Hill, a dual U.S.-U.K. citizen and former U.S. intelligence officer from 2006 to 2009, has written critically of Putin’s autocratic tendencies and desire of a “weakened U.S. presidency.”But this means she is more a conventional foreign policy analyst of Russia, and not an admirer of the authoritarian, ethno-nationalist and Islamophobic aspects of Putin's politics. Unlike the Steve Bannon partisans.
“Blackmail and intimidation are part of his stock in trade,” she wrote in a column last summer explaining Putin’s interest in interfering in America’s presidential elections.
In her 2013 biography of Putin, she warned policymakers not to underestimate the Russian strongman given his strategic cunning and ability to find weaknesses in opponents derived from his experience in the KGB.
Since President Donald Trump’s election in November, she has dismissed the possibility of a dramatic rapprochement with Russia given the inherent differences between Washington and Moscow. “The Russians will get all giddy with expectations, and then they’ll be dashed, like, five minutes into the relationship because the U.S. and Russia just have a very hard time … being on the same page,” she told the Atlantic in November.
There were disagreements within the White House on whether Hill should go to the Trump-Putin meeting last week. (Asawin Suebsaeng and Lachlan Markay, Trump Aides Want Kremlin Critic in Putin Meeting Daily Beast 07/05/2017) While Hill did go on the trip for the G-20 summit, Trump allowed neither her nor McMaster to attend the meeting with Putin.
Kate Brannen in The Knives Are Out for Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster Foreign Policy 05/09/2017 wrote about the infighting against McMaster and his supposed loyalists.
In other words, Hill is in a major NSC position dealing with Russian affairs. But it's uncertainly how much of her advice and counsel on the topic gets to the President himself, much less how seriously he takes it.
The article I discussed yesterday was Putin: The one-man show the West doesn’t understand (Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 72:3 2016). In it, she stresses one of her favorite themes, the distinct ways in which Putin's experience as a KGB officer shape his governing as President of Russia.
Dædalus had an issue this year devoted to the topic "Russia Beyond Putin" (146:2 Spring 2017) As the theme indicates, the articles give particular attention to the functioning of the political system and practical considerations about how a successor to Putin will be selected. This is the "Kremlinology" of our time. Fiona Hill contributes an essay to that issue, The Next Mr. Putin? The Question of Succession.
This is an important observation of Hill's, defining Russia's current brand of what is often called illiberal democracy, though she doesn't use the term here:
The Russian president is not an autocrat like the tsar with divine right to rule. Nor is the president a dictator, who can simply give orders from above and be sure that things will get done outside the Kremlin walls. The president’s legitimacy depends on proof, in both electoral results and opinion polls, that he is genuinely popular. After Putin’s rough reentry in 2012, the next presidential election will be an important pivot point for the system, as will the subsequent Duma elections, and the projected end of Putin’s presidential terms in 2024. Putin and the ruling party will have to clear each electoral hurdle with a resounding victory and significant majority of the votes.
This is a talk she gave to the International Institute of European Affairs (IIEA) on the topic, Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, which is also the title of the 2013 biography she co-authored:
In seeming contrast to the argument she makes in the Bulletin article about how Putin runs the government heavily based on his own experiences in the KGB, in Dædalus she talks about his careful political planning. This article has a similar focus to her IIEA talk.
In a different contribution to the same journal issue, Henry Hale describes the Russian political system as dominated by what he calls "patronalism," a system in which personal and family networks play such a key role that they override the rule of law and formal political procedures and even organizations like political parties.
Hill points to some actions of Putin's that seem to fit with Hale describes as patronalism. For instance:
In 2016, Putin moved to consolidate Russia’s military and paramilitary structures and to weaken the power bases and independent authority of individual agencies by putting in place a smaller cadre at the top of the security elite who directly report to him. In April 2016, Putin issued a decree on creating the new National Guard–essentially his own personal army – appointing Viktor Zolotov, the former head of his Presidential Security Service (SBP), to lead it. ...But, as we saw above, she cautions that she does not regard Putin's government as a dictatorship. And her following comment suggests that Putin is likely to want to reduce the role of patronalism in the Russian system:
[These and other] appointments ensured that people in charge of important state institutions and functions would have close individual relationships with Vladimir Putin. Many of the replacements were, like Dyumin, younger figures from the security services and Putin’s bodyguard corps. Given their age and relative lack of experience, in contrast to their predecessors, they had not (yet) achieved the independent standing or built a power base to challenge him. [my emphasis]
... Putin has a personal obsession with the idea of Russia as a “dictatorship of the law,” where law is an instrument of the state that directs and constrains political and individual behavior. The Russian constitution is the law above all laws. It was drafted by a team led by Putin and Medvedev’s mentor at Leningrad University Law Faculty – and their boss as mayor of St. Petersburg – Anatolii Sobchak. The team drew on Sobchak’s work on nineteenth-century Russian legal and constitutional thought. So, in this respect, the Russian president is the first Russian constitutional monarch, albeit in an elected monarchy. [my emphasis]And she offers two models of how that transition could take place. The first is, "the USSR of the late Soviet period, when the state was institutionally and politically complex. Each individual Soviet republic had its own party and government structures. Their intraelite politics contributed to the leadership dynamics of the central Communist Party and the politburo."
The second model she suggests comes from
Over the next decade, the existing framework of United Russia [Putin's main party], or movements like the All-Russian People’s Front and Kremlin-sponsored youth organizations, could be drawn on to create a new structure with bureaucratic instruments to carry the system forward. This would, in essence, be a holding mechanism for powerful people, and one powerful person in particular. One potential model, which could address the many facets of the “Putin problem,” might be the moderately conservative Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) of Japan. The LDP is a pragmatically motivated power structure that serves as a frame for collective bargaining among major power-brokers to avoid ruinous factional battles. Since its creation in the 1950s, the LDP has provided a “home” for former powerful prime ministers between elections and at the end of their terms. Russian officials have periodically shown considerable interest in the creation and structures of the LDP in bilateral meetings with Japanese counter parts, and notably returned to this theme in 2016.So she sees a real likelihood that Putin would actively encourage a development toward more secure rule of law and greater institutional regularity.