In this special episode of Colloquy, two alumni experts on eastern Europe and national security discuss the conflict between Russia and Ukraine.

GSAS Alumni; Fiona Hill and Graham Allison


Dr. Fiona Hill is a senior fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution. She recently served as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council from 2017 to 2019. From 2006 to 2009, she served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at The National Intelligence Council. She is the author of the 2021 book, There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the 21st Century, and co-author of Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin. She received her PhD from GSAS in 1998.

Engaging Dr. Hill in discussion is Graham Allison, the Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at Harvard University. Allison is a leading analyst of national security with special interests in nuclear weapons, Russia, China, and decision-making. As Assistant Secretary of Defense in the first Clinton Administration, Professor Allison received the Defense Department's highest civilian award, the Defense Medal for Distinguished Public Service, for "reshaping relations with Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan to reduce the former Soviet nuclear arsenal." He received his PhD from GSAS in 1968. 

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Professor Graham Allison: If we're trying to understand why is this happening now…so, obviously there's a background to this. Putin wants to “make Russia great again,” to restore the standing of the former Soviet Union. But he wanted to do that in 2014, '15, '16, ’17, ’18. So, what's happened that's precipitating these events? Is it something that we did? Is it something some other Europeans did? Something that the Ukrainians did? Was there something in the domestic politics or bureaucratic politics inside Russia? What? What do we think is driving the current confrontation?

Dr. Fiona Hill: As you said, long back story. A lot of things could have happened along the way. Russia, in fact, invaded Georgia. Poor old Eduard Shevardnadze was out by then, took another job. And that was also in direct response in 2008 to Georgia's efforts, along with Ukraine to become part of NATO at the April 2008 Bucharest summit. And that becomes the precursor to a lot of efforts on the part of Russia—as you're suggesting, Graham, in the framing here—to make sure that Georgia, Ukraine, the former Soviet states—beyond the three Baltic states that have actually joined NATO in the 2000s—did not become part of that of the alliance. And also, one of the triggers for Ukraine being subject to Russian aggression again in 2014 and the annexation of Crimea that you discussed and the outbreak of war in the Donbas was Ukraine's attempt to have an association agreement with the European Union and Russia. So, that was potentially a backdoor into NATO.

So, there's a thread going on through all of this of Russia trying to prevent Ukraine and Georgia by force if necessary of becoming members of the NATO alliance. But why now, as you said? I mean it wasn't like there was any chance of Ukraine getting into NATO formally and there still isn't.

But the Russians saw—and they've said this quite clearly—NATO coming into Ukraine. What they meant by that is the prospect of NATO's naval vessels. NATO obviously didn't have its own naval vessels, but the naval vessels of NATO allies, members rather, appearing in Ukrainian ports. And one of the things that Putin said in 2014 when they annexed Crimea—Crimea being the home traditionally of the Russian Black Sea Fleet not just of Ukraine's Black Sea Fleet, at the time built up by Peter the Great and Catherine the Great and onwards all the way since the Russian imperial time in the Soviet time—was that he could not foresee and could not tolerate and would not permit—as the rest of Russia would not—NATO vessels appearing in the storied ports of Sebastopol and others in Crimea and in the Black Sea.

And we saw in the past several months more naval exercises by NATO allied forces in the Black Sea, an exercise known as Sea Breeze, and reports of the Russians firing shots at one of those vessels, the HMS Defender, a British vessel that sailed into the waters around Crimea, making a point that NATO and the rest of the world actually have not recognized Russia's annexation of Crimea and the Russians wanting to make it clear that they were not going to tolerate any naval vessels approaching. That's one of many incidents.

The others were the [unclear] exercises, the sending in of trainers, the submitting of all kinds of ideas to Ukraine to help them build up their defensive capacity, revive their arms production centers training, and equipping to defend themselves against Russia.

And although that's not being done as an explicit NATO operation, it's been performed by trainers from the United States and Britain. And other countries and weapons sales, including drones from Turkey, which I think have been quite significant to the Ukrainian armed forces. And for Russia, that's just unpermissible.

And one of the other triggers for what we've seen today was Ukraine using a drone that the Turks had sold to them in an operation across the line of contact in Donbas, where, of course, there's a war going on that Russia triggered back in 2014 as well.

But I think more than that it's all of the above, the other things that you said there. So, it's the impermissibility of any form of contact between Ukraine and NATO: back door as well as open door you know it's whatever where Russia said "No. Not happening.” And you know they've already invaded Georgia and they've already invaded Ukraine. So we know that they mean business when they say “That's not going to happen.” So, we have to take that seriously.

We've also had a shift in the way that the US rhetoric has been about Ukraine. I mean think back to the Trump administration and the experience that I had. People might remember the first impeachment trial. What was all that about? That was about Ukraine, a phone call, a “perfect phone call” or not so perfect phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine, still with us for now, basically asking him to do…this is Trump asking Zelensky to do him a favor on domestic politics. So, you had in the Trump administration a policy toward Ukraine that was all over the place. It was business most unusual and personal business, with Trump asking Zelensky to do him a favor, to try to basically attack Joe Biden, now President Biden and his son, Hunter Biden by opening up all kinds of corruption investigations into them.

[The Russians have] already invaded Georgia and they've already invaded Ukraine. So we know that they mean business when they say “[Contact between NATO and Ukraine is] not going to happen.” So, we have to take that seriously. 

-Fiona Hill, PhD '98

So, Ukraine was part of our domestic politics. And the Russians probably didn't like that, but it wasn't like then Ukraine was seen as some strategic object. When the Biden administration comes in, President Biden understandably wants to put all of that rubbish [about] him and his son, Hunter Biden, behind him, and he wants to go back to business as usual with Ukraine. Ukraine is a partner. Ukraine is a part of normal U.S. national security and foreign policy. And the Russians react to that because we have a flurry of statements about Ukraine. Ukraine matters to the United States. We defend its independence and sovereignty, although to be honest, we have very limited ways of doing that.

We get back to arms sales. But Trump was trying to hold back in return for this favor, dangling those out. And we have visits by Secretary of Defense Austin, General Austin and a whole host of other things going on. And the Russians really see this together with all of the NATO activity.

This gets back to that, "Is this something that we did?" Graham. Yeah, we went back to business as usual in Ukraine and all the normal statements. And the Russians are like "You know, we've had it. You know, that is not going to happen. We've been saying this for a very long time. Don't you remember that? We invaded Georgia back in 2008. NATO's not allowed in. And you know what's this? What does Ukraine matter to you?" is what Russians have been saying. I've had that said to me directly when I was in my previous position, and it matters to us more. We've even had Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, a very serious, extremely talented Russian diplomat who's been at the forefront of these recent talks. The person he's now been talking to when…he's the one that met with Wendy Sherman. I mean, he's the key interlocutor for the U.S. government, actually saying that Ukraine's security matters more to Russia than it does to Ukraine. So it's really emphasizing where we are in all of this and then it's all these other issues.

Just quickly, the United States is seen as weak by Russia. We've pulled out of Afghanistan in a rather shambolic way. So, they see us in retreat. President Biden's agenda at home has been very difficult and a challenge has fights with his own party, let alone with the Republican Party. You know, we're shortly going to have the midterms and we're going to be all over the place again from the Russian perspective. Then there's China, your current issue that you focused on, not only you know, they're worried about the Thucydides Trap, the conflict between U.S. and China. But actually, Russia doesn't like the fact that the US is fixated with China. And we were trying to park them somewhere over, I told our colleague, the Harvard graduate Angela Stent said this very publicly, we were trying to put Russia in a car park and Russia was just trying to bust out of it.

They want our undivided attention and they want the resolution of the Ukraine status as to whether NATO expands further or does not. And they want an iron-clad guarantee but they want something much bigger than that as well. This is about, as you would say you know, in one of your classes as you know going back to me in 1989, 1991 and my studies at Harvard about the total disposition of the state of affairs, missiles, forces you name it after the Cold War. They want a different post-Cold War settlement. They don't like the last 30 years. They want a redo and they want to have us agree to that now.

So we're in a really difficult position now because of a whole confluence of a factor of things, the perceived weakness. There are also all the frictions in Europe right now. Will Boris Johnson go or not go because of partying in the United Kingdom during COVID? You know, Poland's on the outs with the European Union. You know, there's all these frictions in NATO with Turkey and with Poland and Hungary and other countries as well and spats all over the place.

This seems to be the time to go for Russia to resolve this once and for all. And I think for Putin, this is personal. And I think he's worried himself about his own future perspective. He has to be reelected. I mean, obviously, it looks like it might be a shoo-in in 2024, but I think he just wants to get this over and done with now. And he's sick of basically dealing with successive U.S. governments who in his view, don't really pay attention. And I know that from my time in the National Security Council, we were so frustrated that we could never agree on anything.

Allison: So, if the Biden...if the president were saying to you, "Fiona, think about it. What are my options now and what do you recommend?" I mean, you could send American forces to defend Ukraine and maybe have a war with Russia over Ukraine. And then how would that work out? Well, okay. So now next, "Who could..." I think the British are today said to be sending C-17s with additional arms to Ukraine. And so how would that work out? Or you could tell Putin "Forget about it. We're not going to you know, we're not going to deal with this." And how would that work out? Or maybe you have a better idea. So, what to do?

Hill: Well, look, I think from the British perspective, this has shades of the opening—and this isn't very comfortable or comforting for everyone to hear this, you know—as the opening salvos of World War Two. You know, when Nazi Germany went into Poland and obviously there's a long shadow of the history of appeasement, Munich 1938, Anthony Eden, Chamberlain, you know. Let's just say the Brits have seen this before and a lot of course happened after Germany went into Poland in 1939. You know, an awful lot of the Poles retreated to London and you know, look I think the Russians think "Bring it on. We can do this. We can go in and Ukraine refugees will not fly to Russia, clearly."

I mean we have from Donbas…I mean this is…often Russian speakers have now been given Russian passports, by the way. So, one pretext for the Russians to do something is, I mean, from some reports, 600,000 residents of Donbas have been given Russian passports. You and I, Graham, have seen this scenario many times by the Russians. Intervene in defense of Russian speakers, Russian citizens you know, so they could have a pretext. Hitler used the same pretext with the Sudetenland various things as well.

You know, history has seen this play before. The British Secretary of Defense has called it out. There's a really excellent statement that's coming out just saying, look, this is all a straw man. No one's encircling Russia. Only 6% of Russian territory actually borders on NATO. I mean, that tiny little sliver of the border with Norway directly across from Murmansk in the north, Lithuania, and Poland surrounding in Kaliningrad, which of course, used to be Germany, Prussia, and then Estonia and Latvia’s borders. So, this is it. It's not like Russia was really encircled by NATO. But of course, the Russians are saying if Ukraine gets in and that's different.

But let's just say that the UK is calling it out on this. You know, for them, it's shades of the past when they did not. And so they feel that they need to act. So, look, we could take it that way and put it into that historical context and then think about these individual acts of defense, as you say, and how is that going to turn out.

The Russians have shown that they will not be deterred by the sort of high casualties. But think of Chechnya. You and I, Graham, worked on Chechnya back in the 1990s, a war between Moscow and one of its own republics in which hundreds of thousands of people died. And you know, the regional capital of Grozny was leveled. And most of the people who died were actually Russian speakers, ethnic Russians, particularly elderly ladies trapped in the basements during carpet bombing by Russian aviation and shelling.

You know, so let's just say there's not the same sort of threshold. And the Russians have already shown determination to invade and try to go further in Ukraine. And again, they figure out refugees will go over into those borders you know, the Ukrainian military might retreat into Poland for example, replaying many of the scenarios we've seen in the military.

So, we have to have in the military past, we don't have a pretty strong stomach for this. And, of course, the Russians are betting that everyone in Europe is going to be panicked at the thought of World War Three, although I'd argue we've all already been in it for some time because of all the wars you know, the last two decades different fronts and the devastation of another European country. Because Ukraine is part of that. They also figure that Europe won't want to react because they've got Europe where they want it in an energy crisis right now. You know, the Europeans didn't build up their gas storage for the winter. You know, there'd be an awful lot of hesitation on the part of the Europeans to really respond if Russia does that.

You know, after [WWII], we set up the United Nations system to try to push back against these kinds of eventualities. So, there is a bigger diplomatic effort that we could undertake that goes beyond just European security. And thinking of this as a spat between the US and Russia over what happened in the 1990s when the Soviet Union and Russia retreated from Europe, had to take its troops, its missiles, its bases away and get back closer to home in Kaliningrad obviously because it's an exclave of Russia and that this is all about the future of NATO and the future of Europe.

The Russians are betting that everyone in Europe is going to be panicked at the thought of World War Three…They also figure that Europe won't want to react because they've got Europe where they want it in an energy crisis right now.

-Fiona Hill, PhD '98

This would be a massive challenge to the entire system after World War Two that underpinned the United Nations. This looks like Iraq going into Kuwait in 1990 because basically, Iraq said, “Kuwait isn't a country we should have had Kuwait, those oil fields were supposed to be ours, that's just a bunch of Brits and French and people dividing up the Middle East after World War One, we're not going to pay any attention to the U.N. resolutions.” The first time that we did something about Iraq, the first time—not the second time, which was pretty dodgy, to say the least—the first time we had U.N. backing for something much bigger. But what we need now is to put this out there as a bigger issue because the Russians said this is all a fight between NATO and the United States and Russia.

And actually, this is all about the sovereignty and independence of a state that's been recognized for the last 30 years as part of the U.N. General Assembly, the UN system, about the international system, not just part of the European system. And if this can happen to Ukraine, frankly, it can happen to every other country, not just former Soviet states that belong to some imperial system up until the Cold War or even the end of World War Two.

Allison: Who will fight for Ukraine? Will Americans send American troops to fight for Donbas or Luhansk? No. I think the chance of that is nearly zero. And I would vote against it, for me. Okay. So, is there any European country that's going to send troops to fight Russia in Ukraine? I don't think so. So, Russia has a military trump card with respect to Ukraine that it can play.

Now, that then for me drives me back to, well, is there some diplomatic reformulation of the...of the...of the situation, either with respect to Ukraine or the bigger picture that could be feasible? And if so, could you get from here to there, given where we are now?

Hill: Look, the Russians are taking this to a bigger place as well. They're going back into your territory. Graham, you know. I referred to your dissertation. It was about the Cuban Missile Crisis, which the Russians called the Caribbean Crisis. We've just seen some threats recently that they're talking about selling or sending, rather, again, in your wheelhouse of nuclear weapons, Zircon sea-launched hypersonic missiles to Cuba and Venezuela, they've said to bring this home. And in 19...sorry, in 2019, when I was at the National Security Council, you know you might recall the Russians moved the 100 plus guys on the plane into Venezuela when they thought the U.S. was going to press Maduro to leave. And then they started offering behind the scenes a swap: "We'll get out of Venezuela, you get out of Ukraine and promise NATO to get out of Ukraine.”

And I was sent to Moscow to talk to them about that and said, "No." I mean, Venezuela's not ours. We don't want Venezuela. These are not the days of the CIA. They believe it still is. I mean, yeah, we do have a bit of pressure that we put on our neighbors—ask the Canadians, the Mexicans—but we're not in the old game of Bay of Pigs, 1960s anymore.

This is all about the sovereignty and independence of a state that's been recognized for the last 30 years as part of the U.N. General Assembly…If this can happen to Ukraine, frankly, it can happen to every other country.

-Fiona Hill, PhD '98

And you know we're...this is not where we're going. You know, that was not our discussion about Venezuela. It was not about the US and Russia trading off. And we're not going to trade Ukraine to Venezuela. Well, they're doing this again. And they're also rattling affairs out in the Asia-Pacific. If you look very closely at Russian commentary, they're saying that the United States should part with Japan as well. That because Russia is an Asia-Pacific power, the Sea of Okhotsk—not just the Barents, the Baltic, and the Black Sea—is Russian.

They fired apparently on a U.S. ship going through the disputed waters of the Coral Islands. Another area that you and I did work on back in the 1990s. I'm really glad I did all these things by the way because otherwise, I wouldn't have all this knowledge of how they're putting it all together and here they are basically saying, well, maybe the US should pull out of Okinawa and they're stirring the pot. So, they've gone bigger to basically get us to do something on Ukraine and Europe and we need to broaden that aperture as well of diplomacy at the very least.

So, I mean my advice would be, do that now. Get ahead of it because then we have other countries that are also agreeing that they need to defend in some fashion Ukraine's independence and sovereignty.

Allison: Ukraine is a sovereign, independent country. But as a sovereign, independent country, if Ukraine has to try to deal with Russia as a sovereign, independent country that can use its military force to coerce Ukraine, it can. We can arm Ukraine further. But to a degree that Russia will not be able to coerce Ukraine successfully? I don't think so.

So, then we could fight for Ukraine, but we're not going to do that because it's not, we think...is it...if the alternative is Russia absorbs Ukraine or Americans kill and die to preserve Ukraine, I don't think the U.S…I don't think it's in America's national interest to do that.

Hill: I'm not talking about the United States. I'm talking about the United Nations.

Allison: And the U.N. is going to do nothing.

Hill: My point is that Russia is doing...and you're, unfortunately, doing what they want, which is it's all about us talking about Ukraine. That's in the tactical weeds, right? Russia is being strategic. It's Russia's…actually it's about us, about the United States. It's about pushing us out of Europe. It's about getting rid of NATO and them using Ukraine as a hostage and them dragging us all down to talk about what we're going to do about Ukraine.

I agree. We have to put it out there. And a larger thing is saying, "Look, sorry. You've got to talk to lots of others as well." It can't be about the United States because they're dragging us into the old World War Two sitting you know, there in chairs or across tables in some setting that they're saying that they have a right. And if we let them do that, everybody else will be doing that as well.

And they're making it about us. They're saying all the time, “Well, what about you, the United States? You did this Haiti, Panama, Nicaragua, you know Cuba. You know, you're always doing it.” Okay, well, why is that got to do with Ukraine? What does Ukraine got to do with anything? Why should Ukraine be punished? Because we're a bad actor? So, I mean, again, we need to be more creative and we need to be bigger in our diplomacy is really what I'm arguing here.

And again, it might not work because as you said, this is probably pretty insolvable in many respects. Because they've been so maximalist in their demands, Russia, that we can't see what the minimum floor is here. And to get to any minimum floor, which might be about the dismemberment of Ukraine, of handing over Ukraine to Russia, that is a pretty unpalatable thing to do for broader international security. So this is going to be a tough one.

Colloquy Podcast: Russia, Ukraine, and Avoiding World War III