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29.09.2023. William Hill

William H. Hill : “Most East European states asked to join NATO because Russia made them feel insecure, not because the US or other western European states forced them to do so”

William H. Hill, is a Global Fellow at the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. A retired Foreign Service officer, Dr. Hill is an expert on Russia and the former Soviet Union, east-west relations, and European multilateral diplomacy. He served two terms – January 2003-July 2006 and June 1999-November 2001 – as Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, where he was charged with negotiation of a political settlement to the Transdniestrian conflict and facilitation of the withdrawal of Russian forces, arms, and ammunition from Moldova. Authored books:

Russia, the Near Abroad and the West: Lessons from the Moldova-Transdniestria Conflict. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012;

No Place for Russia: European Security Institutions Since 1989. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018.

Questions: Sergey Ehrlich and Mark Tkaciuk

Dear Prof. Hill, the specialisation of our journal is memory studies. In interviews we are testing the hypothesis of Jan Assmann stating that the usual span of communicative (family) memory of modern people includes three generations (80-100 years). How deep is your family memory?

Do you mean memory of generations before me, or including those after me? I am a grandfather, and tell my grandchildren about their great-great-grandparents, who were born between 1877 and 1891. My grandfather told me stories about his grandparents in Maine, in the mid-19th century. My mother’s grandparents came to the US from Sweden in the 1860s-1870s, and I heard stories about them.

The family memory of most modern people includes the tragic events of the Second World War. How is this reflected in your family memory?

My father was in the US Army somewhere in Belgium or Germany when I was born in 1945. He enlisted in the US armed forces on December 8, 1941, and served first on active duty and then in the reserves until 1950. He told me many stories about the western front.

Some of Western academics, who were born in the 1940s and 1950s, said that they were attracted to Russian language and Slavic studies by Sputnik and Gagarin events. Why were you involved in that field? Do you have East European ancestors?

My ancestors come from Britain and Sweden. I became interested in Russia when I took a course in Russian history from Professor Richard Pipes at Harvard. He was a brilliant lecturer, and made imperial Russian history sound fascinating.

Were there any Russian emigrants among your American university professors?

My dissertation advisor, Nicholas Riasanovsky came from a Russian family, although he was born in China and grew up in the US. While studying in US universities I met a number of students of Professor Mikhail Karpovich, who trained many of America’s Russia specialists in the 1940s and 1950s.

American and Russian people often speak only one language. We can call you a polyglot. How many languages do you know?

Many Americans study languages other than English, but do not speak them regularly because most of the world now speaks English. I learned Latin first, then German, Russian, and French in school. I studied Spanish and Dutch by myself, and learned Serbo-Croatian, Bangla, and Romanian while working as a diplomat. From my work in university libraries, I can read all of the Slavic languages.

Could you tell about your experience during academic stages in the Soviet Union? What was especially striking when you lived in the post graduate hostel in Leningrad, a kind of regimny obiect, where entrance was strictly prohibited after 11P.M.

I was a student at Leningrad University in 1971-72, as a participant in the official US-Soviet exchange of graduate students and young faculty. I lived in a dormitory on Vasilevskii island. I met many Soviet students, but not Vladimir Putin, who entered LGU in 1971. What can I say about student life? I lived like a Soviet – ate in stolovye, shopped in Soviet stores, and lived in the dormitory (obshchezhitie), which was a standard five-story Khrushchevka. Our Soviet fellow students told us where to find shelter if we failed to get home before curfew, or before the bridges over the Neva were raised in the middle of the night.

Who were your Russian professors at Leningrad University and who among your Russian peers became famous in politics, business and Academia?

My professors at LGU and MGU are probably not known to anyone who is not a specialist in Russian history. My advisor in Leningrad was N.G. Sladkevich. I also benefitted from the advice of N. Mavrodin in Leningrad and S.S. Dmitriev and V.S. Nechaeva in Moscow. Other than Mr. Putin, I am not aware of anyone who was at LGU at the same time as I was who subsequently became famous.

You were a post graduate in Leningrad University at the same time when Vladimir Putin was a student there. Recently you said that when you read his essay regarding Ukraine (“Russians and Ukrainians are one people”), it reminded you of your PhD theses where you analyzed ideas of the Russian “progressive thinkers” of XIX century like Belinsky who rejected claims of Ukrainians to have their own language and ethnicity separated from the Russians. Why do you think Putin resurrected that obsolete ideological “heritage”?

Unfortunately, the Russian nationalist view that sees Ukraine and Belarus as part of a single Russian nation has never really died out. This strain of thought arose in opposition to the emergence of a Ukrainian nation in the 18th and 19th centuries, and Russian nationalist thinkers continue to propound such ideas. This is a complex subject, and it is not possible to explain fully the mingling of nationalism with other Russian thought over the past three centuries. Suffice it to say that there is still debate within contemporary Russia over what it means to be Russian, what is the extent and nature of the Russian nation, and how does Russia relate to its neighbors. I think President Putin’s writings speak for themselves, and these views are reflected in his actions.

There is a legend that when you worked in the US embassy in Moscow one of your duties was to reconstruct an agenda of Politburo meetings in accordance with the registration plates of limousines entering the Kremlin. If it is not classified information and it is a true story could you tell how your academic experience (maybe ideas of Vladimir Propp and Claude Lévi-Strauss) helped to do that?

As Iurii Andropov once remarked, one important task of any diplomat is to gather information about the country in which she or he serves. I served in the Political section of the US Embassy in Moscow, and as such was responsible both for conducting political relations and reporting to Washington on political developments. The USSR was a closed society, and Soviet authorities did not publish much information about domestic political affairs. Foreign diplomats therefore tried to use every legitimate source of information in compiling their reports. One sign of important political meetings, for example, might be an unusually large number of certain types of automobiles in or around Staraya Ploshchad’. Our basic aim was to understand what was going on in the USSR, so that we could perform our diplomatic functions more effectively.

During your service in the US embassy you also were responsible for contacts with Andrey Saharov exiled by Soviet authorities to Gorky. Could you tell about that outstanding person and how the KGB counteracted your meetings?

Indeed I became close friends with the family of Andrei Sakharov, and later with Sakharaov himself. During the time I served in the US Embassy in Moscow, he was in exile in Gorkii, a city closed to foreigners. However, Elena Bonner was allowed to travel to Moscow, and I met with her at least once a month. In this way I communicated with Sakharov indirectly, and later met with him in person. He, Bonner, and their colleagues in the Helsinki Committee and other critics of the Soviet regime were exceptionally brave people, who took great personal risks and made great sacrifices in the hope of reforming their country and striving for freedom and peace. It was a real honor and privilege to get to know them.

On two occasions you were the Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova (1999-2001 and 2003-2006) and often visited the separatist Moldavian region of Transnistria. But first time you were there during Soviet era. There is a fantastic story about your first trip to Bendery and a local taxi driver whom you met again during your OSCE Mission. Could you tell that story?

I first visited Moldova in February 1983, with a colleague from the US Embassy. During our visit, we attempted to see a dissident who had been exiled to Bendery. KGB plainclothes officers would not let us visit this person’s home, so we asked a taxi driver to show us interesting sights in Bendery. After we saw the fortress, he invited us to his home to sample Moldovan wine. It turned out his home was in Parcani, which was closed to foreigners. We spent several hours in his village, being entertained by his neighbors. When we returned to the train station, we were detained by military officials, who eventually released us to take the train back to Chisinau. When I arrived to Moldova in 1999 as Head of the OSCE Mission, the taxi driver saw my picture in the newspaper, and called me. We met and had a long, interesting conversation about our meeting in 1983, and how the world had changed since then.

You wrote a book Russia, the Near Abroad and the West: Lessons from the Moldova-Transdniestria Conflict (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2012) where you analyzed the so called Kozak memorandum, the failed attempt to solve that conflict in 2003 with the assistance of the Russian Federation. Your interpretation of events is close to the Moldavian perspective ( There still exists some gossip that the then Moldavian president Vladimir Voronin was blackmailed by the American ambassador Heather M. Hodges. She allegedly threatened to expose Voronin’s offshore accounts and finally he refused to sign an agreement with Transnistria. What is the truth and lies in those accusations?

My book relates what I saw and thought during the process of negotiation and rejection of the Kozak Memorandum. The OSCE, EU, and US, among other international actors, all had serious reservations about the Memorandum, especially after the articles on a long-term Russian military presence were added. There was no “blackmail” by Ambassador Hodges, or anyone else for that matter. President Voronin was faced with overwhelming international disapproval and domestic opposition to the Memorandum. As far as I know, that is basically what convinced him not to accept it.

Current Moldavian authorities do not support the idea of solving the Transnistrian problem using the instruments of Federalization. In 2002, when you were the Head of the OSCE Mission to Moldova, OSCE suggested a plan of Federalization. In 2003 American diplomats Stephan H. Minikes, Rudolf V. Perina and Pamela Hyde Smith strongly advocated that idea (see: It Takes an International Effort to Unify Moldova // The Wall Street Journal. Aug 5, 2003. How do you think the Federal models are still relevant for Moldova? And why have they been rejected by the Moldavian right politicians?

I come from a country with a federal system, and I thought it natural to suggest to my Moldovan interlocutors that a federation might be a solution to the Transnistrian question. In fact, President Voronin asked in early 2003 whether the OSCE would support a solution involving a new, federal constitution for Moldova. I responded that I thought we could support such an initiative. However, for such a proposal to succeed, a majority of Moldovans would need to support it. For a number of reasons, that did not happen, and many Moldovans actively rejected a federal solution. The experience of a pseudo-federation in the USSR may have something to do with such popular attitudes in Moldova. In any case, my perception today is that most Moldovans do not want or support a federal solution, so that is not a viable option. There are, in my view, other acceptable approaches to resolving the conflict, and Moldova and its international partners will simply have to find one that is acceptable to all and which does work.

Russian propaganda argues that one of the main reasons for the so-called “Military special operation” against Ukraine was the expansion of NATO towards the Russian borders. In 2021 on the eve of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine the author of our journal Michael O’Hanlon writes in his essay NATO Expansion, the U.S.-Russia Relationship, and Memory: “In many Russian eyes, existing NATO countries then took advantage of that temporary Russian weakness in choosing to expand an alliance that arguably was no longer even needed. For all these reasons, we need a new security architecture for eastern Europe, and especially the former Soviet republics that are not now in NATO, that would not expand NATO further” ( You wrote a book No Place for Russia: European Security Institutions Since 1989 (Columbia University Press, 2018), where you treat the subject of NATO expanding among other problems. What is your opinion, it was a mistake to include East European countries to NATO, or a mistake was not to include Ukraine and Georgia ensuring their territorial safety?

I do not believe that NATO expansion caused Russia to attack Ukraine. Russia basically accepted the additions to NATO in 1999 and 2004, and collaborated closely with NATO, including joint military exercises, until late 2013. I believe the greater problem has been Russia’s desire since 1991 for a special relationship and “privileged sphere of interests” in the former Soviet republics on its borders. That has made Moscow sensitive to western penetration and influence in these countries, including Moldova. Ukraine is the largest and closest to Russia of these countries, and Russia-Ukraine relations have been troubled since the early 1990s. Remember that it was not NATO membership, but Ukraine’s desire to sign an association agreement with the EU that provoked the crisis of 2013-2014, and eventually annexation of Crimea and war in the Donbas. As you point out, in my book I analyze many problems, including NATO expansion, which have brought the Euro-Atlantic region to its current state of crisis. I believe critics who assert that reversing NATO expansion will solve all our problems with Russia are greatly mistaken. Most East European states asked to join NATO because Russia made them feel insecure, not because the US or other western European states forced them to do so. US and western policies may not always have been perfect, but Moscow surely needs to ask itself why its neighbors feel insecure and desire protection in the form of a NATO guarantee. The continuing war in Ukraine only increases these neighbors’ sense of insecurity.

And the last traditional question, what are your academic plans? Are you going to write a new book regarding Eastern Europe or maybe memoirs?

I am working on an article on Moldova’s political transformation since 1991, and I am involved in several projects on the future of European security. I have also been working on a comparative study of the views and practices of governance of the US, EU, Russia, and China. I do not know when I will finish.

Thank you very much for your interview!


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