Politico‘s Maura Reynolds: We’ve recently had Elon Musk step into this conflict trying to promote discussion of peace settlements. What do you make of the role that he’s playing?
Hill: It’s very clear that Elon Musk is transmitting a message for Putin. There was a conference in Aspen in late September when Musk offered a version of what was in his tweet — including the recognition of Crimea as Russian because it’s been mostly Russian since the 1780s — and the suggestion that the Ukrainian regions of Kherson and Zaporizhzhia should be up for negotiation, because there should be guaranteed water supplies to Crimea. He made this suggestion before Putin’s annexation of those two territories on September 30. It was a very specific reference. Kherson and Zaporizhzhia essentially control all the water supplies to Crimea. Crimea is a dry peninsula. It has aquifers, but it doesn’t have rivers. It’s dependent on water from the Dnipro River that flows through a canal from Kherson. It’s unlikely Elon Musk knows about this himself. The reference to water is so specific that this clearly is a message from Putin.
Now, there are several reasons why Musk’s intervention is interesting and significant. 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. Henry Kissinger, for example, has had interactions with Putin directly and relayed messages. Putin often uses various trusted intermediaries including all kinds of businesspeople. I had intermediaries sent to discuss things with me while I was in government.
This is a classic Putin play. It’s just fascinating, of course, that it’s Elon Musk in this instance, because obviously Elon Musk has a huge Twitter following. 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. Putin plays the egos of big men, gives them a sense that they can play a role. But in reality, they’re just direct transmitters of messages from Vladimir Putin. [Continue reading…]