. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy called the kindergarten shell a “big provocation.”
The Russians created just such a pretext before invading Georgia in 2008. Hill, a national intelligence officer at the time, said the U.S. warned the Georgians that the Russians were looking to draw them into a conflict to give them a pretext to take military action. The Georgians still fell for the provocation.
She praised President Joe Biden’s handling of the Ukraine crisis, particularly his administration’s release of intelligence findings about Russian activity. U.S. officials have accused Russia of planning a “false-flag” operation to create a pretext for an invasion and detailed Russian preparations for a potential assault.
“I think he’s dealt with it as best he can, and I do think that it’s been quite smart and getting ahead of the Russian disinformation with information,” Hill said.
She said Biden is in a different position from other leaders who may be encountering Putin for the first time. Biden met with Putin as vice president and was involved in U.S. policy toward Russia during his decades in the Senate.
“Putin has basically outfoxed and outsmarted an awful lot of people over the 22 years” he’s been in power by using his experience as a KGB operative and “Biden’s well aware of that,” Hill said.
Trump “thought he could charm Putin, but it’s Putin who manipulates people, not the other way around,” she said.
She said Biden was right to repeat his warnings about potential Russian aggression as he tries to prepare the United States’ European allies to push back.
“If he doesn’t repeat them, they will all think that everything is fine because everyone is looking now for a way out. We’re all looking for a solution. There’s not going to be one. Putin has declared war on us.”
She said it’s possible the Biden administration’s actions will avert a full-scale invasion by convincing the Kremlin that the costs would be too high.
“But Putin might then choose other options that are before him: cyber operations, subversive activity. They could try to poison President Zelenskyy of Ukraine. They’ve certainly done that on plenty of occasions,” she said, noting that a previous president of Ukraine was poisoned with dioxin when he was running for election against the Kremlin’s preferred candidate.
Another option for Putin, she said, was to try “to squeeze the Ukrainian economy so that it collapses." An economic collapse would undermine Zelenskyy at home. “Then the Russians might hope that he’s overthrown by internal forces. That’s what happened in Georgia,” Hill said.
Hill said Putin also could keep Russian forces along Ukraine’s borders and position nuclear-capable missiles just across the border in Belarus to keep up the pressure.
“So things are very complicated, and the Russians know that if they keep the pressure up by hook or by crook, in their view, they’ll find a way of getting what they want in Ukraine. So we have to be constantly vigilant and pushing back.”