Coloradans will feel economic pain from Russian president Vladimir Putin’s war on Ukraine — paying rising prices for gas and food, according to a veteran Russia advisor to three U.S. presidents who is addressing audiences along the Front Range this week.
But preparing for a harder role will be necessary, too, because this war could spread beyond Ukraine, Putin’s nuclear threats aren’t just bluster, and post-World War II norms that led to U.S. prosperity are imperiled, said Fiona Hill, posted now at the Brookings Institution think tank after serving under presidents Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush.
She’s the author of a Putin biography, consulted with President Joe Biden, and has made it a mission to engage with Americans beyond Washington, D.C.
“Some things are worth standing up for,” Hill said in a Denver Post interview Monday, warning of “mass slaughter on a colossal scale” and noting that the United States “stood back” during mass killings in Yemen and Syria.
“We cannot just step back in this instance,” she said, referring to the 3 million Ukrainians who have fled Russian bombs and bullets.
Russia’s invasion Feb. 24 has exploded into the bloodiest military assault in Europe since World War II. The United States could be obligated to get more involved as a founding member in 1949 of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, a collective military alliance that requires 30 member nations to treat an attack on one as an attack on all.
Stopping Russian aggression if it spreads beyond Ukraine may require “sending troops beyond what we already have done,” Hill said.
“We have to be very prepared. There are a lot of ways this could develop. And we need to be able to have a serious debate about it, without putting the blame where it isn’t warranted and taking pot shots at each other. Domestic dysfunction is a factor that makes the United States look weak. Vladimir Putin calculated that the United States is weak,” she said.
“We have to contemplate what we are prepared to do.”
Her talks at Metropolitan State University Denver, the University of Denver, WorldDenver, and the World Affairs Council in Colorado Springs were mostly sold out. Several talks will be streamed and recorded. Hill no longer works for the government.
Perils of autocracy
For years, she reviewed intelligence assessments suggesting Putin during his 22 years in power has regarded Ukraine as a key step for expanding Russia’s territory, reflected in the 2014 takeover of the Crimean peninsula.
Putin ordered last month’s invasion, “and this is really a cautionary tale about what happens when you give so much unchecked power to one person,” she said, contrasting Russia with the United States where Americans “forged our identity in casting off tyranny” and rooting power in “we the people.”
Putin rules Russians, and she compared Putin’s authoritarian posture to that of Trump, her former boss. (Hill testified against Trump during impeachment hearings.) She said Trump’s rise shows how people buffeted by problems can be seduced by a leader claiming to have answers.
“We can all now see the consequences of those kinds of developments, the breakdown of democracy,” she said.
Putin saw Trump as “an agent of chaos, someone he could exploit,” Hill said. And the internal political discord in the United States encouraged Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine. “He thought that our time had come, that we were on the verge of disintegrating” or at least giving up an international leadership role.
Meanwhile, Ukrainians were fighting for self-rule.
And Putin’s recent mobilization of nuclear forces stands as hugely reckless, Hill said. “He actually is contemplating their use.” He appears to be invoking nukes “to blackmail and intimidate everyone to get us to acquiesce.”
The potential for escalation could be seen Sunday in Russian airstrikes on a military base in western Ukraine — war within 11 miles of the border with Poland, a NATO member, where troops are on high alert.
“We have to be prepared to push back. …The risk is very high. There are all kinds of ways this could get out of the bounds it is in,” she said.
Sanctions, diplomacy, possibly more troops
The best case would be economic sanctions and collective enforcement of sanctions “making it extremely difficult for them to continue with the war.” The prospect of economic ruin “might blunt Russia’s ability and desire to keep going with the war.”
U.S. diplomats must press the case with nations not yet committed to isolating Russia, including India and China. On Monday, U.S. officials warned China of “consequences” if it helps Russia evade international sanctions by sending military and other supplies.
“This is a threat to their interests, because global stability would be disrupted,” Hill said, and a widening war “would short-circuit global efforts to deal with pandemics and climate change.”
The numbers of troops deployed to support NATO allies may have to increase, she said, noting Air Force and Army facilities around Colorado Springs.
“This is going to be quite difficult. It really is going to take a concerted effort to get Putin to the negotiating table with some real prospects for an outcome. Right now, he still wants to smash as much as he can. He wants to punish the Ukrainians.”
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