In Conversation

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia on Putin: ‘He thinks we’re out to get him’

Q&A: Barack Obama’s Russian envoy Michael McFaul on Putin’s mentality, human rights at home, and why he thinks Putin knew about WikiLeaks’ email release

For all the hew and cry over the bear in the East—whether Vladimir Putin’s Russian regime colluded with President Donald Trump’s campaign, and what the real story was behind alleged Russian cyberattacks leading up to U.S. election day—much of the thinking has centred around one idea: that the Obama administration’s Russia policy failed. So in his new book, From Cold War to Hot Peace, Michael McFaul—Obama’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014—gives an engaging, well-penned account of his days in Moscow to explain what Obama was trying to do and how America’s diplomats danced with Russia’s regime.

McFaul also draws sharply on his experience as the National Security Council’s senior advisor on Russia in Washington and his ongoing work as a professor of political science at Stanford University. Over the phone from his Stanford office, he spoke to Maclean’s about why he loved the job, what people need to know about Putin, Garry Kasparov’s withering criticisms of Obama, problematic media discourse on Russia, and one Canadian’s leadership in maintaining the call for international order. (This conversation has been condensed and edited.)

Q: What’s it like debating with Vladimir Putin?

A: I first met him briefly back in the spring of 1991. I do write about this in the book, here’s the top three or four things one should know about Putin when you go into a meeting, as I did.

One: He was always extremely well-prepared. Knew his brief, knew the issues and knew a lot about his interlocutor. So in my case that was usually President Obama, but sometimes other government officials. Vice-president [Joe] Biden met with him, Tom Donolin met with him, Secretary Kerry met with him, and he always knew stuff about them personally and he would use that.

Two: He strikes me today as somebody with very firm views about the nature of the world. I don’t think it was always that way, I think he’s evolved into these ideas but one might call him an ideologue in that he has rather rigid views about the United States. And to paraphrase it, he thinks we’re out to get him, and we’re out to get his allies, and that we use overt and covert force to overturn regimes. And by the way, he’s right about that from time to time, so there’s evidence to support his hypothesis. But listening to him talk, he grossly overestimates the power of the CIA and the power of the Pentagon to make foreign policy. In fact, the CIA doesn’t make foreign policy, they implement it. And even though the role of the Pentagon and what in Russian they call the siloviki, the power ministries, he really overestimates them. Sometimes it’s referred to as the deep state in terms of the power they have over policy. And I think he does that because that’s how it works in his system, so he kinda does this mirror image thing and he gets that wrong about us.

Three: He’s very blunt. No colourful language, no diplomacy in that way. Even his language was much cruder than, say, Dmitry Medvedev’s.

Four: With me on occasion, when we were talking about this theory about regime change, he would point to me directly and say, “we know what you’re doing and we’re gonna stop you.” He could make you feel rather nervous when the conversation tilted to those kinds of things.

Q: How much do you think Putin was involved in terms of the information against the Democrats that was released through WikiLeaks in 2016? A possible loose analogy for what I’ve seen reported, from working in media, is that you have someone like Rupert Murdoch—his point of view is very influential at a place like Fox News—but he and his executives hire people that he think will enforce their beliefs, rather than personally directing them.

A: That’s a great question and I don’t have a precise answer. My intuition, based on years of following Russian politics and being involved in it for 35 years in the government, is that an operation at that level with the stakes that high would have gone to Vladimir Putin before it got approved. It’s just too risky and we’ve seen the consequences of it. Given that he is a bit of a micro-manager, especially when it comes to things involving us.

But I wanna emphasize two other things. First, I don’t know that for sure. That’s one of the really hard problems of gathering information and intelligence analysis about Putin and his inner circle. Because he’s an intelligence officer and he’s well-read into all of these intelligence gathering operations by them and us, he’s extremely careful about what he does electronically and in all ways. It’s very hard to know precisely who makes these kinds of decisions. He doesn’t use email, he doesn’t use cell phones.

But the second point that you make is also an important one that I think is misunderstood, which is that in their system—in the Putin era especially but it actually goes back all the way to George Kennan, and I was just reading his “long telegram” last week and was reminded that even he was focused on these methods—these methods are using parallel structures, using quasi-, non-governmental organizations, using cut-outs and sometimes those cut-outs are mafia-type organizations, to advance certain interests without the government being directly involved. They have a very complex system where they do that.

So it’s not out of the question for me that what happened with WikiLeaks—that data dump, that transfer—was in that fuzzy domain between what clearly is the state and what clearly is outside of the state.

READ MORE: David Corn on why Russian interference is a bigger deal than Watergate

Q: What do you hope your book’s impact is?

A:  I had a number of objectives. The first impulse was, as I got out of government, there were two lines of critique of the Obama administration. One was that we were too weak and we let the Russians run over us, and the other one was that we were too aggressive and we put in place sanctions, and re-started the Cold War. So I wanted to tell the story with some granularity because diplomacy and policymaking is more complicated than those bumper stickers.

The second objective was a bigger one, and a tragic one, which was at the end of the Cold War we thought we were going to have a constructive, positive relationship with Russia, and Russia was going to become democratic, and build markets, and join our Western clubs. And for a while that happened. But tragically they were at a very confrontational period, I call it the “Hot Peace” to echo but also distinguish it from the Cold War. Look at U.S.-Russian relations today, or more generally Russia’s relations with the West, and Canadian-Russian bilateral relations too. How did we go from thinking the end of the Soviet Union, and end of communism, and end of the Cold War—the end of history, as my colleague Frank Fukuyama wrote famously—would lead to this confrontation? That’s the historical meat of the book to explain that.

The punch line is that none of this was inevitable. It’s not based on structural conditions, or the balance of power in the international system, or culture, or history. It’s actually based on real decisions made by real people. I lay the majority of the blame on decisions that Putin made late in his tenure, but there’s good news to that too: It’s that we’re not inevitably locked into this confrontation with Russia forever.

U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, right, leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow, May 15, 2013, after being summoned to explain the presence of an alleged CIA agent working undercover at the embassy who was detained this week. (AFP/Getty Images)

Q: Garry Kasparov has been witheringly critical of Obama and your policy towards the Putin regime. What’s your response?

A:  I consider Garry an old acquaintance and friend of mine.  I met him first in 1992 or 1993 and politically I admire what he’s trying to do. Analytically, he’s been right about a lot of things. I think he tends to overestimate the power of external actors in bringing about political change in countries as big as Russia. I sometimes wonder if the democrats inside Russia have failed to bring about democratic renewal, how is that we’re gonna do it when they failed at it themselves. Now that’s an over-simplification, there’s a lot complexity there and I go into it in the book.

I radically disagree with those that make the argument that somehow the reset in 2009 caused Putin to invade Ukraine in 2014. That is overly simplistic, pretty superficial. The puzzle mechanisms there, as we would say in political science, are not there.

READ MORE: Maclean’s interview with Garry Kasparov

 Q: Your epilogue on Trump and Putin will score media attention. In it, you write: “Did Putin make Trump president? Of course not. American voters did that. Did Putin help Trump win? Maybe.” What do you hope people might take away?

A:  I did not want to write an epilogue [laughs]. That was not my intention whatsoever, but the course of events in 2016 to 2017 I think required it. I followed that story very closely in real time. I remember very vividly writing my column for the Washington Post, called “Why Putin wants a Trump victory (so much he might even be trying to help him)”. I remember the ridicule I heard from many quarters at the time saying, “This is crazy. They would never do that, they don’t have the capability to do that.” You know, we’ve learnt a lot since then. And obviously they did have the capability and they did do that.

Whether the Hot Peace is better or worse kinda depends on which part of the Cold War we’re talking about, and in this dimension it’s worse for a couple of reasons.

One: The technology to penetrate our society has grown exponentially since the Cold War, and to steal information, there’s much more capability than they had before.

Two: The same thing is true for propaganda, and disinformation, and fake news. And that technology is getting better and better, and it’s scary in my mind what is coming. When I listen to my friends here in Silicon Valley about things that they project for the ability to make videos that will look as real as real videos, but saying very different things—that’s the next frontier of these propaganda wars, and the Russians are investing in that.

Q: Does America need to do more about Black Americans’ voting and human rights, as Black Lives Matter is raising for example, to counter the criticism that’s received about America’s own human-rights record, including from Russians?

A: Yes, I agree with that. I think our image and our brand, and I most certainly experienced this as ambassador, is not as attractive as it was maybe 30 years ago. If you wanna criticize others about human rights, you should have your own house in order. That would make us better diplomats for universal values.

I spent a lot of time in conversation as ambassador both with government officials and then society, going back and forth on these kinds of issues, including international law. When we would talk about their violations and various things, they would say, “Well, what about your violations?” This term “whataboutism” is a method of discourse that is quite popular in Russia today.

The way that our democracy is performing more generally, there have been problems for a long time. But I think they’ve been accelerated since the election of Donald Trump. Challenges to the rule of law, and accusations of the Washington Post being fake news, that does damage to the ideas of democracy. Putin’s goal is not to win a propaganda war that Russia’s better than America. It’s not like the Cold War when they were making an argument that communism is a superior system to the decadent, imperial, capitalist ways that we all live in. Instead, it’s just to say that there is no truth, there are no higher values, we’re all in this together, nobody is better than anybody and to raise doubt about truth. And so that lower bar makes it easier to achieve and I worry about that. That we’re struggling so hard here, inside my country, to agree on what is truth—well, that’s exactly what Putin wants to see.

READ MORE: Trump failed a simple test on his Russian ties

Q: You hosted both then CIA director John Brennan, a Washington colleague, and then FBI director Robert Mueller in Moscow. What are your impressions of these men?

A: I know John Brennan a lot better than I know Robert Mueller because John and I worked together at the White House for three years before I went off to Moscow and he went off to the CIA. I have a great deal of respect for him. He was fighting terrorists, and homeland security was his portfolio at the White House, and he’d been in that fight for decades of his life at the CIA. A man with a great deal of integrity and judgement and commitment to the defence of America. He seemed like he never left the White House; his office was a basement office in the White House with no windows, in the West Wing, but down in the bowels. They were all in these deep, windowless offices and it seems like John Brennan was there every single hour of the day, seven days a week.

With respect to Mueller, he was more focused on domestic stuff and I was international when I was in Washington. We did interact quite a bit over the chapter that you referred to, Burgers and Spies, the spy swap, what to do with those spies. When Mueller came to Moscow, and this also is in the book, there was a moment there when we had real amazing cooperation with Russian intelligence services, the FSB in particular, in investigating the terrorist attacks in Boston during the Boston marathon.

Like John, Robert always struck me as a man of deep integrity, committed to the national interest. He was revered in the FBI, deep respect. Remember, he was chosen by President Bush, not President Obama, but I always thought that he was a straight shooter and always had America’s national interest first and foremost in his mind.

Q: Brennan has made some salty comments this year, including this tweet to Trump: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history.”

A: He normally does not talk like that. He actually is a man of very few words, he likes to listen. He does not use that kind of language in normal conversation and in normal interactions in the White House Situation Room. For him to have said that is very significant. He would not just say that in a hyperbolic way that one sees on Twitter. That’s not John Brennan’s style.

In this photo provided by The White House, U.S. president Barack Obama and members of the American delegation (including then-NSC Senior Director for Russian Affairs, Mike McFaul, , fifth from left) meet with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin at his dacha on July 07, 2009 in Moscow, Russia. (Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images)

Q: Michael Idov, who has written widely on Russia and whose Moscow days overlapped with yours, thinks too much of the American media’s coverage of Russian interference in the 2016 election is of disappointing quality. What’s your take?

A: Yeah, that’s a tough question. I’ve had that conversation with lots of journalists based in Russia, both Russian and American. Yes, I guess I tend to agree that some of the coverage—not all of the coverage, I want to distinguish—becomes too sloppy, becomes too cartoonized in terms of the Russians, and assigns preferences to Putin without evidence. I’ve been a political scientist for most of my life, I was only in the [American] government for five years, and as somebody who’s trained to look for causal arguments and data to support your hypotheses, I get nervous about how [speculative] things get thrown around. I work for NBC News and I write a column for the Post; I try really hard not to get ahead of my skis and to just talk about the facts that we know and not to speculate about what we might or might not know, especially regarding sensitive stuff regarding President Trump.

Q: Idov adds that too many people in the U.S. and Russia alike share a kind of magical thinking and an addiction to simplistic narratives.

A: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, that’s unfortunate, and it’s part of the reason why I wrote this giant book [laughs]. I felt that cartoonization, and real life is a lot more complex, and there’s a lot more nuance, and it’s too easy to talk about things in black and white with respect to Russia, and it’s too easy to talk about things in black and white when it comes to America. Why it feels that way now? It definitely feels like it has to do with technology, and cable news, and polarization. At this stage in my career, I feel really committed to #factsmatter.

READ MORE: Maclean’s interview with Michael Idov

Q: I appreciated that at the end of the book, you talked about your farewell in Moscow, telling the Russians all the things you like about Russia.

A: I wanna make sure to say that being the U.S. ambassador to Russia was a fantastic job, a fantastic experience. I loved having that job, in part, because I got to interact with all different dimensions of the Russian government and society. Russia is a complex, intriguing, engaging society. I’ve lived in that country many times, I’ve lived there six or seven years over my lifetime. But I never before got to see so many different dimensions of society, and business, and culture, and sports, and regional government, and I’d never been to Vladivostok, until I was ambassador.

I really appreciated—and this will sound somewhat strange maybe—but even when the government was seriously harassing me, for the most part, Russian society really embraced me. I did speak Russian, I knew thousands of Russians before I’d got into this job, but I deliberately tried to engage with student audiences, and cultural events, and get in to the fabric of Russian society. And when I did, almost always, there was a warm feeling from the Russians.

Especially, and finally, because I was there not just as Mike McFaul but as the proud representative of President Obama and the United States of America. I drove around in this big black limousine, surrounded by at least one, sometimes two, very American big cars. One of my bodyguards said, “You know, Mr. Ambassador, we like to drive the car without the American flag out because we don’t wanna bring too much attention to ourselves here.” And I was like, “You gotta be kidding me! Look: You don’t think we are bringing attention? Put that damn flag out.”

Q: What’s your advice for America’s new foreign policy standard-bearers, like John Bolton and Mike Pompeo?

A: Well, tragically, as I write about the period of deep cooperation that we were trying to do during the Reset years, and my colleague here at Stanford, George Shultz, was trying to do with [Mikhail] Gorbachev in the end of the 80s, that period has ended for now. I say that in tragedy, not because I applaud it, but the opportunities for that are no longer.

I do think we need to push back on President Putin when he is doing egregious things. I agree with that. As we had to do in the Cold War from time to time. And at the same time, when there are opportunities to engage with Russia, with the Russian government, on issues of mutual interest, we also have to do that.

George Shultz is actually a big hero of mine; he was the secretary of state under Ronald Reagan. I say that as a lifelong Democrat, but George has been a mentor of mine and he’s been here at Stanford now for several decades. He writes about that dual purpose during his time in dealing with the Soviets, and how you need to be able to walk and chew gum at the same time: Not overreact, but be strong. If I was going to give them one piece of advice, to Pompeo especially, I would say read George Shultz’s memoirs. They’re called Turmoil & Triumph and he’s got some fantastic chapters about how to do this dual-track diplomacy. And also read my book!

Q: What about Canada’s role in all of this?

A: One of the most articulate, smart, strategic thinkers about liberal values in the international system is Canada’s foreign minister today. At a time when I feel like we, Americans, are kind of absent on that stage, Chrystia Freeland has made some truly extraordinary speeches. I am grateful for her leadership on those things. And especially because she knows Russia well, and she also knows Ukraine well. Analytically she’s made some of the best statements about why we need to defend the liberal international order that anybody’s made in the last couple of years.

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