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National security expert Fiona Hill said during a Harvard Kennedy School event on Tuesday that Russia still retains significant geopolitical influence amid reputational damages suffered from the war in Ukraine.
Hosted by Russia Matters — a project at the HKS Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs that publishes analysis on U.S.-Russia relations — the event was moderated by former HKS Dean Graham T. Allison ’62 and former Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Paula J. Dobriansky.
Hill, the former senior director on Russia and Europe for the U.S. National Security Council, said the war in Ukraine has taken a toll on the reputation of Russian president Vladimir Putin among his own citizens.
“This will have damage,” Hill said. “There’s a lot of people dissatisfied.”
Still, Hill said she believes Russia will continue to be an impactful player on the global stage and is “not going to go anywhere.”
“Russia will always matter,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to avoid dealing with Russia.”
Hill cited the “inescapable fact” of Russia’s expansive territory — the largest of any country — and the widespread “cultural impact”, including novels like Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” which Hill said sparked her own interest in studying Russia.
Hill recalled overhearing Russian officials expressing concern about the destructive effects of climate change — in particular, the “melting permafrost” and “big storms coming through Moscow” — during a meeting between Putin and former U.S. President Donald Trump. She added that Russia’s large forest system could continue to support decarbonization efforts.
“Russia is going to be part of our solution — it has to be part of our solution — not just part of the problem of tackling climate change,” Hill said.
Hill also addressed Russia’s role in the Middle East and the country’s shifting relationships with Israel and Iran, remarking that though Putin has historically been on good terms with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he has recently “decided to jettison the relationship with Israel.”
According to Hill, this move comes as Putin seeks to strengthen ties with Iran, which has provided Russia “direct military assistance” but has poor relations with Israel.
“Putin, for the very first time, notably started to make antisemitic comments,” she said. “Putin isn’t antisemitic, but he will instrumentalize it if he needs to.”
Hill also discussed Russia’s relationship with China, explaining that there has recently been “an infusion of Russian and Chinese interests.”
She called the relationship between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Putin “personal” and said that the two “think about the world in similar sorts of ways.”
“I was quite surprised to hear from a lot of my China scholars, colleagues at Brookings and elsewhere, that Putin is very good at manipulating Xi,” Hill said. “Xi has a genuine affection for Russian culture.”
“His father was very steeped in Soviet and Russian culture,” she added. “Xi himself basically took on board a love and appreciation for it.”
While China has not supplied weapons to Russia — or provided other forms of direct support — it has bolstered the country’s economy, according to Hill.
“Russia’s economic growth is very much driven by the Chinese demand for everything that Russia produced,” Hill said. “To some degree in gas, but other raw materials and scrap metal, everything.”
While Hill called U.S.-Russia relations a “total tragedy,” she said that Putin and Russia should never be written off.
“Russia always matters, and right now, while he’s still with us, Putin matters as well,” she added.
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