From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin's Russia
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This event took place on Wednesday, May 9, 2018
JOANNE MYERS: Good morning, everyone. I'm Joanne Myers, director of public affairs programs, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I would like to thank you all for beginning your morning with us.
Our guest this morning is Michael McFaul. He will be discussing a fascinating new book which is part autobiographical, part analytical, and part historical entitled From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin's Russia.
I believe you all received a copy of his bio, but for those joining us online, let me briefly note that our speaker, a preeminent Russian scholar, served for five years in the Obama Administration. He began his government career serving as special assistant to President Obama and as senior director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council. In this capacity he helped craft what was known as the "reset."
In 2012 he was appointed U.S. ambassador to Russia and remained in that post until 2014. Currently he is professor of political science at Stanford, director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. It is my great pleasure to welcome Ambassador McFaul to this podium.
Most of us would agree that relations between the United States and Russia are at one of the lowest points in decades. As Putin explores opportunities to undermine and hollow out the U.S.-led international order, Russian fingerprints and footsteps have been showing up in such places as the Internet, Syria, the Ukraine, and elsewhere.
In the United States, rather than engage in a "reset" of U.S.-Russia relations, the United States has tightened its sanctions regime and is conducting an investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 elections. As a result, deep suspicions and resentments that had previously been fading in the United States toward Russia and in Russia toward the United States have now reappeared.
The questions are many. The major one is simply: How did relations between the United States and Russia deteriorate to this point, and who is to blame? Are the two sides misunderstanding and misrepresenting one another, or do we simply have incompatible domestic and foreign interests that can never be reconciled? In the end, what can be done to ease tensions and normalize relations?
In From Cold War to Hot Peace, Ambassador McFaul, wearing both an analytical and a participatory hat, addresses these issues and offers an explanation for how Russia has come to be the country it is today, how its relationships with the United States have evolved, and the limitations of diplomatic engagement during critical moments in U.S.-Russian relations over the past century.
If you have ever wondered what it might be like to represent the United States in a country that is suspicious of who you are and what you represent, you need not go any further than joining me in giving a warm welcome again to our guest today, Ambassador McFaul. Thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL McFAUL: Thank you. That was a great introduction and perfect setup for the big question I want to answer. In Russian, it's kto vinovat, for those who speak Russian: Who's to blame for our relationship?
It's great to be here today. At Stanford—does anybody have kids in college or younger? You know that it's really hard to keep their attention these days, so we use a lot of technology, we use a lot of photos and graphs. Today we're going to be old school, and that's great. That's going to challenge me to keep your attention with my words and not my pictures.
What I'm going to do today is give you a flavor of the book. I'm going to focus—because this is a learned place—not on the stories and anecdotes of the book, although I hope we'll get into some of those, and during questions you can ask me anything, an Ask Me Anything Reddit session.
We can talk about life at Spaso House. Some of you have been to Spaso House; it's pretty cool. My house in Palo Alto can fit in the Chandelier Room of Spaso House. We can talk about what it's like for an outsider—as we were just doing at breakfast—an academic, somebody from the White House who then goes into diplomacy, and what that was like.
We can talk about Twitter and the two-step. That's my favorite chapter title. Actually, "Burgers and Spies" or "Twitter and the Two-Step" are my two favorite chapter titles. The two-step was a revolutionary thing. Maybe that's a strong—"revolution" gets overused sometimes.
We showed up—some of my family is here from the McFaul family, so I'm saying this for you guys in the back—brand-new people, brand-new ambassadors. My father is a country-western musician from Montana, and it just so happened that the first group to perform at Spaso House was a band from Montana.
By the way, one of the great perks of living at Spaso House is you have a ballroom that seats about 800 people. Some of my heroes from life, from the National Basketball Association (NBA) to Herbie Hancock—I actually hosted Herbie Hancock one day. I used to play the trumpet; I was a big fan of Herbie Hancock, and suddenly I get to have him at my house with 600 of my friends.
But the first one was Wylie and the Wild West. I'm from Montana. My father performs for a living. The worst night you can do for a musician, at least for my father, is to show up at wherever he's playing and sit on your hands for four hours and tap your foot. That was always the worst. You wanted people to dance. You wanted people to get up.
I was like: "Wow, we have this Montana band. We're going to be able to dance."
One of my staffers said: "Whoa, Mr. Ambassador. We don't dance at Spaso House. We have concerts."
I was like: "Oh, come on. We have to create a little bit of space."
We argued for actually four days, and we compromised by taking out three or four rows. I took the daring move—I'm not a good two-stepper, but I know how to do it—and I dragged my wife up there in front of 500 people we'd never met. Within 30 seconds, there were 150 people dancing. So a little Montana came to Spaso House. I'm happy to talk about those things.
To start with, I want to give you the arc of the story, and I want to answer your question. I want to start by reminding you—maybe in this crowd I don't have to, but when I speak to students I have to—that there was this thing called the Cold War. It was a really bad confrontation. It was so bad in fact that as a young kid at Stanford University I took first-year Russian my freshman year as a 17-year-old kid and a class on international relations because I was worried that we were going to blow up the planet. I had a theory, a very simple theory, that if we could just get to know the Russians a little bit better we could decrease tensions.
The summer of my sophomore year with Rich Sobel, who is here right now, we went off to Leningrad State University to study Russian. That was my first trip abroad, by the way. You can imagine my mom in Montana. She thought California was a communist state, and she worried for me to go to California, that I was going to come back with long hair and become a hippie. By the way, I did do that.
Then I called her up and said: "Hey, Mom. I'm going to go on an overseas studies program." Back then the president called it "the evil empire." Imagine her shock when I said: "I'm not going to London or Paris. I'm going to Leningrad." But I did that animated by this scare.
For me, when the Cold War ended and I just happened to be living in the Soviet Union in 1990-91, again it was a glorious moment. It was a great moment. It was a moment when I thought we were moving closer together, that there were Russians who wanted to build democracy and markets and be close to the West. This idea that they've always been separate, that's a myth, and I'm going to get to that myth in a moment.
For me, this period and this book is a tragedy. It's tragic. How is it that we have come back to something close to the Cold War? Dmitry Medvedev, the prime minister, we were together at the Munich Security Conference two years ago, and he said, to quote: "Speaking bluntly, we are rapidly rolling into a period of a new Cold War. I sometimes am confused. Is it 2016 or 1962?"
Our own president, of course, on Twitter, April 11th, just said this: "Our relationship with Russia is worse now than it has ever been, and that includes the Cold War."
We could debate that, and maybe we will debate it in questions. I deliberately call this period a "hot peace" to echo the Cold War, but to also say it's different because it's not exactly the same.
But in lots of dimensions if you go through it, we're still two nuclear superpowers that can blow up the world. We used to have 50,000 nuclear weapons; now because of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) we've gotten it down to below 2,000, 1,550 for those who are counting. But guess what? You can still blow up the planet with 1,550 nuclear weapons.
We don't have a quantitative arms race, but we have a qualitative arms race, both on the offensive side and on missile defense. In conventional military power we're both building up. The Russians are actually building up at a faster rate than we are in Europe.
They don't have global reach, but in the European theater, I actually think we're behind them. I would not want to see a conventional war in Europe right now. I'm not sure who would win. In fact, I would lean that Russia would have the advantage in that.
Even on ideology—one of the great things about the Cold War was that we got done with communism versus capitalism or communism versus democracy. But there is a new ideological struggle, at least Putin thinks there is a new ideological struggle. He believes he's the leader of what he calls "the conservative world"—I'll just leave it at that—fighting against the decadent, liberal West.
By the way, he has invested for years now hundreds of millions of dollars in instruments, in social media, in RT, Sputnik, to propagate those ideas around the world, and he has won over many ideological allies. Some run governments, like in the case of Hungary; some have advisors around them that were sympathetic to them until they got fired—that's in the Trump Administration; and there are some movements that have allied and are closer to Putin.
In fact, in a recent Pew poll of people around the world, more people around the world trust Putin to do the right thing than they do Donald Trump, and in nine of our allies—you can look it up or you can find me on Twitter and I'll tweet it to you—seven in Europe and two in Asia, citizens there trust Putin more than they trust us.
One last thing. There were some instruments of fighting the Cold War that we thought were extinct after World War II that are back. Let me just mention two.
If I were writing the ten commandments for how nations should behave, probably at the top would be "Thou shall avoid a nuclear war." That's number one, but number two would be, "Thou shall not annex the territory of thy neighbor." We thought that was over after Stalin. It's back.
But on our side, too, let's just be clear, we're also pushing back in new fundamental ways. Never in the history of U.S.-Russian or U.S.-Soviet relations has the chief of staff of the Kremlin, whether it's the tsar, the prime minister, the general secretary, or the president, been on the sanctions list. That happened today.
In fact, hundreds of Russians are on the sanctions list, and that means dozens of us Americans are also on the sanctions list, including me. I can't travel to Russia right now because in a tit-for-tat in 2014—the sanctions were after the war in Ukraine—I was put on that list.
It's pretty good company, by the way. The last U.S. ambassador to be on that list was George Kennan. But it's tragic for me. I've spent several years of my life living in Russia, going back and forth to Russia. I have hundreds of close personal friends in Russia. This is the longest I've been outside of that country, literally since 1983. Whether it's worse or not we can argue about, but I think we would all agree from where you started it's not a good situation.
How did we get here? Then I'm going to spend 15-20 minutes talking about three arguments about it, and then land at what I think is the most important.
The first argument: If this were in Intro to International Relations—did you take that with Krasner, by the way? No, you didn't. I did. Poli Sci 35 is what we called it at Stanford. But in most theories of international relations courses in America and actually in Russia, too, now that I think about it, there's a dominant paradigm; there's a dominant theory. It's called "realism."
I'm going to make everything simple so I cannot talk too long, but the theory is pretty simple. It is that power is the main thing in international relations; what happens internally doesn't really matter, and it's the balance of power in the international system that drives all the drama, the ups and downs of international politics.
Some countries get more powerful; they rise in power for whatever reason. Others, their neighbors, weaken, and as those dynamics happen sometimes there are wars as a result of those dynamics, and sometimes a lot of borders get redrawn.
If you look at a map of Europe over the last thousand years—you can find it easily on the "Internets" as my son used to call them when he was a little guy—of the history in Europe, and what you'll see is that borders are constantly changing; rising, falling powers; some of them end in terrible tragedy, obviously World War I and World War II. But realists would argue that that's just the nature of international politics, and so what we're seeing today is just the return of great power politics.
My colleague Frank Fukuyama—I guess he's coming here in the fall—wrote a very famous essay called "The End of History and the Last Man" at the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. This is the return of history, and that little interregnum has passed, and now we're back to just normal politics.
What happened in Russia? Russia was weak, the Soviet Union collapsed. Russia is now back; it has power, and why should anybody be surprised as this rising power is now pushing into the international system?
Part of that story is true. Power matters. If power didn't matter, we wouldn't be talking about Russia today.
Anybody from Belarus here? Looking in the back. How about Moldova? How about Latvia?
Let's focus on Moldova for a minute because nobody's from Moldova. I'm not going to offend anybody. I should say I love Moldova. I've been to Moldova. It's a great country.
I actually traveled there with the vice president in 2011; 50,000 people came out to see Vice President Biden. I think that may be the biggest crowd he's ever spoken in front of. It was really exciting to be there.
But we're not worried about Moldova invading their neighbors—I bet you don't even know who their neighbors are—because they don't have the power to do it. That's my point.
There are some times in American history where weak states create problems for us. Obviously, Afghanistan in 2001. But we're talking about Russia today because they have power to do things in the system, so this is part of the story. It's just not the full story.
It's not enough just to say they have power, for two reasons: One, I can think of some countries that have risen in power and have not become rivals or competitors with the United States and who have not tried to redraw the borders like that European map I was just talking about. Germany comes to mind; Japan comes to mind; even Poland.
Poland is way more powerful today than they were 30 years ago. Nobody's worried about Poland disrupting the balance of power in Europe.
Even China, to go out on a limb. I don't believe it's inevitable that there will be conflict between the United States and China. It could be; it might not be. In questions, we can talk about it, but we're not preordained to conflict because of power. That's the first argument.
The second argument about Russia: Why now? Russia had a lot of power ten years ago. They could have easily done other things long before.
For me in particular, the puzzle is that when I was ambassador, Vladimir Putin's top three foreign policy goals were to create something that I'm sure most of you have never heard of; it's called the Eurasian Economic Union. He wanted to bring together all the states of the former Soviet Union in an economic union as an offset to the European Union.
To do that, he had to get Ukraine to join. He got Belarus; he got Kazakhstan right away. While I was ambassador, the target state to join was Ukraine.
There is a reason for that. Does anybody ever buy anything with the label "made in Russia" on the back of it? You guys that go to Russia, you can't answer. Sdelano v rossli. Have you ever bought anything made in Russia? Do they sell that here in New York? Do you buy clothes here? Do you buy automobiles? Do you buy—no. Everybody's shaking "no."
There are some things you can buy from Russia, by the way. I actually buy Baltika beer from time to time in Menlo Park just to remind me. It's actually not very good beer, but I buy it just when I'm feeling nostalgic about living in Russia.
But we don't, because Russia doesn't sell a lot of things that people want to buy abroad. Ukrainians buy a lot of goods made in Russia. The 45 or 47 million Ukrainians, they do. So to make this thing hum, they needed Ukraine to join. Otherwise, this thing was going to be artificial.
By annexing Crimea and intervening in eastern Ukraine—I was just in Ukraine ten days ago—I think Putin has made it highly unlikely, if not impossible, that Ukraine will ever join the Eurasian Economic Union now.
What happened? Why was it just days before he was trying to get them to join and then he pivoted in this other way? To answer that question, I think you have to add more to the story, more proximate causes to the story.
Second explanation: It's all our fault, Americans. I realize not everybody here is an American. "We Americans did this; we created all this conflict," right?
If you go through the history we did do a lot of things that rose tensions in U.S.-Russian relations. We lectured them about democracy and markets in the 1990s; we expanded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); we bombed Serbia; we invaded Iraq; and we "allegedly"—I want to emphasize that adverb—supported color revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, and so Putin just had to push back on our imperial ways.
Again, I want to say that some of that is true. All of those things I just described happened, and all of those things I just described did increase tensions in U.S.-Russian relations, and I talk about it in detail in my book.
But after all those events, there was an interregnum, an interregnum of cooperation. We called it the "reset." That's when I joined the government. I worked for the president. Actually, I worked for Senator Obama in the campaign. We won; we went into the transition; we crafted a new policy which later got dubbed the "reset." He actually used that word as president-elect.
When we got to the White House—it actually started before we got to the White House—when we settled in and did our interagency review to come up with new policy, there were a couple of pretty simple ideas here. We would explain to the president some of those conflicts I just talked about, and he'd say: "Hey, can't we just focus on what's in our national interest today? Do we really need to keep focusing on this stuff from the past?"
Over the course of that we developed this idea that we are going to engage with Russia on outcomes that are good for America, that we then think are also good for Russia, what the president used to call "win-win" outcomes, and that was the essence of the reset.
For a time there, about three or four years, we got some pretty big things done. I know some of you worked in government here in the room. One of the things I found surprising about the government is that it is hard to do anything. You're just in your government job, you're grinding away, five years have blown by, and it's like, "Well, what have you done?"
It's like, "Well, you know, I attended a meeting." That's what a lot of government work is.
Or you're present. It's always funny in Washington. You go and you meet somebody, and you say, "Well, what do you do?" Action verb.
They say, "I am," blah, blah, blah. Or even worse, "I was the deputy to the deputy assistant secretary to the deputy deputy deputy."
I was deeply frustrated oftentimes. It's hard to do things in the U.S. government.
During the reset we did some pretty big things. In 2010 we signed a new START agreement which reduced by 30 percent the number of nuclear weapons in the world. That's what I did in 2010; what'd you do?
Just kidding, because I haven't done anything since 2010, but that was a great day. That felt really tangible. By the way, this is not just some kind of "Let's hold hands and have a nice piece of cake and say we had a good meeting and sing 'Kumbaya,'" kind of marginal stuff. That's a big deal. The vice president would add an adjective to that, but I'm not going to use that word. But that's the way he described it when we got it done, and when we drank champagne in the Oval Office when it got ratified.
Second, we opened up a supply route to Afghanistan—pretty obscure thing; I was in charge of it at the White House. It was called the Northern Distribution Network. When we got to peak capacity, about 60 percent of our supplies to our troops in Afghanistan eventually went through it, and it passed through Russia. It went through Russia, Central Asia, the first time I think since World War II that U.S. soldiers were flying through Russian airspace.
It was important to us because we wanted to bring the "war on terrorism"—not our phrase, but President Bush's—to Pakistan. There were terrorists there, and particularly you may remember one day in 2011—I was still at the White House—we went after one of them, Osama bin Laden, and to do that we had to violate the sovereignty of Pakistan, and we were really scared that they would cut off our supply routes, which they had done from time to time.
Had 90 percent of our supplies depended on Pakistan, that would have been a much more risky operation. That we got it down because of Russian cooperation made that attack possible.
We got sanctions on Iran, the most comprehensive set of sanctions ever against Iran. That then created the permissive conditions for the Iran nuclear deal, which tragically our president just walked away from yesterday, but I don't think it's the end of the story.
Then, some other things. I would just like to remind people about nonevents, the things you didn't read about, because those were a big part of my job most certainly when I was in the government.
The biggest nonevent that scared me to death without question, the scariest part of my time at the White House, was the color revolution in Kyrgyzstan in 2010. You didn't read about it, but at the moment of it 100 people died, the president left, 300,000 ethnic Uzbeks went into Uzbekistan, and it felt like we were on the verge of an ethnic civil war, and by the way, where we had a major airbase that was very important to the war effort in Afghanistan.
But unlike what happens later with Ukraine or other color revolutions, this time we called up Medvedev, and we said: "You don't have an interest in this thing blowing up. We don't. Let's work with our different sides of this struggle to calm things down," and we did. That nonevent was a great event.
We also had some economic success. We got Russia into the World Trade Organization (WTO), we increased trade, we reformed the visa regime, we got rid of Jackson-Vanik, we got a Section 123 Agreement. All that was moving in the right direction.
At the peak of the reset, 60 percent of you all—Americans—had a positive view of Russia, and 60 percent of Russians had a positive view of the United States. That was just five years ago. That wasn't 30 years. That's not ancient history. That was just when I was in the government.
All of that stuff happened, all those outcomes and these data in terms of better feelings about our countries after NATO expansion, after the war in Iraq, after the Orange Revolution.
In my world—political science, social science, putting on my noodle-head academic cap for a minute and taking off my ambassadorial hat—you can't use those causal variables to explain our current conflict without explaining that interregnum of cooperation. It doesn't work that way.
That means to me that there had to be some more proximate variables, proximate forces that caused the conflict, and that's what I want to end on. I'm going to mention two. They have to do with Russian domestic politics, not U.S.-Russian relations.
Two big events: One, in September 2011 Vladimir Putin decided to run for president again. You may think: Well, what's the big deal? He's the prime minister. He's been in charge.
Actually, I went in to brief the president a couple of days later, and that was my first line to him, "Well, it's regrettable that your partner Medvedev is stepping aside," because the president really did get to know Medvedev, and they had a good working relationship.
But I said: "Mr. President, Putin has been behind all these things we just did. We have to look to cooperate."
The president turned to me and said: "You're right, but you also know this is going to get a lot harder. Putin has a different worldview."
He was right. I think you would be surprised how different those two gentlemen's worldviews are. I sat with them for five years. They think about the world very differently.
Just to be quick on Putin, he sees the world not in win-win outcomes like Medvedev does, but in zero-sum terms: plus-two for America means minus-two for Russia; he thinks of the United States as a competitor, not a partner. We can cooperate sometimes, but we're basically competitors.
Most importantly—and I think this is the essence of our conflict today—he has a theory about American power, that we use overt and covert power to overthrow regimes that we don't like. Guess what? There's a lot of empirical data to support Putin's hypothesis about American foreign policy over the last 70 years. There is.
In fact, in July 2009 at this very fancy breakfast—I think actually the caviar was illegal that we were eating—we sat with Prime Minister Putin out at his dacha, and we debated this. We went through, and he was ready. This was his first meeting with Obama. He spent about 55 [minutes], maybe an hour, telling him about all the mistakes of the Bush Administration, and he went through them all, by the way. It was a long list.
He didn't criticize President Bush, by the way. He likes the president. It was the president's administration, the "deep state" as we now talk about it—and he does believe there is a deep state in America; the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Pentagon; it's kind of how his system works, so he thinks ours works that way.
He went on and on about all these mistakes we made, and then he got to Iraq, and he said: "You Americans are so stupid about"—he didn't say "stupid"; I'm realizing we're being taped. I know you didn't say that, Mr. President.
But he did say: "You guy are naïve about the Middle East. You don't understand. You opened up all this stuff in the Middle East. I want reform, too, but you need a strong man to lead reform because society is backward." I think he was thinking about himself when he was saying that.
The president was listening to him. President Obama is a good listener, much better than I. He sat through all this and listened closely. When we got to Iraq, he said: "You're right. You're right about Iraq."
Putin was like: "What? You're the Americans. You can't take my side."
He was like: "Well, you may not know this, Mr. Prime Minister, but I was against the war in Iraq long before it was popular to be against the war in Iraq."
That made an impression on Putin. I was watching him. I was the note taker in this meeting.
As we walked out to the cars to say goodbye—we were three hours late, speaking at the New Economic School; were you there, Rich? No?
VOICE [off-mic]: [Inaudible]
MICHAEL McFAUL: Yes. We were making people wait for three hours for Obama to show up—because of Putin; not because of Obama, just for the record. I got the sense that Putin thought: Well, okay, maybe this guy is different. He most certainly speaks differently. He talks differently. He looks differently.
I got the sense that he was like: "Okay, go work with Medvedev. Knock yourself out. Maybe we'll get things rolling."
But two years later—in Putin's view, I want to emphasize; not my view—we confirmed his hypothesis about American power. That's the year that the Arab Spring started, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya. In all those places there were mass uprisings. They were all peaceful back then. People forget.
We did not cause any of those events. I was at the White House at the time. We reacted to those events just like the rest of the world.
But that was not Putin's view. Putin thought that we were doing regime change just like we Americans always do, confirming his hypothesis about us.
In particular, Libya I think was the beginning of the end of the reset, as I write about in my book, because Libya in one way was the most cooperative moment in U.S.-Russian relations ever. We went to Moscow with the vice president—I was there—met with Medvedev in the Kremlin. Medvedev chased out everybody in the room except for one note taker and myself. He didn't want Lavrov to be there. I know this for a fact in retrospect.
That's when he said: "You guys are right about the Arab Spring. These were decaying autocracies. I am going to support you in the use of military force in Libya." By abstaining on two UN Security Council resolutions, he did that.
I remember—I was taking notes—I was shocked. I couldn't believe that we were going to do this, that he was going to support us on that. Never in the history of Russia or the Soviet Union at the United Nations had they supported the use of force inside a sovereign country. He said, "I'm going to go with you on that."
Two days later after that resolution passed Putin criticized him publicly, for the first time ever, I think. He said Medvedev made a critical mistake by allowing the "crusaders"—that's the word Putin used—to go back into Libya because he had a different theory about what was going on.
Then, to punctuate it all, the end of 2011, that's the Arab Spring, it's going on all over the world, and then in December 2011 massive demonstrations occur inside Russia—falsified elections documented using smartphones on Vkontakte, Twitter, and Facebook—first 5,500, thousands, and eventually a couple hundred thousand people took to the streets of Moscow to first protest the election but then to say, "Maybe it's time for Russia without Putin." That was one of their phrases.
The last time that many people had assembled on the streets of Moscow was 20 years earlier, 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed, an event that Vladimir Putin called "the greatest tragedy of the 20th century." I was there; I was at some of those meetings, and believe me, Putin knows that I was there; part of my problem later.
When that was happening, for him—first he was just upset at these people. He had made them rich—they're called the "creative class"—and now they were defecting on him. But his second reaction was fear because of what was happening before and what had happened in his country.
That is when he pivoted to a new argument—remember, he is running for reelection at this time; I forgot to mention that—and that new argument was: "These people on the streets of Moscow, they're being funded by the West. They're being supported by the United States. They're being supported by Obama. They are traitors, and we need to control them."
I want to make sure you know that he said this before I became ambassador, and causation and correlation are not the same thing—we teach that at Stanford.
Let me just read you a quote from November 2011 that Putin said. He said: "We know, regrettably, that some representatives of some foreign states are gathering those to whom they are paying money, so-called 'grant recipients,' carrying out instruction sessions with them, and preparing them to do the relevant work in order to influence ultimately election campaign process in our country." That is before the demonstrations. Then, when they happen, he pivoted hard to that story, and that's right when I landed as the U.S. ambassador.
One of my friends who worked for him on the campaign—all campaign consultants are cynical people; they just want to win elections, including in Russia. When I showed up—this is somebody I'd known for three decades—he was like: "Mike, it is so great you are here. You are like manna from heaven for our campaign because you believe in all this democracy stuff. We're going to run hard at you. We're going to say that Obama sent you here to overthrow the government, and Navalny"—the opposition leader—"he's your pet and you're running that."
He said, "Don't take it personally, but this is the game plan we had to do."
That was my fate where literally almost every week, sometimes every day, that's the way I was portrayed. You've heard a lot about disinformation these days? Well, I experienced it about me, making it look like I was handing out money to the opposition, scary videos saying that I was sent there to do regime change.
Sometimes it got really nasty and ugly. The worst without question was in February 2012, so I've only been there three weeks. A video started circulating suggesting I was a pedophile.
How do you deal with that? What do you say? Do you get on Twitter and say, "I'm not a pedophile"? That's how disinformation works. Even just mentioning it now I feel kind of weird about it. I hope you're not thinking, Oh, maybe, yeah. But it's a weird word. It's a weird accusation—by the way, used frequently in this disinformation stuff—and when you get into an argument about it, it's weird.
We initially didn't respond to it. It was on YouTube, and I had friends at Google, and Google graciously took it down. But then it appeared on other websites, and to this day if you go on to Yandex, their main search engine, "U.S. Ambassador McFaul is a pedophile"—I'm reading from the video here—you'll get 4 million hits. That's the conflict we are in because of this pivot against us.
By the way, it wasn't just me. Barack Obama also featured prominently. In particular, he was often compared to, very famously, I remember this one video by Kiselyov, if you know his show, where he compared Obama to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) when this commentator said: "You may not think at first that the president of the United States and the leader of ISIS share the same worldview, but if you dig deeper, Barack Hussein Obama actually has the same worldview as ISIS." No amount of diplomacy, no amount of talking was ever going to overcome that, and to this day that is his view.
Punctuation mark—and I'm going to end now—was one more giant demonstration. That's the theme of this talk, this time in Ukraine, arguing over whether Ukraine should join the European Union or not and sign the accession agreement. Yanukovych, the president, decides, "No, we're not going to do that."
I remember at the time—I was ambassador; I'm reporting on what's going on with the Russians—I was dealing with the Russian government in real time almost every day on this crisis. But I thought, No big deal. What do diplomats do when a negotiation fails? They just get up the next day and start another one. That's what we do, and I thought that's what we were going to do.
But some Ukrainian small-D democrats had a different idea, and they were upset. The leader of them, an immigrant from Afghanistan—Mustafa Nayyem is his name—got onto Facebook and said: "This is outrageous. If you think this is a big mistake by Yanukovych, join me in Maidan, and if I get 50,000 likes on my Facebook post here, we'll all show up." He got 50,000 likes, and 200,000 people showed up on the streets there and stayed for a long time. There was violence; people were killed.
As the U.S. government working with our allies, our focus was to try to defuse that crisis. February 21st, we got an agreement, we thought, between the opposition and Viktor Yanukovych. They signed this deal. I was in Sochi at the time at the Olympics. My BlackBerry was blowing up with booyahs and hoorays for diplomacy, and we have saved the day and we're going to push this can down the road.
Six hours later, Yanukovych fled, showed up in a small town in Russia, in Rostov. I don't exactly know why he did that to this day, but Putin had a theory, same theory he has always had: "Here it is again, CIA overthrowing a regime, although this time it's right on my border," and that's when he decided to strike back.
He took Crimea. When that was achieved, he went into eastern Ukraine. Later, as we know, he went on the offensive against America, including what he did in our 2016 presidential election.
To conclude, here's the good news/bad news. The good news is that if you accept this argument that I just described, we are not destined for conflict with Russia because of some historical or cultural or balance-of-power forces over which individuals don't have any control My story is one about individuals mattering and shaping the course of history in different ways, and the accident of President Putin's presidency, which I talk about at length in the book, is one of those forks in the road that had a big impact on the course of history in Russia and the course of U.S.-Russian relations.
I also don't think Putin has some master plan to recreate the Soviet Union. I see motion, I see reaction, I see tactics, not grand strategy, in terms of what he did.
The bad news is he is done with us. He's done joining our clubs; he's done pretending he wants to be like America and democracy. He wants to be Russia's form of democracy and have his own clubs.
He is not going to change his views. He's set in his ways. That happens with people as they get older no matter whether you're the president of Russia or a professor at Stanford, but most certainly after 18 years in power I think he's set in his ways. Particularly about what I'm just talking about he's not going to change his ways.
He just was re-inaugurated on Monday for another six-year term. I think he could actually do another one, and he works out two to three hours a day. He's in great physical health. I think tragically we are going to be stuck in this standoff with Russia for a long time to come and at least as long as Putin is in power.
On that, I'll take your questions. Thank you.
JOANNE MYERS: I really thank you for being so frank. We could go on for another 15-20 minutes, but we still have time left for questions. I just want to remind you to introduce yourself and please keep your question very brief, one question. We only have 15 minutes left. Let's start over here.
MICHAEL McFAUL: Yes, I talked too long. I took up your question time. I apologize.
JOANNE MYERS: No, unlike Putin, we really like you.
QUESTION: Thank you. Ron Berenbeim. Unlike you, I think it's encouraging that Putin exercises so much, but we'll set that aside.
You said you didn't think that Trump's withdrawal from the Iran Agreement was the end of the story. Why don't you give us the next couple of chapters?
MICHAEL McFAUL: I want to be clear, and I just wrote a piece today in Axios if you want to see all my arguments—I won't go through them today—about why it's a mistake. But I do think it's a mistake. I do not understand. Today are we as a country safer because of this decision? I honestly can't even figure out the logic. I don't know what the logic is for what President Trump did.
I believe we're not safer. I believe we're not better off not only in controlling Iran's nuclear weapons program, which was the essence of that deal, but we have now isolated ourselves from everybody. If you're playing a parlor game, what's the way to get our NATO allies and Russia and China all together against us? Withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. That is to me not prudent in the first place. I hope he has a plan B. I fear he doesn't.
But we're not the only actor in the international system. We like to pretend that everything we do is all that matters. In this case, there are a lot of actors. I think we're now in a very difficult negotiation, particularly with our European allies, because the Trump Administration has threatened that we're going to do secondary sanctions against their companies that do business in Iran, and every single one of those leaders and every single one of those companies is now going to be lobbying for special cutouts in Washington.
It is the exact opposite of "draining the swamp." You're filling up the swamp with these kinds of things, and I think that is going to be—I don't know for sure, but my prediction is that will be a prolonged negotiation that comes.
Second, if the agreement survives—which I hope it will; I'm not sure it will—other leaders will come in and may sign up to it as well. I'll just leave it at that. I could go on, but I want to come back to the book.
Tom and I worked together in the 1990s, by the way, in Moscow. He was a correspondent, and I was his talking head from time to time, so great to see you.
QUESTION: And a very good one indeed. For me too, it was a moment of, I thought, hope and a moment of possible change.
Your argument that individuals are more important in history and therefore we're going to be stuck with Putin for a long time: As an outsider who has just come back after half a century overseas, how long are we going to be stuck with what the Republican Party has become, the Trump party?
[Off-mic] I'm the foreign correspondent, and you're the local.
MICHAEL McFAUL: I'm not an expert on American politics. Obviously, elections have consequences here, and you're seeing in foreign policy—I call it the "withdrawal doctrine." That's what Trump is performing, and because of 78,000 votes in three states we have a much different foreign policy right now.
In the long run, I'm a big optimist about America because I do think our democratic institutions are robust. I do think they serve as checks and balances, and I'm impressed by how they've been reinvigorated, including civil society. All these things that we used to talk about for post-communist countries we're having to think about now, and you're seeing them come alive.
Your question about the future of the Republican Party is a harder question. I'm a Democrat. I have voted for a Republican once, by the way. It was a good friend of mine from California who I went to school with. I voted for him because I knew he was going to be crushed by two-to-one, and he was, so I could see him every day— his name is Pat Shannon if you ever met him—so I could see him for the next 25 years and say, "Well, I did vote for you, Pat."
As somebody who teaches about democracy, I worry about our party system being weak, in both parties, by the way. Donald Trump is not a member of the Republic Party. He didn't sign up to the ideology of the Party. He just came out of the blue.
I would argue the same about Bernie Sanders, by the way. Same thing. He was not even a registered member of that Party, and yet within the system because of a variety of things that have changed our parties have become weaker, and I don't think that's good for democracy. I think parties help us to have clear choices, and we don't have that right now.
I think there is a big fight in the Republican Party—there is also a pretty big fight in the Democratic Party—because of changing cleavages. I don't know where it will end, but I do predict that system will survive.
QUESTION: Anthony Faillace. You mentioned in your presentation that you saw a lot of tactics but not much strategy in Russia. Could you amplify? He's clearly got to have some strategy, so maybe you could give us the broad brushstrokes of what you think that might be.
MICHAEL McFAUL: Of course, he has strategy. The way I would describe it generally is push back on the West and weaken our institutions. He would love to see NATO collapse, for instance, and he is putting a lot of energy into that to pull out a few countries. If a few countries leave—think of Turkey in particular; think of Hungary—which I don't predict, but that's their strategy, then that would have big implications for the unity within the alliance.
Number two, weaken NATO's commitment to Article 5, and they are making progress on that. If you look at public opinion polls in NATO countries, it's waning. Even in America, how many Americans will rally to support our NATO ally—and everybody likes to talk about the Baltics. I like to talk about the Balkans because most Americans don't know where the Balkans are.
We have some allies down there, many of which I'm sure most people couldn't even find on a map. Are we going to go to war with Russia over that? I'm not sure.
I'll just remind you, even in the Cold War we had these debates about whether we would go to war with Russia over Berlin. There were doubts about that. I think that is waning, and I think that is part of Putin's agenda, to push back on that and to create his own—I call it the "illiberal international" of states and movements around the world in counter to us. He's doing that.
The second thing I would say is that he has weaker cards then we do. His instruments of power are weaker. But over the course of his time in power, he has become less risk-averse at using those cards. I was shocked that he did what he did in 2016. I would not have predicted that, that they would literally send over Russians and pretend to be Americans. That's pretty audacious. That's a new era.
I was shocked by Crimea. We had all kinds of war gaming and plan Bs; that's what government does. But I would not have predicted that annexation would be part of those new instruments.
But he's not stupid. I want to be clear about that. When faced with resistance, he does pull back, number one.
Number two, I also want to be clear—I skipped these end slides about what's to be done in the future—of course Putin will cooperate with us when our interests overlap, and I believe we should do that.
Even in the Cold War we did that. Ronald Reagan even did arms control, Mr. Anti-communist. That was his view, but they also cooperated in places where our interests overlapped. I think Putin is capable of doing that, and I think we should be capable of engaging him in the limited areas where we can as well.
QUESTION: Krishen Mehta. Twenty million Russians, as you know, sacrificed their lives during the Second World War, and you have not mentioned it in your discussion.
MICHAEL McFAUL: Today is the anniversary of the victory.
QUESTIONER [Mr. Mehta]: Right. President Kennedy mentioned that as in American terms the equivalent of the entire urban population from Chicago to New York being destroyed in four years.
Ever since that sacrifice, which was almost necessary to us Allies winning the war, Russia has been an enemy of ours. According to Mikhail Gorbachev, the United States promised the Soviet Union that in exchange for the German reunification the United States would not build up NATO right to the border.
I am wondering to what extent, Ambassador—the sacrifice of Russia, the commitments given to the Soviet Union about not expanding NATO, our abrogation of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABN) Treaty, our support of the color revolutions, the disinformation campaign that we have also participated in as has Russia—do you feel that this is equally balanced in terms of Russia's actions and ours? We take a credible responsibility here for the reset not working, and we need to be more assertive in bringing about a more cordial relationship with that country that has sacrificed so much in history.
MICHAEL McFAUL: I understand the question, yes.
First of all, Russia, the Soviet Union did sacrifice more than any country in the world. Without what they did—they won World War II; let's just be clear about it. It is May 9, den'pobedy praznik [Victory Day], for those of you who speak Russian. Let's just be clear about that.
President Obama, if you go back and read his big speech on U.S.-Russian relations that he delivered in 2009, devoted several paragraphs to that event. That was somewhat controversial. Even going to their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near Red Square—I pushed hard for him to do that. That was the first event he did when we touched down in Air Force One. That's the first place we went.
There were people who said: "Oh, you're soft on communism. Look at you guys. We thought Obama was a socialist, and now he's proving it."
I would say a couple of things. The things you describe we could argue about. Did we support color revolutions? I would argue with you about that.
Buy the book, and then email me about the details. Then buy the book for your friends and your mother, Mother's Day is coming, Father's Day is coming, graduation day is coming. It makes a great gift, and there are some great photos in there even if you don't want to read the book.
Here's what I would say. First of all, it is not true that we were enemies since World War II. We weren't enemies in the Gorbachev-Reagan period. We were very close.
In the 1990s, when Tom and I were living in Russia, we were very close. Boris Yeltsin was our ally. I have a photo in my slide deck here. He spoke to a joint session of Congress and was saluted and got standing ovations like 55 times. People forget that history. They forget that there was this cooperative time.
I remind you of it because there—and Putin doesn't want you to remember that, by the way. They want you to think that we've always been in conflict. I see way more volatility, ups and downs, and that's part of the reason I wrote this book. That's the first thing.
Second thing: With respect to the reset, the argument that I made is that all those things happened, and yet after it we still cooperated. Let me tell you something I don't know is in the book. I was in every meeting that the president had with Putin and Medvedev for the five years I was in government, except one. I missed one meeting with Putin.
When I was at the White House I was on the phone, president sitting on the phone, I'm sitting on the couch in the Oval Office listening in, every single phone call that he had with Putin and Medvedev. NATO expansion did not come up once, not one time. Zero.
Why? Because we had a different approach about that. We were not expanding NATO. Believe me. Ask our Republican critics, who slammed us: "Why aren't you guys doing this?" We were out of that business.
Remember, Russia had gone into Georgia in August 2008. There was no appetite for Georgia coming in with Russian troops there. Good or bad; these are just facts. There was no appetite whatsoever in Brussels for NATO expansion to Georgia when we came there.
We get blamed that we didn't do more on that. The Bush Administration didn't do more on that. We actually sanctioned the Russians after Ukraine. They didn't sanction a single person after August 2008. But that was done.
Giant mess about Ukraine. There was no drama about whether Ukraine should join NATO or not because Ukrainians didn't want it, even under President Yushchenko, by the way. He's doing a little revisionist history himself, just to be aware.
When I was in the government, I went to Ukraine in 2009. We met with President Yushchenko. Not an item we were talking about. The Ukrainian people did not want to join NATO, by the way. Three-quarters of them back then had no interest in NATO. They were focused on the European Union. Then in 2010, Yanukovych is elected. There is no conversation about NATO expansion.
Remember, that gets reanimated after Maidan, after the annexation of Crimea. Then on Russian stations, it's like: "We had to take Crimea because Ukraine was about to join NATO, and we were going to lose our fleet there." That all happens after those events. That period was different.
So I see a different course of history. Yes, there are these problems. The promising about what was promised to Gorbachev and not, that's pretty complicated history which I talk about in the book.
My point is, in all conflicts around the world you can go back to 1372 or whatever date you want to remember a time when there was ethnic conflict, and that's why we're fighting today. I tend to say, "That's more an instrumental use of history." My own experience of the reset confirms to me that countries can get over these things, and then they can use that history again when it's politically useful for them.
JOANNE MYERS: I think you have named every reason to buy your book except one, which is just pure enjoyment. Thank you so much for being here and for giving us a wonderful discussion. Thank you.
MICHAEL McFAUL: Thank you. Thanks for coming.