The following is a transcript of an interview with Fiona Hill, the former senior director for European and Russian affairs on the National Security Council during the Trump administration, that aired on “Face the Nation” on August 27, 2023.
NANCY CORDES: Welcome back. Russia’s Investigative Committee confirmed today that the remains of Wagner leader Yevgeny Prigozhin have been positively identified, along with the nine others who died in a plane crash last week. We’re joined by Fiona Hill, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution and former White House Russia expert. Good morning, Fiona. Thank you so much for being here. So, Russian president Vladimir Putin claims he had nothing to do with this. Is there anyone in the diplomatic community who believes that?
FORMER NSC OFFICIAL FIONA HILL: I doubt it. And look- I think what we can certainly say is he didn’t order it not to happen, because there are plenty of people who were painting a target on Prigozhin’s back. The system itself expected him to be taken out of the picture in some fashion. I guess it was a question about what the method would be, and in fact, I think over the last two months there’s been more shock, not just internationally but also domestically, based on source reporting that the fact that nothing had happened to Prigozhin, and that he was allowed to walk around as if he hadn’t indeed perpetrated a putsch exactly two months ago.
NANCY CORDES: You know, usually Putin’s enemies tend to get poisoned, or pushed out windows, or shot. Why go to the trouble of bombing an airplane?
FIONA HILL: Well, we don’t know exactly how the aircraft was brought down yet, but I guess we’ll find out more as things go along. I mean, I’m sure, again, that the Russian government, the Kremlin, will accuse all kinds of other people about carrying out this act if it seemed to be the result of an explosive device, you know, for example. But it’s so dramatic, it’s so spectacular, that, of course, one has to ask whether this was done for the demonstrative effect of it. And we have had some mysterious plane crashes in the past taking down Russian leaders. There was a very famous general, Alexander Lebed, for example, who died in a helicopter crash, so it’s not something that is unheard of. In- in other settings as well, of course, we’ve had Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, where there have been the loss of key people in plane crashes, so I think this is par for the course, unfortunately.
NANCY CORDES: And there is some symmetry, isn’t there, to Prigozhin’s dash to Moscow in that aborted mutiny when Wagner Group brought down several Russian aircraft?
FIONA HILL: Exactly. So this is also a part of that idea of he who lives by the sword dies by the sword, an eye for eye. The vengeance factor, it’s baked into the system. There was a lot of clamor from the uniformed military and especially the air force for some kind of retribution for this, whether it was in a legal form. But look, he took down a proportional number of people in the Russian military aircraft as you said here, so again, there is a symmetry and a symbolism all of it- in all of this, that is inescapable in the Russian domestic context, as well as for rest of us watching it from the outside.
NANCY CORDES: The Wagner Group has been so pivotal for the Russian military in the war in Ukraine. Now there are reports that the Russian government is requiring Wagner fighters to sign loyalty oaths. What is this going to mean? The death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, what will it mean for the war in Ukraine?
FIONA HILL: Well, I don’t think it will actually mean anything significant for the war in Ukraine in terms of the military campaign itself. We were already seeing that Wagner was being pulled out, it was pulling out after the actions in Bakhmut, where they were in the thick of the fighting there, in that city that, of course, you know, was so much of the focus of the carnage of the war over the last several months. But it was already a precipitating factor in all of the series of events over the last two months. The idea that the Wagner Group are going to be dismantled and reincorporated or incorporated for the first time rather, into the Russian military. And that was one of the factors that Prigozhin himself was citing as a reason for him making his march on Moscow. He didn’t want to have his guys put under the command of the central Russian military. So I think, you know, what we can see from all of this is that Wagner was pretty crucial for these early stages, this first couple of parts of the campaign in Ukraine, and now the Russian government and Putin wants to have more centralized control. He gave Wagner a long leash, and Prigozhin clearly took that leash far too far.
NANCY CORDES: You’re such a close study of Vladimir Putin. You’ve sat across the table from him. How should we think about his power in Russia now after this likely assassination? There was a period of time after Prigozhin made that dash to Moscow where it seemed like elites, commentators in Russia felt more comfortable speaking out against Putin, against the war. He appeared to be weak. How does his standing look to you now?
FIONA HILL: Well, not only were other commentators speaking out, but Prigozhin himself said this war was a mistake. But it was basically, he was acting because he wanted to make sure that the war was won, and that was kind of part of the theme of his- of his revolt. Now other commentators, as you rightly said, including, you know, some senior generals, have been bashed- literally bashed back and put out of the picture for saying the same kinds of things. What Putin is saying with this assassination, whether, you know, he actually carried it out or not, the message is going to be very clearly transmitted to everybody, no speaking out now. Buckle down. Everyone getting behind this campaign in Ukraine. That’s why I say I don’t think it’s really going to change the way that the Russians are approaching this. And there is no room whatsoever for disloyalty. One of the things that Putin said that was very notable when the mutiny, the putsch, was happening two months ago, was that the traitors who carry this out will have an inevitable punishment. We’ve seen an inevitable death as a result of this, that everyone was foretold. I mean, we’ve all been expecting something like this for the last two months. The message to the whole system is, don’t try anything. And even don’t criticize, I would say, at this particular point, because we’ve seen so much action against people who have been speaking out.
NANCY CORDES: And Prigozhin may not be the last to be targeted. Fiona Hill, Russia expert, thank you so much for being here today.
FIONA HILL: Thank you.