One of the world's foremost experts on Russia and Vladimir Putin believes there's a grave risk of nuclear war after his invasion of Ukraine.
Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council staffer who testified against Donald Trump in his first impeachment saga, told Politico that Putin's invasion of Ukraine was part of a broader war against liberal democracies and posed a potentially existential risk to the world order.
"Ukraine has become the front line in a struggle, not just between democracies and autocracies but in a struggle for maintaining a rules-based system in which the things that countries want are not taken by force," Hill said. "Every country in the world should be paying close attention to this."
Putin has repeatedly made it clear that using nuclear weapons was a real possibility, well before he put Russia's nuclear forces on high alert, but Hill said former President Donald Trump apparently failed to recognize the gravity of his warnings.
"Putin tried to warn Trump about this, but I don't think Trump figured out what he was saying," Hill said. "In one of the last meetings between Putin and Trump when I was there, Putin was making the point that: 'Well you know, Donald, we have these hypersonic missiles,' and Trump was saying, 'Well, we will get them, too.' Putin was saying, 'Well, yes, you will get them eventually, but we've got them first.'"
"There was a menace in this exchange," Hill added. "Putin was putting us on notice that if push came to shove in some confrontational environment that the nuclear option would be on the table."
Putin has already used a type of nuclear weapons with the poisoning of Alexander Litvinenko with radioactive polonium, which killed the former spy and spread radioactive material around London, and he has used nerve agents to poison other political enemies.
"So if anybody thinks that Putin wouldn't use something that he's got that is unusual and cruel, think again," Hill said. "Every time you think, 'No, he wouldn't, would he?' Well, yes, he would, and he wants us to know that, of course. It's not that we should be intimidated and scared. That's exactly what he wants us to be. We have to prepare for those contingencies and figure out what is it that we're going to do to head them off."
Hill has written a highly regarded biography of Putin, and she said his recent behavior appears to be a bit more unhinged than his usual closely guarded public appearances.
"Putin is usually more cynical and calculated than he came across in his most recent speeches," she said. "There's evident visceral emotion in things that he said in the past few weeks justifying the war in Ukraine. The pretext is completely flimsy and almost nonsensical for anybody who's not in the echo chamber or the bubble of propaganda in Russia itself. I mean, demanding to the Ukrainian military that they essentially overthrow their own government or lay down their arms and surrender because they are being commanded by a bunch of drug-addled Nazi fascists? There's just no sense to that. It beggars the imagination."
Hill also worries that Putin has become a bit unbalanced during his pandemic isolation and has become obsessed with re-establishing historic borders of the Russian empire.
"I've kind of quipped about this, but I also worry about it in all seriousness — that Putin's been down in the archives of the Kremlin during COVID looking through old maps and treaties and all the different borders that Russia has had over the centuries," she said. "He's said, repeatedly, that Russian and European borders have changed many times, and in his speeches, he's gone after various former Russian and Soviet leaders, he's gone after Lenin and he's gone after the communists, because in his view they ruptured the Russian empire, they lost Russian lands in the revolution, and yes, Stalin brought some of them back into the fold again like the Baltic States and some of the lands of Ukraine that had been divided up during World War II, but they were lost again with the dissolution of the USSR."
"Putin's view is that borders change," she added, "and so the borders of the old Russian imperium are still in play for Moscow to dominate now."