According to a profile on former White House policy adviser Fiona Hill, written shortly after she became a major character in the Trump impeachment drama, Hill had been “a surprising pick” as the special assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs.
The Politico piece was titled “The Russia Hawk in the White House” and author Natasha Bertrand said Hill had started out long ago as a Putin fan. She was quickly disabused of that notion and, by the time she showed up at the White House, she was described as being hard on the Kremlin — something, it was implied, that made her unusual in an administration being portrayed as uniquely favorable to Vladimir Putin.
Take this quote from Hill in 2016, based on why she thought that Trump would be hard on Putin:
“We’re going to have an awful lot of friction [with Russia] and Trump isn’t exactly the most diplomatic of people,” she told The Atlantic before joining the administration.
“So I imagine he’ll fall out with his new friend Vladimir pretty quickly.”
However rough on Putin and Moscow that the Trump administration was, it was implied that Hill — portrayed in the article as a proud member of what Trump might call “The Swamp” (she came to the administration from the liberal Brookings Institution and friends weren’t even sure she was a conservative) and a countervailing force to the natural tendencies of the president — had something to do with that roughness.
Hill, Bertrand wrote, “helped craft responses to Russia’s malign behavior that, to many experts, are arguably even tougher than those imposed by the Obama administration—including the expulsion of 60 undercover Russian intelligence officers from the U.S. following a Russian chemical weapons attack on British soil, the provision of lethal weapons to Ukraine, and a U.S. troop buildup in Poland.”
That emphasis is mine because, as Wikipedia might say, . It wasn’t that Hill didn’t perhaps come to the conclusion that providing lethal force to Ukraine was required. It seems unlikely, however, that she was the driving force behind such a conclusion. Also, if not providing military assistance to Ukraine could be seen as appeasing Vladimir Putin, Hill was Neville Chamberlain-ing the Kremlin as recently as the year before Donald Trump was elected.
I know this because Fiona Hill said as much in a Washington Post Op-Ed back in 2015, titled “How aiding the Ukrainian military could push Putin into a regional war.”
“The United States is on a dangerous trajectory in its relations with Russia, a nuclear superpower that believes itself to be under direct threat,” Hill and Clifford Gaddy, both with the Brookings Institution, argued in the Op-Ed, which came on the heels of a report that the Obama administration should supply weaponry to Ukraine as it was under assault by Russian forces.
Antagonizing Russia was perceived to be a very bad thing by Hill and Gaddy’s standards.
”In the jargon of geopolitics, Putin enjoys ‘escalation dominance’ in Ukraine: Whatever move we make, he can match it and go further. In August, when it looked as though Ukraine might rout the rebels, Putin increased the stakes and countered the Ukrainian military,” they wrote.
“Drawing on those lessons, some Russian security analysts are now pushing for a preemptive invasion of Ukraine, arguing that Russia should go all the way to Kiev before the West takes further action.
“One recent such plan suggested that Moscow was losing momentum in the conflict and should not waste more time on fruitless negotiations. The Western press coverage of the issue of lethal weapons can only convince those in Moscow pushing ‘full war and invasion now’ that their approach is correct.
”We also must consider the effect that arming Ukraine would have on our European allies. The report has created an uproar in Berlin and other European capitals, stoking concern that the Obama administration will take steps others are not ready for,” the Op-Ed continues.
“If Putin concludes that transatlantic unity can be shattered, with the United States facing the possibility of going it alone in Ukraine, why would he change course?”
Beyond this, Hill and Gaddy’s arguments are essentially these: Putin would believe providing military assistance to Ukrainian forces would be akin to a NATO proxy war in the country; he doesn’t bluff in using military and political force in nations he views in Russia’s sphere of influence, as proven in Chechnya and Georgia; and providing military assistance to the Ukrainians would help him make the case that a more difficult conflict in Ukraine was worth it.
I don’t particularly feel the need to refute Hill’s points because they either a) changed so entirely between the Op-Ed on Feb. 5, 2015, and when she joined the Trump administration that she now believed arming Ukraine was critical or b) her views made as little to no difference as to be worth discussing in this context.
I concede the two aren’t mutually exclusive but I would argue b) is probably a bit more likely than a). The point is that Hill wasn’t exclusively a “Russia hawk” and that it wasn’t her intervention that ensured a pro-Putin administration got Javelin anti-tank systems getting into the hands of the Ukrainians.
And, when arming the Ukrainians did happen, it’s worth pointing out that none of the apocalyptic situations predicted by Hill or Gaddy actually happened. Russia still hasn’t invaded Ukraine, our European allies don’t seem to be having a freak-out over arming Kiev — if there’s been an “uproar in Berlin” in the past few years, it certainly hasn’t been over that — and the “escalation dominance” theory certainly hasn’t played out to any significant level, unless you consider a tenuous stalemate escalation dominance.
As we talk about why congressionally approved military aid was being withheld from Ukraine and whether it was proper, we ought to remember what administration actually decided to arm Ukraine in the first place. And, as we begin the liberal canonization process of Fiona Hill, we also ought to keep in mind that her importance in initiating this was dubious at best.
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