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Fiona Hill says ‘Elon Musk is transmitting a message for Putin’

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk (NASA / Aubrey Gemignani/TNS)
October 18, 2022

Fiona Hill, a career foreign policy specialist focused on Russia and Europeans affairs, believes the world’s richest man Elon Musk has become a message carrier for Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Hill gave her assessment of Musk’s recent interest in ending the Russia-Ukraine conflict in an interview with Politico, published on Monday. Hill previously served as Senior Director for Europe and Russia on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, but left the position in July of 2019.

According to Politico, Hill believes Musk’s recent calls to negotiate an end to the war in Ukraine are little more than a regurgitation of Putin’s own demands.

“Putin plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role,” Hill told Politico. “But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin.”

Earlier this month, Musk shared a proposal to stop the fighting in Ukraine. The proposal entailed Ukraine finally giving up its claims of sovereignty over Crimea and allowing the people in four eastern Ukrainian border areas to vote on whether they will become part of Russia. Musk’s proposal also entailed a commitment from Ukraine to remain neutral between Russia and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Critics of Musk’s proposal have accused him of offering terms that are overly deferential to the Russian side. Last week, foreign policy consultant Ian Bremmer even alleged Musk had discussed the war in Ukraine with Putin before tweeting out his peace proposal — a charge Musk has denied.

While Musk had provided critical support to Ukraine early on in the war by freely providing Ukrainian forces with access to his Starlink satellite internet service, Hill believes Musk has become a message carrier for the Russian side.

“There are several reasons why Musk’s intervention is interesting and significant,” Hill told Politico. “First of all, Putin does this frequently. He uses prominent people as intermediaries to feel out the general political environment, to basically test how people are going to react to ideas.”

Hill implied Putin had used this same playbook on former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who in May suggested Ukraine give up some territory to Russia to bring an end to the war.

“Henry Kissinger, for example, has had interactions with Putin directly and relayed messages,” Hill told Politico.

“It’s just fascinating, of course, that it’s Elon Musk in this instance, because obviously Elon Musk has a huge Twitter following,” she continued. “He’s got a longstanding reputation in Russia through Tesla, the SpaceX space programs and also through Starlink. He’s one of the most popular men in opinion polls in Russia. At the same time, he’s played a very important part in supporting Ukraine by providing Starlink internet systems to Ukraine, and kept telecommunications going in Ukraine, paid for in part by the U.S. government. Elon Musk has enormous leverage as well as incredible prominence.

Hill said using middlemen like Musk and Kissinger is Putin’s way of “basically short-circuiting the diplomatic process.”

“[Putin] wants to lay out his terms and see how many people are going to pick them up,” Hill said. “All of this is an effort to get Americans to take themselves out of the war and hand over Ukraine and Ukrainian territory to Russia.”

In 2019 Trump paused military aid to Ukraine before raising questions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy about political rival Joe Biden’s alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine’s government into firing a prosecutor investigating a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma Holdings. In a 2018 speech for the the Council on Foreign Relations, Biden appeared to brag about holding up a $1 billion aid package to Ukraine in 2016 until they fired a prosecutor. Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden served on the gas company’s board of directors at the time.

Hill left the National Security Council before Trump discussed the Biden family’s activities in Ukraine but testified that from May of 2019 onward she believed Trump was holding up a White House meeting with Zelenskyy to pressure the Ukrainian president into committing to new investigations into Biden. She said “it became very clear that the White House meeting itself was being predicated on other issues, namely investigations and the questions about the election interference in 2016.”

Hill currently is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and is a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institute.

While at the Brookings Institute, Hill worked closely with Igor Danchenko. Last year Special Counsel John Durham brought charges against Danchenko for lying to the FBI about his work on 2016 campaign opposition research against Trump.