Fiona Hill: „The world is feeding Russia’s imperial delusions“

„The world is feeding Russia’s imperial delusions“ – Seite 1

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Fiona Hill is a Russia expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She served as security advisor under U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump.

ZEIT ONLINE: In his recent speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia feels encircled by NATO and the West. During your time as an adviser to President George W. Bush, he argued in favor of NATO membership for Ukraine in 2008, and you were against it. Do you now have any second thoughts about that position?

Fiona Hill: No, because in the context of 2008, nobody had been thinking through the implications of offering Ukraine a NATO Membership Action Plan. This plan has no immediate effects. It doesn’t involve equipping a military to be able to fend off an attack the next day. And it was always obvious that NATO’s enlargement to Ukraine and to Georgia was a provocation for Putin­. So we should have been doing something to address this security dilemma all along – in 2008, but also earlier, especially after 2004 and the big enlargement to Eastern European countries and the Baltic states of both NATO and the European Union. When this happened, we immediately left all the other neighboring countries, including Ukraine, in a strategic gray zone. The debates that we’re having now in NATO about how to defend Ukraine and countries like Moldova and how to create security guarantees for them – we should have been having them on the very day after this massive enlargement of NATO.

ZEIT ONLINE: What could such security guarantees have looked like?

Hill: After its Winter War with the Soviet Union in 1939, Finland was always battle ready and well equipped to defend itself, not even seeking NATO membership until recently. In terms of second thoughts today, I would have sent the Finns around Europe to give advice to all other non-NATO European militaries about how they needed to posture themselves for a full-on defense and for any kind of eventuality. The biggest mistake we made was just thinking about NATO itself as the fortress and that everybody outside was left to their own devices. The whole idea that NATO’s Membership Action Plan, or even actual membership, would be an instant magic defensive shield was false. It was based on a whole set of erroneous assumptions, because it was obvious to anyone looking at the European security structures in this time frame that Putin was already moving in a revanchist direction and putting all kinds of pressure on neighboring countries.

The heart of all this was the persistence of imperial thinking from the tsarist and Soviet eras, wanting to exert political, economic and security influence over Europe. I still believe that NATO was not the proximate cause of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But what NATO did for countries was create other options and ways to avoid or deal with this pressure. And Putin didn’t want countries that he saw in his sphere of influence to have other options.

ZEIT ONLINE: Where does this now leave Ukraine with regard to NATO membership? Everybody is saying it’s going to happen at some point, but it is also quite clear that it’s not going to happen within the foreseeable future.

Hill: It’s the same issue we had in 2008: How are you going to defend Ukraine? NATO membership is meaningless unless there is some ironclad guarantee that you’re going to be involved in a genuine collective defense. And as a matter of fact, we are defending Ukraine right now except for boots on the ground. I would argue we also would have done the same for non-NATO-countries like Sweden, Finland, Ireland or Iceland had they been attacked.

ZEIT ONLINE: We are now well into the second year of the war in Ukraine. The U.S. administration says Ukraine must win the war. The German government says Ukraine cannot be allowed to lose the war. There’s a difference between winning and not losing. Where do we go from here?

Hill: Playing around with terminology isn’t super helpful. Nobody’s winning anything right now. How can you define the carnage that we’re seeing, the absolute devastation of Ukraine, as anything that looks like a win in the end? Russia has lost enormously, not just manpower, but in terms of its standing, and the repressive apparatus of the Kremlin now clamping down on the Russian people. In Europe, there’s been a loss of a sense of stability and a loss of the hope for the future that we had. Not just when it comes to European security, but also how we were going to deal with our domestic priorities and with our collective larger priorities like climate change. We are being bombarded with so many crises now. We are in a war economy. Governments are setting aside billions to make sure Ukraine is not overrun, and this does have an impact on Europe’s and the United States’ ability to do all kinds of other things. At this point, it is not about winning and losing on this battlefield. It’s about how we manage our way out of this terrible situation.

ZEIT ONLINE: Is there a way to do that with Putin still in power in Russia?

Hill: We are trying to deny Vladimir Putin the ability to completely control in perpetuity the territories that he sees as his own, as being part of Russia’s empire. And that does include Crimea at this point. As a result of Putin’s devastating, brutal war and all the atrocities, previous discussions about the management of Crimea can’t be on the table anymore. That is a real dilemma, because people say we would then be in perpetual conflict forever. Not necessarily. We need a big diplomatic surge.

„In this conflict, there are no longer just two sides“

„We need everyone else in the mix, because if it’s just the United States and Europe, it looks like World War II again.“

ZEIT ONLINE: What does that mean? What could negotiations look like?

Hill: Whenever I say diplomatic surge, people talk about negotiations. A negotiation comes at the very end of a diplomatic effort. One of the most successful diplomatic efforts of all time was the Portsmouth Peace Conference in 1905. It was U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt who helped end the Russo-Japanese War, when the two sides had kind of exhausted themselves. Importantly, the United States was neutral in that conflict. This was in the early 1900s, before the United States had launched itself onto the world stage through World War I. With regard to Ukraine, we need to look for a similar forum in which you can bring every player together, because in this conflict, there are no longer just two sides.

ZEIT ONLINE: It’s not just the West standing up to Putin’s imperialism?

Hill: This war in Ukraine is having an enormous number of knock-on effects. I’ve called it a world war in the past, which people have found a little shocking. But what I mean is the way that it changes the structure and the dynamic of not just European affairs, but global affairs because of sanctions and the disruptions in trade patterns – grain, fertilizer, fuel. The path forward is to try to find a much larger diplomatic effort that pulls together a larger number of countries that have a vested interest in ending this. It’s very hard to say what a negotiation would look like, because it really depends on the context.

Putin wants negotiations right now on his terms. He wants Crimea recognized as being Russian. He wants the Donbas recognized as being Russian. He wants the Sea of Azov declared a Russian sea. He wants whatever he can hold on to. All of that would be a loss for Ukraine. That’s what we must prevent. None of us have any interest whatsoever in going back to a Cold War with a divided Europe. We need everyone else in the mix, because if it’s just the United States and Europe, it looks like World War II again. And that’s what Putin wants.

ZEIT ONLINE: Who could lead this diplomatic effort? And wouldn’t the most likely outcome just be a cease-fire?

Hill: There are many conflicts around the world that ended in a cease-fire, and conflicts over contested territories that have never had a permanent settlement. Just look at Nagorno-Karabakh, the Himalayas, Cyprus or Korea. We have to think of this as a staged process, because it’s very hard to have any success with a diplomatic effort until you get a cease-fire. But it also must be made clear that a cease-fire itself is not sufficient. Every country that is involved in an international conflict is going to have to be consulted in this diplomatic effort because it will set a precedent for them—just look at all the conflicts in the Asia-Pacific region, for example.

A diplomatic effort would probably have to be framed within a UN General Assembly context, where all countries have a seat, and not in the much smaller UN Security Council, where the five permanent members also have veto power. UN Secretary General António Guterres intervened in the Ukraine war on the question of global grain and fertilizer deliveries. We have Rafael Grossi, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, who has intervened on the Ukrainian nuclear power plant in Zaporizhzhia,  where an accident could be worse than the one in Chernobyl in 1986. Diplomatic efforts to end this war have to build on some of these interventions.

ZEIT ONLINE: How important is the U.S. role?

Hill: The United States will have to play a role in this, but in this instance, the U.S. should not necessarily take the lead. Putin wants to portray his war against Ukraine as a proxy war between the United States and Russia, and convince everyone that it is not an attempt to retake a former colony. But this is an imperial war of conquest. Russia believes that Ukraine and many other countries, which have been totally independent for the last 30 years, still belong to it. Asking the United States to resolve the war single-handedly would go right back to the old patterns that nobody wants to see anymore.

ZEIT ONLINE: Could this diplomatic effort pressure Putin to take part in negotiations that don’t look like he wants them to look?

Hill: That would be the idea. You constrain the options because you have other countries on board who have a stake in this. What Putin wants is something more like the old 18th century formats, when things worked out in Russia’s favor. He wants the concept of just a handful of states making decisions. Putin’s idea is that it is a territorial dispute. But it is not a territorial dispute.

And European leaders have to step up, because what happens in Ukraine is incredibly consequential for the future of the European Union. Every European country has some kind of territorial dispute or some contentious legacy from the past. Countries are artificial constructs. If we start to pick apart the post-World War II territorial configuration, where do we stop? The narrative that Putin is spinning is that history only begins when he says it does, and he is demanding the recognition of his historical narrative. This is a real challenge for Europe, because the agreement that we had in creating the European Union and trying to expand the post-1945 rules of international law was that we were going to stick with the territorial disposition that we had and move on from there. And Putin is reversing all of this.

„The United States violated international law“

ZEIT ONLINE: Do you have understanding for countries like South Africa, India and Brazil, which say: Okay, you are talking about Russia conquering Ukraine and violating international law, but look at the West, its colonial past. Look at the wars in Vietnam and Iraq – the West is applying a double standard?

Hill: I don’t accept that. If I kill someone, does that give you license to kill someone? No. You would want me to be prosecuted for that. Abuse doesn’t give everybody else the right to do the same. This is why it can’t be the United States and Europe alone resolving the Ukraine war, because if we do, then that’s exactly what it looks like: We, the West, don’t like certain conflicts and we’re going to resolve them, and others we’re just going to leave alone.

Yes, the United States violated international law with the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and we can talk about all kinds of other violations. But does that really give Russia the right to demand that every other country must cede their own sovereignty to a larger power? Good luck, then, in dealing with every one of your larger neighbors.

The United States and European countries should have done more in Yemen, should have done more in dealing with Syria. We should be trying to calm the situation down in Sudan. But Ukraine should not be overrun because of our sins. If Britain invaded Ireland tomorrow, that wouldn’t be justified because England was the old colonial power going back centuries and centuries.

ZEIT ONLINE: Can Russia be considered a colonial power?

Hill: We talk all the time about people speaking Russian in Ukraine and other regions. Well, this was at the root of the Anschluss of Austria back in World War II. And I think most Germans have fully accepted now that German-speaking Austrians are not part of Germany. Everybody is looking at this world through the prism of how they feel about the United States or how they feel about Europe. When South Africa looks at this, they think about their colonial struggle and about the Soviet Union opposing apartheid. And they think of Russia as the Soviet Union, as the liberator in World War II. But Ukraine was part of that Soviet Union as well, and was also the liberator in that case.

We made a mistake by recognizing Russia as the sole continuing state of the Soviet Union. We did it because of debt. We did it because of nuclear weapons. The rest of the world is feeding Russia’s, Putin’s imperial delusions.

ZEIT ONLINE: Why are we giving Russia a pass?

Hill: Because we can’t think about it in an appropriate way. We have to stop and push back. Germany must take a role here. Germany’s whole post-1945 ethos is to slough off the imperial fever dreams of the past that led to so much carnage and destruction. Many countries have not come to terms with their own colonial past and imperial role. Britain was the old colonial power going back centuries, long before Russia appeared on the map. The UK is still playing out imperial games. We’ve just had the coronation of King Charles III that shows this very clearly. The United States has been an empire, but just can’t admit it to itself. It bought territories like the Louisiana Purchase and Alaska, but it also conquered territory in the case of California and Hawaii. And the U.S. has engaged in lots of imperial wars. I can’t stress enough the number of emails I get from people looking at the war in Ukraine only through the lens of the U.S. and Russia and about a double standard being applied to Russia because Russia is not allowed to get away with things that the United States gets away with. Well, guess what? The United States shouldn’t get away with it either.

ZEIT ONLINE: Some argue that it’s a proxy war for the U.S. because in standing up to Russia, the United States wants to show China where the limits are.

Hill: Many Republicans in the U.S. and others are saying, look, our struggle is systemic with China, not with Russia. We shouldn’t be getting engaged in this war. Others are saying:  No, we need to engage in this because China’s watching. The one thing that Republicans and Democrats in the United States can agree on is that China is a systemic threat. I would suggest that Germany and other Europeans shouldn’t indulge in this debate and instead think about what is important: restoring international law, the prohibition of war and the use of force and safeguarding the international legal regime. If Russia gets away with this internationally, it sets a much larger precedent.

ZEIT ONLINE: Because of what it could mean for a potential conflict over Taiwan, for example?

Hill: It’s complicated with Taiwan, even though Russia has been telling the Chinese: Hey, Taiwan is the same to you as Ukraine is to us. The point that I and others have been making is that we have to be very careful how this war is resolved, because we must make it very clear that we’re not going to stand for military intervention. It’s not just Taiwan, it’s all the other areas where China thinks it has the right to control disputed territory or have a sphere of influence. We’re opening a global Pandora’s box of basic questions about sovereignty and territorial integrity.

„China keeps thinking that it can pull Europe away from the U.S.“

ZEIT ONLINE: In other words, you would argue in favor of Europe „stepping up“ as it is often framed in the U.S., but for its own sake?

Hill: Absolutely. Europe is a continent that is ruled by law. In Germany, a great deal of attention is paid to law and the rule of law – not rule by whatever law someone wants to apply, which is really what’s going on in this case with Russia. Again, we need a big international effort.

ZEIT ONLINE: Can there be a future of Russia under Putin?

Hill: There is going to be a future of Russia under Putin if he stays in place, whether we like it or not. If we are talking about a Russia that starts to play some kind of positive role on the world stage: no, that’s unlikely. Russia will continue to set itself apart from Europe and switch its geopolitical outlook to the Middle East and other places. We already see Iran supplying Russia with drones and contemplating even more weapons. Other countries are cashing in on Russian oil and gas. Russia is becoming increasingly dependent politically as well as economically on China. There is a future for Russia. It’s just a very different one, I think, than most Russians thought it would be.

ZEIT ONLINE: The United States is still the biggest supporter of Ukraine, both financially and militarily. The next presidential election is in November 2024. IfDonald Trump wins, could Europe stand alone?

Hill: If this war is just going to be fought on the battlefield, then that does become an issue. Diplomatically, it’s another reason for a big surge so that Europe won’t stand alone. You have Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand, and there’s Canada and other countries in the Americas. Just waiting for the United States to sort out its domestic politics is not a solution. Also, you have to think about the kind of role that Europe itself wants to play in the alliances and the ties that it has. China keeps thinking that it can pull Europe away from the United States on this issue, and it is also Europe’s fault for making it look like this war is all about the United States. Here in Germany, I keep hearing: Well, if the U.S. doesn’t do this, if the U.S. doesn’t do that. Well, what about European countries? Any kind of order moving forward is going to have to be based on international law, not on yet another version of Pax Americana.

ZEIT ONLINE: How do you believe the future world order will look? Will it be bipolar or multilateral?

Hill: It’s going to be multilateral, rooted more in some version of the UN General Assembly. Climate change is the existential threat to the planet, and if we’re really truly saying that we need to tackle that, then it’s not going to be tackled by focusing on the Donbas and Crimea and the question of who speaks Russian and what their identity is. We must rethink how nation states – and non-state actors and civil society – are going to pull together to resolve crises, because we are not going to survive on this planet without a different approach. And we can see that although it’s weak, the United Nations has mechanisms that we can use. We absolutely can do this. We just have to be creative and step up to the occasion.