‘There Is Nothing For You Here’: Russia expert Hill discusses new book, U.S.-Russia relations

Dec. 21, 2021

By Kayra Guven ’24

On Monday, Dec. 13, Fiona Hill and Michael Reynolds convened for “There Is Nothing for You Here: Finding Opportunity in the Twenty-First Century,” a discussion of Hill’s new book of the same title. It chronicles her initial interest in foreign policy and her experiences serving in government. Hill is Robert Bosch senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the United States National Security Council; Reynolds is director of the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies, and associate professor of Near Eastern studies at Princeton University.

Regarding her initial interest in learning about Russia, Hill noted her early life and education were “shaped by this threat of a nuclear confrontation,” she said. Reynolds then spoke on the transition away from area studies in academia soon after Hill’s study of Russia. Hill concurred, adding that academic was “looking for people with language skills to re-deploy.” She mentioned that people interested in Russian would be encouraged to learn other languages — Farsi and Persian — as focus moved away from Russia during the 1990s. “I still had Russia on my lens, but it was very difficult to do work,” she said. “It was hard to find funding.” 

Hill’s own research was affected by this lack of funding. While describing the process of co-authoring “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin,” Hill said that due to funding issues, “the research component of it was circumscribed.” In the end, the project had to be partially self-funded. Regarding one of the goals of her research, Hill expressed the importance of learning more about the internal workings of Vladimir Putin’s political actions to understand the possible motivations behind his prospective decisions. She relayed her thought process following her experience at the National Intelligence Council, where she realized that what “made the guy tick” was not known at the time. In fact, there was no sense of  Putin’s motivations.

The the conversation then shifted to current affairs. Reynolds echoed Hill’s analysis of contemporary tensions, saying that the current times were “one of the lowest points” in US-Russian relations. Within this context, Hill and Reynolds discussed the dynamic between Russia and Ukraine, and Reynolds asked Hill what she thought was at stake. “It goes back to the 30th anniversary of the collapse of the Soviet Union,” she said. If Russia invaded Ukraine, “this would have reverberations around the globe,” she said, since Ukraine is an independent country and has been for years.

Hill suggested that from Putin’s point of view, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to Russia losing its previous position in Europe, and Putin’s decisions could be seen in the context of an attempt to restore this position. Putin would never have been the president if it were not for the collapse of the USSR, she explained; nonetheless, she emphasized Putin’s sense of loss as a result of the end of the Soviet Union. Hill argued that Putin wants this conflict to be resolved in accordance with this worldview because “it’s intertwined with his legacy,” she said. 

Reynolds asked Hill if she had any recommendations for students interested in international affairs and foreign policy. Hill emphasized the importance of honing a range of  skills. “Try to branch out,” she said. “Maximize your options. [Take] a more comparative perspective on things.” She talked about working at Brookings as a master class. She highlighted the additional insights gained through working in different types of positions. To underline this sentiment, she said, “I trained as an interpreter first.” She encouraged students to be interested in policy. “I do hope that people will step up and think of public service,” she said. 

 “There Is Nothing for You Here” was sponsored by the Program in Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.