Fiona Hill speaks about dangers of autocratic rule

Last week, Fiona Hill, former Senior Director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, spoke to a packed audience at Ohio State University.

Hill visited campus as the 2022 Joseph J. Kruzel Lecture speaker for the Mershon Center for International Security Studies. The series honors Joseph Kruzel, Mershon’s partner who taught political science at Ohio State during an interval between Air Force, Department of Defense, and diplomatic postings. In 1995, Kruzel died in an accident in Sarajevo, Bosnia, while leading the US team in negotiations to end the wars in Yugoslavia.

Executive Vice President and Provost Melissa L. Gilliam Hill introduced, officially naming her a Buckeye and sharing that the university was honored to host her. Kruzel demonstrated the importance and power of education, Gilliam said, and Hill reflects that in her career.

Earlier in the day, Hill spoke to a Mershon-only audience about how scholarships and study abroad opportunities enabled him to become one of the few children of his English mining community to attend university, and ultimately to earn a PhD. in history from Harvard and. to be a leading authority on Russian politics.

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“We’re excited to hear from you,” Gilliam said. “You represent the best part of what we strive to do here at Ohio State, which is to change the lives of individuals. When we educate individuals, we change family life, we change society.”

Hill is a Robert Bosch Senior Fellow in the Center on the United States and Europe in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, DC-based non-profit researching local, national and global issues. From 2017 to 2019, she served under President Donald Trump as deputy assistant to the president and senior director for European and Russian Affairs on the National Security Council. She gave memorable testimony at the former president’s impeachment hearing in 2019. Before that, she was the national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2006-2009.

Hill was happy to earn her honorary Buckeye title, saying she had wanted to visit the university for a long time.

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“I’ve been in the United States since 1989,” Hill said, “so this has been a long time coming. And hopefully, now that I’m a Buckeye, I’ll come back again.”

Hill spent 90 minutes answering questions from the event’s moderator, Dorothy Noyes, director of the Mershon Center, and from the audience. The conversation focused on what is happening in Russia during the conflict in Ukraine: What is Russian President Vladimir Putin thinking? What do the Russian people think? How does this affect the Russian economy?

Hill spoke of Putin’s adaptability, which has enabled him to remain the central figure in his country’s political arena since the 1990s. However, she said Putin had failed to account for what she called the “spinning effects” of the war: the spillovers of sanctions, military drafts and protests in Russia.

“I don’t think Putin himself, or the people in the Kremlin, have a complete picture of what’s happening,” she said.

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Again and again, Hill returned to the danger of having one person closely tied to the country’s decision-making.

“What will you gain from too much fealty on one man?” Hill asked the audience. “You get a terrible war, the biggest military conflict in Europe since the Second World War. You basically get world war. Because one man made a decision based on his own misconceptions.”

The United States can learn from this, what Hill called “fetishization of presidential executive power.”

“The preamble to the Constitution is not ‘I, the President.’ ‘We, the people,’” said Hill. Instead of looking for a single leader who can solve the nation’s problems, we must look to ourselves.

“How, in the United States, do you create a country that works for everyone? It’s not going to be one person, in the presidency,” Hill said. “We are really looking forward to the Presidency being the champion, in the end. That’s how you get autocratic, authoritarian systems.”


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