The Daily Telegraph

‘There are signs that support for Putin is cracking’

The Durham miner’s daughter turned White House policy adviser tells Colin Freeman why she thinks Russia is losing the war against Ukraine


As a coal miner’s daughter who became one of the White House’s top security advisers, Fiona Hill has long been used to people underestim­ating her. At her interview for Oxford in the 1980s, posh students sniggered at her working-class County Durham accent. When she worked in Donald Trump’s Oval Office as his top Russia adviser, he thought she was a secretary. And during visits to Moscow over the years, she was mistaken for a waitress, an aide to her male colleagues and an upmarket prostitute.

No occasion, though, left her quite as nonplussed as being seated next to Vladimir Putin himself at a dinner in Moscow – an honour normally reserved for fellow world leaders. At first, she felt flattered: the Russian president – if no one else – was taking her seriously. It was only later, having been blanked by him throughout the evening, that she realised why.

“It was because I was a nondescrip­t older woman – not particular­ly glamorous or interestin­g to look at – so that basically all eyes would be on him, to make him the focal point for everybody,” she recalls in a Zoom interview from her Washington DC home. “He barely spoke to me all night, except at the end, when he said: ‘All the best’, in English.”

That was back in 2011, when relations with Russia were better, and when Washington’s foremost Russia expert was little-known to the world – save, perhaps, as “Unidentifi­ed Female Official” in Kremlin official photo archives. It is fair to say things have moved on rather since then – for Hill as well as her dining companion.

Indeed, had Putin made the effort to talk to her that night, he might have thought more carefully about the implicatio­ns of invading Ukraine. For Hill, 56, is one of the world’s foremost experts on Russia, serving as director for European and Russian affairs on Trump’s National Security Council, and in senior intelligen­ce roles for both Bush and Obama.

And, for a “nondescrip­t older woman”, a lot of people now recognise her face. In 2019 she found herself the centre of attention when she testified at Trump’s first impeachmen­t trial, where she backed up claims of Russian interferen­ce in the elections that

‘Putin thinks it’s a sign of weakness to have women in prominent positions, such as PM’

‘The Russian leader got the impression that Trump didn’t care about Ukraine’

brought him to power. Her calm testimony laid bare how vulnerable the dysfunctio­nal Trump’s White House was to Russian meddling – winning her praise and death threats in equal measure.

Since then, she has become a star of the internatio­nal speaking circuit, and appeared on Desert Island Discs, memorably describing how Putin had an odd, freshly laundered smell, as if he had just “stepped out of some special preparator­y bath”.

She’s also written a best-selling book, There is Nothing for You Here, about her journey from “the coalhouse to the White House” – charting how the girl who struggled to get a break in snobby Britain finally made it in the US.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, her wisdom has been in demand more than ever, as the world tries to work out what Putin will do next as his invasion of Ukraine drags Russia ever further into a quagmire. On Thursday, the Russian leader appeared for the first time to acknowledg­e that things were not going well, during a meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, one of his few allies. In an apparent recognitio­n that even Beijing is worried at the way things are going, the normally bullish Putin said he was keen to reassure China over its “questions and concerns” about Ukraine.

Putin and his ageing cronies might be living, swaggering proof that stale, male cliques do not make the best decisions. Hill is not the only visiting female functionar­y to get a patronisin­g Kremlin brush-off. So did Liz Truss as foreign secretary, when she visited Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s grouchy foreign minister, two weeks ahead of the war. In an icy meeting, he mansplaine­d about Russian geography, and then declared that dialogue with her was “like talking to a deaf person”.

Truss’s treatment may help explain why she seems every bit as hawkish on Ukraine as Boris Johnson was. Yet according to Hill, Putin’s circle of ex-spooks is so steeped in machismo that they take the very presence of a female VIP as an insult.

“Putin and the people around him… actually feel that there’s some kind of effort to deliberate­ly humiliate them by countries that show up with all these women,” she says. “There are a few women in his government, such as Elvira Nabiullina, the respected head of Russia’s central bank, but they’re advisers on technical issues, not power players within the circle. I think Putin thinks it’s a sign of weakness for European states to have women in prominent positions, such as prime minister or defence secretary.”

Might the disastrous Ukraine invasion not have gone ahead if there’d been more female voices in his Kremlin? “The problem is there isn’t any diversity of opinion whatsoever. The war might not have gone ahead if he’d had anyone with a different perspectiv­e – but he would have had to listen to them.”

Thus, it seems, did the Kremlin become the Novichok of toxicmanho­od, with the hubris that led to the botched invasion looking likely to end in humiliatin­g defeat. Far from capitulati­ng with barely a shot, Ukrainian forces now appear to have the upper hand, launching major counteroff­ensives against the Russian occupiers in both the south and the east.

Ominously for Putin, this is not just the view of hawkish commentato­rs in the West. Even Russia’s pro-war bloggers – a small but influentia­l community of ex-military commanders, Wagner Group mercenarie­s and ultra-nationalis­ts – see Russia’s military performanc­e as a disaster. Because they actively support the invasion, their running commentari­es do not attract the same censorship as mainstream Russian media. But now that the war is no longer going their way, they have become openly despairing. As one of them, Igor Girkin – a former leader of separatist forces in eastern Ukraine – declared last week: “We have already lost, the rest is just a matter of time.”

So does Hill agree? Like any seasoned security official, she stops short of claiming that victory is in sight. Big wars like this are waged in ebbs and flows, with progress measured best by months and years, not weekly news-cycles. But she says it shows Ukraine is clearly “able to turn the tide”. That alone may be the confidence booster Ukraine’s European allies need as they brace themselves for a grim winter of Kremlin-inflicted gas shortages.

“There’s still a long way to go, because it’s not like Ukraine has regained all of the territory that Russia has taken, but we shouldn’t downplay it,” she says. “It’s significan­t not just militarily, but politicall­y too, because it’s suddenly giving Europe, the US and everywhere else that has provided military and financial support to Ukraine the sense that this is actually paying off. So if nothing else, it’s a spur for continuing.”

Or is it? One nightmare scenario is that Putin might seek to level the score by using low-yield “tactical” nuclear weapons in Ukraine. Such devices can be small enough to destroy just a village. But they still spread radiation and carry the same power to terrify – not least by underscori­ng Putin’s willingnes­s to cross lines that other nations won’t. There is also a fear that Putin is at his most dangerous with his back up against the wall – based on approving comments he once made about how a rat will attack when cornered.

Hill frets about Armageddon as much as anyone: it was growing up in Britain at the height of the Cold War in the 1980s, and watching nuclear doomsday films like Threads, that first motivated her to study Russian. But it doesn’t seem to give her particular­ly sleepless nights at the moment.

“There is always that risk,” she says of low-yield nuclear weapons. “But this cornered rat story comes from Putin himself – it’s a way of saying ‘don’t test me, I will fight back’ and presenting himself as the kind of ruthless leader Russia needs. He’s already done a lot of nuclear sabrerattl­ing for the war in Ukraine, but that’s because things aren’t going his way. He wants us to back off because of fears about World War Three – to basically give up on Ukraine and sue for peace on his terms.”

Nonetheles­s, as a man who exercises iron control over his cabinet, Putin has fewer constraint­s on him than Soviet-era leaders, when a Politburo might query rash decisions. And, in reviving might-is-right in global politics, Hill thinks Putin has upped the risk of nuclear war more generally – something more pacifist European nations should wake up to.

“Outside of the UK and France, where we do have nuclear arsenals, a lot of people in Europe have been kind of pretending that the nuclear age has gone, that we are in a completely different space,” she says. “But one reason there was so much focus on Iran’s atomic programme was the range of ballistic missiles it was developing, which could hit European cities. We’ve been in a pretty dangerous nuclear age for some time.”

So who exactly is Hill, and why have world leaders wanted to listen to her? One reason is sheer expertise – after studying Russian and Modern History at the University of St Andrews (that Oxford interview didn’t work out), she did a PHD at Harvard and worked for influentia­l Washington foreign policy think tanks. Her curiosity took her to many of post-soviet Russia’s grimmer corners, including spending time with Chechen separatist­s. They too proved somewhat toxic hosts, spiking her drink in a hotel bar after telling her that she “asked too many questions”. Hill passed out and was violently ill: she believes she was poisoned as a “warning”.

In studying a Russia that was down on its luck, though, she brought a certain empathy from her impoverish­ed childhood in County Durham. It was the time of the pit closures and the miners’ strike, and life opportunit­ies were either thin or thwarted. Hill won a scholarshi­p to private school, but couldn’t go because her parents lacked the money for the uniform and books. Her father – who scraped by as a hospital porter after losing his job as a miner – advised her to start a life elsewhere. His comment – “There’s nothing for you here, pet” – would later inspire the title of her book.

In Washington, where her northeast accent was a novelty, not a handicap, she thrived. An impressed George W Bush, for example, called her “Blair’s girl”, in recognitio­n of a visit he once made to Tony Blair’s old County Durham constituen­cy. But it was during her time testifying in Trump’s impeachmen­t hearing that her voice also became familiar on American news networks.

Hill had prepared carefully for the hearings – aware that in the frenzied atmosphere of the Trump impeachmen­t hearings, the Nondescrip­t Older Woman would now be centre stage. She dressed smartly but plainly, hoping that the media would concentrat­e on her message rather than her appearance. She also began her address by thanking her adopted homeland, saying it had “offered me opportunit­ies I never would have had in England”.

Much of her testimony involved complex questions over whether Trump had tried to pressure Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky – then little known to most Americans – to investigat­e Joe Biden’s son’s business dealings in Ukraine. It still made her an overnight sensation, however. Hill woke up to find herself on the front page of every US newspaper – complete with explainer pieces about her accent – and calls on Twitter for her to be made president. “I was getting recognised by my neighbours, who suddenly started calling me ‘Dr Hill’,” she says. More worryingly, her daughter – then 12 – heard some of the death threats left on the family home’s answerphon­e. Hill told her that the callers were “cowards” and not to worry, but still taped up the letterbox in case of letter bombs.

Together with fellow witness David Holmes – a diplomat at the US embassy in Kyiv – she also got a fashion write-up in The Washington Post. It described their clothes as “reassuring­ly dull”, but praised the two Russia experts as “keepers of obscure but incredibly important knowledge, sworn to tell the truth”.

Yet, with hindsight, what seems just as alarming in the pair’s testimony was their warnings about mounting Russian “aggression” towards Kyiv, which Trump seemed indifferen­t to. When the invasion started, Trump boasted that it would “never have happened” if he was still president. Hill begs to differ.

“One reason this went ahead was because Putin got the impression (from Trump) that America didn’t fundamenta­lly care about Ukraine, so Putin assumed Trump would do nothing,” she says. “Nor would there be the level of support for Ukraine’s defence that there is now in the war, as Trump would have been too divisive a figure for Europe to rally behind.”

One thing she does credit Trump with, though, is an instinctiv­e empathy for those left behind by globalisat­ion – be they in the closed coal mines of England’s north east, America’s rust-belt heartlands, or the vast coal and steel yards of Ukraine’s eastern Donbas. It is no coincidenc­e that this is the part of Ukraine where pro-moscow sentiment is strongest – fuelled by nostalgia for a Soviet past when jobs were guaranteed.

“The Durham Miners’ Associatio­n had links to the Donbas going back to the 1920s,” Hill says. “These are blue-collar areas that act as melting pots, but – when the jobs go – people feel utterly dislocated, and disassocia­ted from the rest of the country.”

As she points out in her book – which interweave­s her own story with that of these lost communitie­s in Russia, the US and the UK – they are fertile territory for populists like Trump and Putin. Yet if the Russian leader loses the war in Ukraine, will that support finally end?

Once again, Hill is cautious. There are, though, “lots of signs of cracks in the support”. Despite soaring energy prices temporaril­y boosting Russia’s coffers, sanctions will have an effect long-term, as Europe weans itself off Russian oil and gas. Talented, educated Russians are leaving in droves, sapping the economy even more. And some of those left behind, she points out, are finally speaking their minds.

“Members of the local political parties in St Petersburg and Moscow are starting to write letters saying that Putin should step down, or actually be prosecuted for this,” she says. “Rightwing bloggers and people on TV are beginning to criticise him – this discontent has been percolatin­g for some time.”

At the very least, it may mean Putin is far from a shoo-in for Russia’s 2024 elections. But even if there was a coup against him, it seems more likely to be led by fellow hardliners than cuddly liberals. And even in the event of a Russian defeat, there is still the longer-term question of making Moscow accept that old-school imperialis­m is not acceptable in the 21st century. But while empire is already a dirty word in the West, it may take rather more to promote a “decolonisa­tion” narrative in Russia. As Hill points out, Moscow’s triumph against Hitler’s Nazis has become practicall­y “a state religion”. Too much guilt-tripping will simply alienate Russia more.

“We’ve got to give them the space to come to terms with what they’ve done (in Ukraine),” she says. “But it’s very delicate right now. Having strategic empathy for Russia and Russians is very hard when they’re in the midst of mass slaughter.”

And what of her own future? She and her husband, Kenneth Keen, a business consultant who she met at Harvard, currently live with their daughter in Washington. She works for the Brookings Institutio­n, an influentia­l Washington foreign policy think tank, but after living in the States since 1989, and now a US citizen, she is considerin­g a move back to return to the North East to help with “levelling up” in education. It is, she says, the way she got ahead – and it might ensure that more kids with broad North East accents might end up as ambassador­s and Foreign Office mandarins. “There’s been a big push in diversity in gender, race, but it needs to be of region too, to reach out to working class kids from old industrial areas.”

She’d also be handier, of course, for helping Liz Truss deal with Putin – although she declines to say whether the new PM has been in touch. It would surely not be surprising, though, if a certain “nondescrip­t older woman” was seen popping into Downing Street…

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