Played by Putin

Scheduled to testify at today’s impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee is Fiona Hill, a coal miner’s daughter from northern England and now one of America’s leading Kremlinologists, a field that has regained importance in the age of Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump.

Avowedly non-partisan, she served as an NIO — national intelligence officer — in the younger Bush and Obama administrations before going to work for Trump as Senior Director for European and Russian Affairs on Trump’s National Security Council. She stuck it out  from April 2017 to July this year when she left the White House, in part, she says, to speak more openly about how America’s corrupt and broken politics are playing straight into Putin’s poisonous hands.

She had left before Trump’s infamous July 25  phone chat with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky, the one where he openly shakes down the comic actor-turned-president for “a favour” — Joe Biden’s head on an investigator’s plate. But if she can add nothing directly about the “perfect” call or the subsequent attempt to cover it up, she still has much of interest to proffer about its context. This we know from day-long deposition she gave the committee behind closed  doors.

What caught the most attention when the 446-page transcript was first released were anecdotes about her then boss, choleric national security adviser John Bolton.

He went ballistic as he caught wind of the parallel Ukraine policy Trump’s creatures — acting chief of staff Rick Mulvaney and Gordon Sondland who bought the job of ambassador to the European Union by funding Trump’s inauguration — were running behind his back with human “hand grenade” Rudolph Giuliani, once “America’s mayor”, now Fox News fixture and the president’s private lawyer.

More interesting, though, was what Hill had to say about Putin as a Moscow centre hood, to borrow a phrase from John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. “I am not a Russia hawk,” she said. “What I am is a critic of…this government led by a former KGB case officer who specialises in manipulating people’s vulnerabilities and exploiting corruption.”

“Why do you believe that Putin was targeting Donald Trump from his days as a businessman,” she was asked before it had been firmly established she did believe it. Not missing a beat, she replied: “Because that’s exactly was Putin and others were doing…He was part of a directorate in the KGB in Leningrad. That’s what they did exclusively — targeting businessmen…And that was filthy.”

The techniques Hill described could be more subtle than honey traps and blackmail. She gave an example from her own experience. She was hacked while working on her 2014 book, Mr Putin, Operative in the Kremlin, at the Brookings Institution, then all of a sudden she started receiving unsolicited help on questions only someone familiar with her manuscript could have known she was asking. It turned out she was being played. Putin’s people were working to shape her narrative to his liking.

She believes Christopher Steele, the former MI5 man responsible for the celebrated dossier suggesting Putin had kompromat on Trump, was similarly played. The Russians used him to sow the seeds of political chaos on what, given Trump’s known depravity, was obviously fertile soil.

Now they are playing Giuliani. They know his weaknesses. He is looking for deals in Ukraine on his own account.  He’s desperate to become a hero to the Trumpsters by helping them slime Biden and sink his bid for the Democratic nomination. So Moscow is feeding him what he and his client wants to be fed.

“The only way we can keep the Russians out of our politics is to clean up our own act,” Hill said. Might the same advice apply to a country like SA?

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