Michael McFaul provides an insider’s perspective on Russia during his time as U.S. ambassador, including his analysis of Russia’s foreign policy from the end of the cold war to the presidency of Vladimir Putin and the future of U.S.-Russia relations.
REMNICK: Morning. Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations John Hurford Memorial Lecture, although it won’t be a lecture. It’ll be a conversation, first with me and then with you, with Michael McFaul. I’m David Remnick, and I’m presiding over today’s discussion, obviously.
This was inaugurated in 2002 in memory of Council member John Hurford. This annual lecture features individuals who represent critical new thinking in foreign policy and international affairs. I’d like to recognize members of the Hurford family and the Hurford Foundation who are joining us today, and welcome to Hilge Hurford and Jennifer Hurford.
I’d like to note that this is an on-the-record meeting. So if you want to run to MSNBC and CNN and tell them everything, it’s on your conscience. (Laughter.)
I’m supposed to not refer to you as the “audience” because you would take offense, so I’m not going to do that. (Laughter.) When it comes time for questions, which will be about halfway through, wait for a microphone to come to you, which will magically appear; speak directly into it; and state your name and affiliation and Social Security number. (Laughter.)
Now, when I do this with the Middle East, people get up and they say I have three statements, four questions, and a—and a footnote. People on the question of Russia tend to be better behaved, but one question only if you wouldn’t mind, and keep it as concise as possible.
We have a huge topic to encounter, as huge as the country itself, and I just want to begin by saying that Michael McFaul, whose thinking and activity when it comes to Russia I’ve been following now since—I don’t even know—1990, when I think I first saw him next to a Xerox machine helping the pro-democracy movement of sainted memory in Russia, and his op-eds, his books, his appearances, and his really clarion voice on Russia has been essential to this discussion for many, many years. His new book is called From Cold War to Hot Peace. It is a—you know, there’s a genre of ambassadors writing memoirs for many years. This is an invaluable, absolutely invaluable memoir, and invaluable in understanding the evolution or devolution of American-Russian relations in the last generation.
MCFAUL: You should tweet right now.
REMNICK: Tweet it!
MCFAUL: David Remnick just said that! (Laughter.)
REMNICK: But I want—I want to start, Michael, with something—with some ancient history, in a way. So, in about 1989/1990/91, a time you remember as the, you know, springtime of nations, there were some voices even on the liberal side who said that you, my friend—meaning you, American optimist, young reporter living in Moscow; and you, activist and scholar—be careful of your own optimism. You are now in Russia. This is not the Czech Republic, or then Czechoslovakia. People like Andranik Migranyan, people who would say things like in order for us to get to democracy—these were not people who were themselves pro-autocracy people—that Russia will never be able to leap, essentially, from a totalitarian state to what you want, to a democratic state, that it is inevitable that we have to go through a period of almost Pinochet-like authoritarian development because of the complexities of Russian history, the complexities of the scale of the country. Was he right?
MCFAUL: Well, I do remember those arguments. And, David, thank you for being here.
REMNICK: It’s a pleasure.
MCFAUL: It’s a great honor for me to have you with this book, of all people, to talk about it.
No, he wasn’t right. I don’t believe that theory, although I remember arguing it, and with Migranyan in particular he was very passionate about it. And I say that in part because I think about these things in comparative terms. And people who just look at Russia, they think everything in Russia is sui generis and there’s no country like it, and actually there are lots of countries like it and there are certain patterns we can see. And the fallacy of it is sometimes when you put that autocratic hand in place for the transition, it stays for a long, long time. And when it comes in place to try to do reform, it can get in the way of reform.
And by the way, just to remind people here that haven’t followed these characters as closely as we have, it was Migranyan and people like that kind of status, but it was also the economic liberals that made that argument, Yegor Gaidar and his group. You know, Pinochet was the model. And there’s a little myth about Pinochet and Chile, by the way. The last several years of Pinochet, the economic growth rate was lower than the new years of democratization after, in 1988. South Korea, same thing. So that’s number one.
Number two, though, just to be—it is a—it’s a real narrative to this day. I used to—you know, when I was ambassador, part of my job was to engage with all kinds of people in the Russian government. And as I write about in the book, I think you might be surprised, given the cartoonization that the regime had of me—picked up by some Western correspondents, by the way—you might think I was just hanging out with Boris Nemtsov and Navalny. But because of my time in the White House in particular for three years when we were cooperating at the highest levels, I had lots of friends in high places. And one of them—actually, I don’t think I’ve ever named him, and I think he just got fired so maybe it’s OK to name him now—his name is Igor Shuvalov. And I don’t think he would care that I’m telling this story because he believes it.
At the time first deputy prime minister, sat over there at the White House. I could—I was sitting in the embassy, so I could look out right across and see his building. And he was a good partner with me because he was their main negotiator on the WTO accession agreement and I was part of that team. And his argument was still that. He would always say I’m—you and I, Mike, you know, we have the same values. I’m just like you. I want to live in the West. And he’s got some nice properties in the West, by the way—(laughter)—as we later learned, and in the Middle East. We want to push in the right direction, but our society is conservative. If we don’t have Putin, we’ll have a much more nationalistic group. We need him. And the marriage of economic technocratic liberals like Igor with the strong hand of Putin, that was his argument to me. Of course, it was also—
REMNICK: In order to do what? To develop a middle class?
MCFAUL: Yeah, and to do the economic things. And by the way, with—especially on the macroeconomic side, fiscal policy and monetary policy, his group of people—his tusovka, if you remember that word—they’ve been around power for a long, long time, and they have achieved that.
Now, they haven’t got the breakthrough on the democratic side that he keeps promising. He said transition. Well, Putin’s been there 18 years. How long is the transition supposed to last, number one?
And then, two, of course, these were always arguments to justify their own compromises and their own decisions. Am I better off being in the system trying to push it in a more modern way or out there on the street? And his argument was always I’m better off being inside. And, you know, we’ll have to judge in time whether he’s right or wrong.
REMNICK: You, I think, said on—I think it was on television the other night, beginning of a longer answer, you said that Vladimir Putin has no great ideology. I possibly disagree, but I want to—
MCFAUL: No, I disagree with myself, yeah, if that’s what I said. (Laughter.) I mean, I’ve done so many interviews. Yeah, whatever I said—
REMNICK: Aren’t you glad I was listening? (Laughter.) But, in other words, I think that he has an ideology that’s born of resentment, that—
MCFAUL: Yes. Yeah, right. Yeah.
REMNICK: And we’ve put a lot of bullets in his—in his gun. In other words, I want to know, when you sit down with Putin or Putin’s circle—his tusovka, his hang—and he says, look, you’re lecturing me on democracy, every single day comes news that your democracy is absolute hypocritical bullshit. You have a democracy in which you can give Michael Cohen a half a million dollars to lobby for you. You have a democracy that invades Iraq for no—for no legitimate reason, that participates in an invasion of Libya and says it’s a limited thing, and then you—oh, the eye is off the ball, and the next thing you know there’s chaos all over the Middle East.
REMNICK: You have a democracy, and on and on—I needn’t go on—that told me that I wasn’t—that you weren’t going to expand NATO, and now they’re in Estonia and et cetera, et cetera. There’s an ideology born of resentment of American arrogance and, we so lightly put it, mistakes. How does he not—when you look at him and try to understand Putin, how is he not in some sense justified, right, ugly as he is?
MCFAUL: Well, he is partially right, and let me go through it.
MCFAUL: I’m glad—and the word “resentment” is exactly the right word.
All of those things, right, that long litany of the things we did wrong, he actually schooled President Obama in their first meeting, July 2009, went on for three-and-a-half hours. The first question—
REMINCK: Set the scene. Because it’s a particular—
MCFAUL: Yeah, OK. I’ll set the scene.
REMINCK: Because it’s beautifully portrayed here.
MCFAUL: And I was just—we were going over with it with the president yesterday, in fact. I got a chance to give him my book and we were reminiscing. I guess that’s not quite the right word for that meeting, but—(laughter)—actually, it was a pretty interesting meeting because he said—he kind of—the president opened with a big open question, you know.
REMINCK: This is a summit in Moscow that was going to be with Medvedev and you had a side meeting with Putin, who was prime minister.
MCFAUL: Yeah. So we’re there to see—and I want to get to the Medvedev versus Putin because that’s an important part of this story as well.
MCFAUL: So, right, formally there, we’re going to meet with the president. We spend the first day with President Medvedev. Obama and his—Michelle go off to have a nice private dinner with the Medvedevs. And then the next day started with a breakfast out at Putin’s dacha, and then the rest of that day we spent with nongovernmental actors; so business leaders, students, civil society, and the opposition. And I remind you of that because oftentimes people said the first time we ever met with the opposition was when I showed up as ambassador. No, that was our policy.
REMINCK: At the time.
MCFAUL: I mean, he sat across the table from them.
But back to the story. Putin was ready. He went on for 55 minutes talking about all the things we had done wrong. And the reason I remember the time so well is I was new to the government at the time, right, my first year in the government, and I was the SAO for that meeting, the senior administration official that was going to go out and brief the White House press corps. And the meeting was scheduled for an hour, and my guy hadn’t spoken for the first 55 minutes. And I’m thinking, what am I going to tell these people? My president—our side, we just listened to Putin and then the meeting was over? Thankfully, it went for three-and-a-half hours and we had some things to say.
But he went through the litany. And when he got to Iraq, that was a really interesting moment. He said you guys were idiots, you don’t—he didn’t use the word “idiots,” but he meant that. You don’t understand the Middle East. Back to this modernization theory, by the way, you need a strong hand to push these backwards societies in the right direction. You democratize too fast, you get chaos, right? So that’s a—that’s a consistent theme in his analytic thinking, and I’ll get to 2011 in a minute.
By the way, he likes President Bush. He has a soft spot for President Bush, George W. Bush. It was the Deep State, the Bush administration, that he was going after. He made—he made sure that we understood the difference.
And he got to Iraq, and the president said to him, you’re right. I agree with you. And he’s like, wait, you’re the Americans. What do you mean you agree with me about Iraq? He said, you may not know this Mr. Prime Minister, but I was against that war long before it was popular to be against that war. And that was interesting, because then Obama said, I’m different. We’re not going to do regime change. We’re not in that business. And, you know, as we walked out to the cars and I’m listening to them chat, you know, through the translator, I could—I could hear just a little bit that maybe Putin’s like, well, maybe this guy is different. He talks different. He looks different. You know, this was a different kind of conversation than he’d ever had with an American.
He instructed Obama to go deal with Medvedev: He’s in charge of foreign policy now. I did eight years with you guys, been there done that, I don’t want to go through any of this reset stuff again. He had his own reset after September 11th. It didn’t end the way he wanted. But I thought, OK, he’s got an open mind and we’ll see what we did.
And so the next two or three years we did a lot of things with Medvedev, by the way, who does not have a chip on his shoulder, who doesn’t have that sense of resentment, who looks west. Maybe he doesn’t have the political will and he’s not a strong leader, and most certainly he was constrained by Putin, but their worldviews were night and day, you know, different in terms of the Westernizer-Slavophile. Maybe that’s too crude, but you know, I sat there and listened to them for hours. Totally different way of looking at the world.
But then fast forward—sorry to go on on this—
REMINCK: Go ahead.
MCFAUL: —but this is actually kind of the essence of the—of the story.
Fast forward to 2011. That’s the year of the Arab Spring: Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria. And I just want to underscore—I’m working at the White House still—we are reacting to those events. We’re not stimulating those events. And some of the people I worked with, you know, like, what the hell are all those Arabs doing, you know? We got big business to do. We got the reset. We got the pivot to China. And suddenly these, you know, scraggly democrats are getting in the way of our big plans. And that’s a big theme of the book as well, right? And so we’re reacting the best we can, and—
REMINCK: But you’re kind of thrilled.
MCFAUL: Let’s be honest. Yes. (Laughs.)
REMINCK: OK. Yeah.
MCFAUL: I see this as an opportunity. And by the way, year 2011 I spent over half of my time at the White House working on the Middle East, not Russia, because of those events.
But, you know, they’re going through, and we get to Libya. We were genuinely concerned that there was going to be genocide in Benghazi, whether that was good intelligence or not. But I’m telling you I sat there in the White House Situation Room. That was the assessment in the moment.
But we have this president, President Obama back then at the time, who believes in the international rules and things like that. So my job as the Russia guy was to secure Russian acquiescence for the use of military force in Libya. And the moment it happened—it’s in the book—was we had the vice president go over to Moscow. He met with Medvedev. By the way, he chased out everybody in the room. He didn’t want Lavrov in the room when they had this conversation.
REMINCK: The foreign minister.
MCFAUL: The foreign minister. I snuck back in the room as a note-taker. I had to literally pull the door from a Kremlin—I was going to use a word I shouldn’t—a Kremlin person that didn’t want me in the room because I was instructed to do so and, you know, in the government you do what you’re told. That’s when Medvedev said, you’re right, these are—these are decaying regimes that were in too long, there needs to be change. And that’s when he made clear he was going to abstain on those Security Council resolutions, thereby authorizing the use of force. The Soviets and the Russians had never done that, right?
Two days after, Putin criticized that decision, first time ever he publicly criticized Medvedev. And I think—and then remember, as I was talking with my former colleagues yesterday, we did not intervene in Libya to kill Gadhafi. That was not the game plan. But, as my mother would say, shit happens when you launch into things like that, and then that spun out of control. But for Putin, back to your—where we started, confirming evidence.
REMINCK: But you could see why he would feel that way.
MCFAUL: This is confirming evidence. Turns out Barack Obama’s no different than all these other guys. Here’s the—you know, here they are bombing another country. And then, importantly, this wave of popular uprisings in the year 2011 ends in Moscow, December 2011: falsified election, mobilization on the streets in response to it—first 50, then 500, then 200,000 people on the streets of Moscow. Last time that had happened was 1991, the year the Soviet Union had collapsed—in other words, regime change—an event that Putin called one of the greatest—not one of, the greatest tragedies of the 20th century. And so for him this was all part of the same game plan and we were all behind it—we, America, so you’re all part of it in his mind; we, the Obama administration; and we, McFaul, especially as I arrived right in the thick of all that as the U.S. ambassador.
REMINCK: Your timing could not have been more exquisite. (Laughter.)
OK. So, to continue the story—and we are—it’s like speed skating through Russian recent history—it seems to me that what begins to happen probably a lot earlier than 2011 is that an ideology really does begin to develop in Putin’s head.
MCFAUL: Yeah. Yeah.
REMINCK: It is the ideology of anti-Westernism, an ideology which kind of begins to pick little bits and pieces from Russian history, whether it’s this czar or this Russian nationalist thinking, like Ivan Ilyin –
MCFAUL: Yes, as you know.
REMNICK: So all these things begin to enter into his speeches. And there begins to be a satellite of Russian nationalist thinkers who appear on television. And they don’t get there by magic. And there are certain kinds of thinkers and intellectuals who used to be on television who disappear from Russian television. And that doesn’t happen by magic. And so there is—and the anti-gay stuff becomes part of it. Even though a lot of the oligarchs are Jewish, antisemitism is not part of it on an official level—certainly not on an official level. A certain kind of Russian nationalist anti-internationalist view starts taking shape. So to what extent—to go back to your comment the other day, and I understand the exigencies of television and thinking on your feet, but is there a Putin ideology or is there not?
MCFAUL: Yes. No, no, there is. I think what I was trying to say is there wasn’t a grand master plan to recreate the Soviet Union. So if I garbled it, it’s in the book. And in fact, as I’m writing a piece—actually, for Foreign Affairs, so it’s good we’re sitting here—precisely to talk about this. And I use the phrase hot peace deliberately to echo that there’s some things that are similar to the Cold War but are different. And on this dimension, I’m very clear. There was an ideological struggle before between communism and capitalism. But there definitely is a new ideological struggle, at least in Putin’s head. Sometimes I don’t think we’re engaged in it, right? We’re kind of not paying attention.
But for several years—and I’m glad you mentioned all those writers and people—because it wasn’t there in the beginning. I mean, I’ve known Putin since 1991. It’s not like we’re Facebook friends—to the best of my knowledge. You know, what happens on Facebook these days, you never know who your friends are. But it has evolved over time. And all those people he’s, like, cherry picked. Cherry picked the history too. NATO expansion, that was an issue that died in the Obama administration. I was there for five years, didn’t come up once. Now it’s back. And this conservatism—he’s the last leader of conservative values in the world, that’s what he believes, against the decadent, liberal West.
And with all of this stuff—you know, the sexuality politics that he also play in—that is there. And, I would add to it—
REMNICK: And the church.
MCFAUL: And the church. And I would add to that, that not only is it consolidated—and as you get older, I don’t know, maybe you still are reevaluating the way you think, David—but generally speaking as people get older they get more locked in their views. He has less people that he listens to, right? He sits out there in his house most of the time. He doesn’t go to work hardly at all. He barely ever goes to the Kremlin. He’s just sitting out there by himself. Everybody’s an idiot except for him, both on the international stage and domestically. And so this thing, I think, has really consolidated. And by the way, you know, I think the moment when he just locked in, in terms of the anti-West piece, forever was the events of Ukraine. And maybe we’ll get back to that later.
But I want to say one more piece of it. Not only has he done that at home, he’s now in export mode. He has invested probably by now billions of dollars to develop platforms to propagate these ideas. They give money to NGOs. They give money to political parties. The invest in things like RT and Sputnik and bots and trolls, all are in this. And they are creating an ideological alliance around the world. Now, one other thing—because it’s confusing but it’s important—there’s another strand of this ideological thing that is left over from the Soviet era that they also do on their platforms. And it’s targeted. We used to monitor this when I was in the government. It’s targeted towards the left. Targeted towards Latin America and Africa where, you know, ideas of nationalism don’t play a well. So they have a sophisticated strategy of pushing these ideas. And we’ve seen the results in Europe and even in our country we’ve seen the results.
REMNICK: Michael, your career is not at all purely one devoted to thinking about Russia. It’s also devoted to thinking about democratic development. We’re now living in a time that I don’t think you could, and I certainly couldn’t imagine, in the euphoria of 1989 to ’91, where illiberalism—to use Fareed Zakaria’s term—illiberalism is the—is the predominant wave, not only in Russia, but almost everywhere, including right here. Now, when I think about Putin, I think about a guy who in geopolitical terms, despite the landmass of Russia, is holding maybe two threes in his poker hand. And he’s facing a country whose economic value and historical value and strengths, meaning the United States, is more like three kings. And yet, he is winning the poker hand in so many ways. What are his—what are his goals here? And why are we so pathetic in the poker game? (Laughter.)
MCFAUL: So I agree with the analogy. Maybe there are fours, but they’re definitely low cards. And again, over time, not initially but over time, one of his advantages is he’s less risk-averse in playing those cards, right? And that’s what’s changed. He would have never done what he did to our elections in 2016 in the year 2000. Even the operation in Syria, that was very risky. Annexation—I mean, goodness, we thought annexation we’d finally gotten rid of after the end of World War II. That was a very risky operation. And he plays them that way. And, you know, I think he’s decided he’s this historic figure to make Russia great again. And he now wants to play this role on the international stage. And we’ve been somewhat feckless and slow to respond to those things.
And I think that’s—so it’s a two-way street, right? It’s—and on the ideological dimension, too, like his ideas, I’ve studied them, and I know them. And, you know, they’re somewhat attractive to some people. But part of the reason that they’re rising is not just because they’re such great ideas, but because of the—you know, the waning of the universal embrace of liberal democratic values. I mean, back in 1991, I don’t know about you, but there was a moment—and, you know, I worked with Frank Fukuyama when we thought this was over. Like, we had won the debate. And everybody was on the path. The Chinese were even on the path. I sat in this building several times. We’re all on the path. It’s a bumpy road, but we’re all—we’re all going to the same place.
And, by the way, that’s another one of the mistakes, to circle back on our skating rink. That, to me, more than NATO expansion or ROK and those other things, which I also talk about—but taking for granted that this transition was inevitable in Russia, I think that was a big mistake. And remember, our own moment. It was a moment of triumphalism. So we won the Cold War, right? And so, you know, I think a lot of people in Russia were part of the coalition that won that war. Gorbachev most certainly was. Yeltsin was. The people that demonstrated on the streets of Moscow in 1991. They thought they were part of this ideological movement for democracy. And then after the Soviet Union collapsed, you know, we kind of checked out. We got distracted with our election. The silly little things that get in the way and, you know, make America first. Don’t forget, it was Bill Clinton who said, “It’s the economy, stupid,” back in 1992.
REMNICK: One of the values that Putin has is non-ideological. It’s temperamental, in that he is anti-revolutionary. That what Putin fears domestically more than anything else in the world is tumult, that the 1917 revolution was not celebrated at all in Russia in official media, because revolution is bad. Stability is good.
MCFAUL: Yeah. They just phased that out. It’s amazing.
REMNICK: Just not—it was ignored. So if you look at Donald Trump and his antipathy for stability—(laughter)—why—and many other things. Why is the ascension of Trump in the national interest of Vladimir Putin and Russia?
MCFAUL: Yeah. Well, he wants stability in Russia as defined by him. He wants chaos in his competitors and enemies.
REMNICK: So chaos theory.
MCFAUL: Yeah. Well, but I think it’s a couple of things. One is, you know, there’s just no question. I think the evidence is overwhelming that Putin has a preference in 2016 for Trump and not Clinton, for very rational reasons, by the way. If I were Putin looking at what Trump was saying compared to what Clinton was saying, just on the merits of it, I would have been for Trump too, number one. Then two, grudge—back to another grudge.
REMNICK: Because of Hillary Clinton.
MCFAUL: Yes, because of 2011—December 2011. They never had a great chemistry just, you know, for reasons that we can speculate off the record. I don’t want to do that on the record.
REMNICK: Are you saying that’s because she’s a woman?
MCFAUL: It’s just—Putin’s—you know—
REMNICK: That’s a yes. (Laughter.)
REMNICK: That’s a yes.
MCFAUL: Just, you know, the never—they never found a chemistry. And she writes about that in her own book. But the thing that really pissed him off, and he made sure we knew it, was they had this election. We’re going through the rhythms. I see Mike Posner here. You remember this. You know, we had—we had a certain strategy towards Russia. We called it dual track diplomacy. We’re going to engage with the government, engage with society. Stolen right out of George Shultz’s memoirs, by the way. I stole it. And I told George that later. And he said that was OK. Chapter 27, I think it is, if you want to look at it. It’s called “Reengaging the Soviets.” Just so you know—reset, reengaging.
And, you know, for a while we would do those things. I told you earlier, the president sat down with an entire leader of the opposition—we excluded Zhirinovsky. I thought that was a bridge too far. He would screw up the meeting. It was a non-event. Like, I couldn’t—I couldn’t even get the Western media to cover it. Like, they didn’t care. The Russian people didn’t care.
REMNICK: Right. Previous administrations had done that pretty routinely.
MCFAUL: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a—and the photos are in Spaso House to show you.
December 2011 happens. And we put out statements pretty regularly about this stuff. And I actually remember vividly. I was in Maryland watching my son’s football game—this is, like, what government life is like. It’s a Saturday. It’s kind of windy so I can’t hear on the phone very well. A guy name Jake Sullivan, if you remember him. He used to work for Secretary Clinton. And we’re clearing—I’m clearing on behalf of the White House this statement, just so you know. And I don’t think it was an accident that they called me as opposed to other people to clear the statement—which I later had to admit to the president that I was the one that did that. We’ll get to that maybe later.
But, you know, I remember it as being a pretty milquetoast, you know, we’re very, very concerned. Sometimes we were very, very, very concerned. Like, how many verys are we going to have. We had a lot of debate about that, that I thought was somewhat silly from time to time in the government. But pretty standard, there were irregularities. And we were echoing the OSCE. But the context had changed dramatically. And he later said, on the record, this was a signal to the opposition to go and protect. And, just to be clear, it wasn’t. I know the opposition. They weren’t wanting for Hillary Clinton to weigh in. Navalny wasn’t, like, you know, checking his—updating his website—the State Department website, refreshing it every five minutes to see the statement. They weren’t.
But that’s the way Putin heard it. And he actually had his president call my boss. And, you know, he said Medvedev, get on the phone with them. And I was on that call. And Medvedev was really animated. And he’s not somebody that is generally animated. And he asked point blank: Does the secretary of state speak for you, Mr. President? Because we found that statement to be, you know, really out of bounds.
MCFAUL: Inflammatory, yes. And so that—I’m sorry, I got off too much on that. So, we’re on the skating rink. So that’s number two why he would want Trump to win. To speed forward to today, you know, they’re disappointed in what he’s delivered. He promised a lot of stuff that he has not delivered. He promised a lot of stuff in the campaign he hasn’t delivered today, right? He talked about lifting sanctions. Hasn’t done that. The war on NATO. Hasn’t done that. So on the deliverables—to use a U.S. government word—they see him as being a weak president. And the see the weak state again. You know, just like I described it—or, the Deep State, again, I’m sorry—reemerging. And that’s the way they interpret things.
They’re still keeping open the possibility of cooperation. But the chaos part, that’s all—that’s all good money. That’s all great. Like, we’re fighting among ourselves. We’re totally obsessed with ourselves. We’re pulling out. That’s a win for Putin.
REMNICK: I have two quick questions. And you should be getting your hands raring to go. The first one is on the events of, well, yesterday. You have a situation in which Israel and Iraq, on Syrian territory, are at each other’s throats right after the—at least the American—sorry?
REMNICK: Iran, Iraq. No, I’m sorry. (Laughter.) Do you know how early in the morning it is? (Laughter.)
MCFAUL: I just said weak state, I meant Deep State.
REMNICK: Well, let me try again. (Laughter.) Iran, which is on Syrian territory—am I getting that right—
REMNICK: —is at Israel’s throat, and vice versa. And it’s, let’s just say, nervous-making in every sense. It’s very interesting to see that Netanyahu speaks with Putin more often than he does with any American president now.
MCFAUL: And attended the May 9th celebrations.
REMNICK: Correct. And at the same time, Putin obviously has an interest in Syria, which is in concert with Iran. Putin’s sitting pretty when it comes to this conflict. He may be the broker of a cold peace between Iran and Israel. How does—how does Putin go about dealing with this? Who does he favor in this conflict, Iran or Israel, right? (Laughter.) OK.
MCFAUL: Well, you’re right. I mean, and he’s been moving towards this place that he’s in how for many, many years. I mean, when we—when I was the government the rapprochement with Israel, and especially with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he’s been working that account for a long time. And you said earlier, 30 minutes or so ago, about his relationship with the Jewish community in Russia. And that’s part of that strategy. But it’s genuine. That is something that he should get some credit for, I think. He’s done good things for the Jewish community in Russia.
REMNICK: Great. (Laughter.)
MCFAUL: Let’s move on.
REMNICK: My gratitude is boundless.
MCFAUL: And he’s also cultivated Arab leaders in the region, very quietly. But that period of détente and rapprochement with them is happening.
REMNICK: But he’s straddling the Shia-Sunni divide like nobody else, yeah.
MCFAUL: At the same time—at the same time that he tries to keep his friends in Tehran on the team. And it’s complicated. And I think in the long run, if I had to predict 30 to 40 years from now, they will be more aligned with the Sunni countries and the Iranian relationship is tense. I mean, formally, publicly, they’re allies, fighting. Hezbollah is there. Informally, underneath, I think there’s a lot more tension between Russians—
REMNICK: Are you suggest that, in a sense, that—I hate—I obviously—that Putin is somehow a stabilizing factor in this potential conflict?
MCFAUL: I wouldn’t call it stabilizing, because he’s not afraid—just like we said earlier—stability at home, chaos there. It’s a little bit like our policy in the Iran-Iraq War, because you mentioned Iraq, that we were happy for them to fight between them. And I don’t think he gets so concerned about when other people are fighting. But he does want to be a peacemaker. And that role—I, you know, expect him to play it in the future.
REMNICK: OK, questions, and microphone. So I’ll follow the microphone. Yes, sir. And if anybody has a question about collusion, I invite you to ask it.
Q: My name’s Lucy Komisar. I’m a journalist.
About the Magnitsky Act, which is an irritant now in U.S.-Russia relations, William Browder’s allegation of the murder of the man he calls his lawyer, Sergei Magnitsky, was the basis of the act, establishing the first targeted Russian sanctions in 2012. But in 2011, the year before, the Physicians for Human Rights of Cambridge, Mass did an extensive report based on 44 documents, testimony, photos that Browder gave them, and reported to him that Magnitsky, who was his accountant not his lawyer, died in Russian detention from terrible medical care but not, as Browder continued to claim, that he’d been beaten to death by Russian riot guards. What impact has the Magnitsky Act had on U.S.-Russia relations? And how should the U.S. government, Congress, media, and others deal with the fact that it was based on Browder’s claims, for which he had no evidence, and which was refuted by the very report he commissioned?
MCFAUL: Thank you. Yeah, so I wrestled a lot with the Magnitsky Act. And I know—I’ve known Bill Browder for a long time. I worked at the White House when Sergei Magnitsky was killed. It was a wrongful death. He was held in pretrial detention. And he shouldn’t have been there. We looked at all those documents as well. And I write about this in detail in the book—so please look at this, because this is new and it would be interesting to see—well, just read the book. Or, buy the book. I don’t care if you read it. (Laughter.) And buy it for your mother. Mother’s Day is coming.
REMNICK: And buy it retail.
MCFAUL: (Laughs.) Yes. We looked at those documents. And well before the Magnitsky Act we put several Russians on the sanctions list. And I made—I was the one that ran that decision-making process in the government. And we did that. And we don’t need the Magnitsky Act to deny people visas to come to the United States of America. You do not have a right—I used to have this argument with Lavrov, Mr. Sovereignty man, right—and I was like, you don’t—it’s not written in my constitution that Russians have a right to get a visa to go to Disneyland. We get to decide who comes to our country.
Magnitsky is not about—you know, it’s about our sovereignty, not about you—number one. Number two, why aren’t you concerned about wrongful deaths in your own country? That’s a human rights issue and we should treat those people that way.
Our disagreement with Bill, although then we later agreed, was that we had the power to do that and I know because I did it, and he said that wasn’t good enough—we needed to do this publicly and have this law and, you know, to his credit—I give him a lot of credit as a person that has raised awareness of these issues. But the actual mechanics of the law and what the United States can do did not change because of the Magnitsky Act.
REMNICK: OK. Yes, sir, over there.
Q: Gregory Feifer with the Institute of Current World Affairs.
MCFAUL: Hey, good to see you.
Q: Good to see you. Thank you very much for your terrific insights.
The conventional wisdom about Putin is that he’s restoring Russia’s influence in the world and that his nationalism essentially binds Russians to the Kremlin. But he’s also presided over a period in which Russia’s long-term prosperity and stability is, I would say, under great threat. He’s not investing in infrastructure.
Q: He’s not diversifying the economy. He’s presiding over a significant brain drain and he’s presided over a massive explosion of corruption. And I would submit that this corruption is part of the glue that actually binds Russians to the Kremlin. It’s all-present. You can’t do anything in Russia without having to pay a bribe. Everybody is complicit and it coerces people—anybody can be arrested—but it also co-opts people. Bribery is a form of taxation. People get services—
MCFAUL: Right. Right.
Q: —in a manner of speaking, and this is a practical system that enables Putin to have top-down control over a very unwieldy poorly-governable country. When we look at Putin’s motives and when we try to assess what he’s trying to do in Syria and the world and when we have policies like the reset policy, which I think was a terrific policy, but nevertheless, are we missing this practical aspect of Putin’s rule? It’s nonideological. This is a system that, however inefficient, works, and it’s enabled him to stay in power for 18 years.
MCFAUL: Works for whom?
Q: It works for Putin. It works for the Russian elite. It enables the state—I mean, you can go back centuries in Russian history and see this as a system that’s enabled the Russian state to stay together. Do we—do we miss this perhaps—we, as Westerners—when we look at Russian—Russia, the importance of corruption in the country? Thank you.
MCFAUL: Yeah. It’s a good question. It’s a complicated question, but you remind me, just because I’m sitting here, the last piece I published in foreign affairs before joining the government—I can’t remember the exact title. It was in 2008 and I—we—I published it with Kathryn Stoner—gosh, I’m getting old—I can’t remember the title of my own article—“Why Putin is Holding Back Russia.” It was precisely an answer to your question, and I tell you that because I then got a little call from—is Jim Hoge here, by chance? Yeah, I think you got a call. Actually, I’m now remembering this story. You got a call—I didn’t get a call—from the Russian embassy saying they didn’t really like that piece. But you didn’t pull it, so thank you for running it. And we tackled that question, right, in a couple of ways. But this is now out of date, I want to say, and Tim Frye’s here—he probably can give you a better empirical answer, fast dating forward.
But what we do, one, we look at this notion that the state is effective and strong and we have lots of data that shows it’s not so great, like, in terms of delivering on things that people want. And so that’s part of the—oh, it’s called “The Myth of Authoritarian Rule.” I think that’s what the title was.
And then number two, you’re asking a counter factual, right. Like, what if Boris Nemtsov had been president—would Russian economic growth have been greater. My answer to that in a comparative way is yes, I think it would have been, and that—the problem is that the correlation of rising autocracy and rising economic development in Russia in the Putin era leads people to believe that there’s a causal relationship between the rise of autocracy and the rise of economic development—economic growth.
And what we try to argue is no, there’s other drivers of economic growth, principally, reforms in the ’90s, by the way. People like to forget about that. But you had to do those reforms, especially the late reforms they did, in order to get growth. That’s true for everywhere. And then, two, you know, this thing called oil and gas prices that rose and, you know, with Gaidar, he used to always talk about—he said, you know, you give me a hundred dollars a barrel and I would have been the most genius economic reformer on the planet. It was at $9 a barrel when he was the prime minister—deputy prime minister. So I think there is a story there but it’s a counter factual story.
REMNICK: Ken Auletta, right here. Ken, wait for a microphone.
Q: Thank you. Ken Auletta, the New Yorker.
A two-part question—do you believe there was collusion between Trump and Russia, and, secondly, do you believe it was animated by political reasons to help get Trump elected or was there an economic element?
MCFAUL: Yeah. I knew I could count on Ken. Thank you. (Laughter.)
MCFAUL: Well, it kind of gives me a way to extend from the previous question, because they’re related. Was there intent to help, on behalf of the Kremlin and their surrogates—and remember, you know—and don’t believe me, go back and read Kennan’s, you know, famous cable. The Russian system for a long time uses surrogates and cutouts, and they do that on all kinds of dimensions of policy including this. And the idea that Veselnitskaya would show up at Trump Tower and not have coordinated that with the Kremlin, that is just—that just doesn’t happen in that system, right?
So was there intent to help the Trump campaign win? Clearly, yes. WikiLeaks, the stuff they stole, the stuff they ran on social media, that’s all there. RT, Sputnik tweeting #CrookedHillary—that’s what they tweeted—pretty clear what their preferences were, right. I actually got in an argument with the guy that put that out about that. But let’s leave that. That’s a minor thing.
REMNICK: That’s not collusion, though?
MCFAUL: Not collusion. No. No. Intent to—their intent to help. Did they offer information to the Trump campaign that was designed to help them? The answer to that is yes. Whether they had real information or not, we don’t really know, and that gets me to the other part of your question, because part of it is also creating leverage, creating relationships.
Gregory, this is back to your question. It’s not just bribery. Sometimes it’s favors. That’s—Putin does this very well. I got a great deal for you. I’m going to give you a zero-interest loan for $500 million, and you say, well, what’s the catch—you know, what are—oh, don’t worry about it—don’t worry about it—go ahead. We’ll take care of that later.
REMNICK: What evidence of that is there?
MCFAUL: That’s what I wanted to say. So far—so far—I never want to get ahead of the skis; I never want to get ahead of where Mueller is. So far there’s hints and, you know, various conversation. But, right now, I would say none. But would I—but, to me, that’s—whether there’s a story there or not, it’s going to be in that murky world of business relationships and maybe not even directly designed for the 2016 relation—election but just to build relationships as they do around the planet using their very unique kinds of techniques to create that leverage.
REMNICK: But, Mike, let me—let me play my argumentative moderator internationalist role.
REMNICK: We’re shocked that there’s gambling in Casablanca.
MCFAUL: Mmm hmm.
REMNICK: There’s a long history to this, of active measures, on both sides. In fact, our active measures have not just been influencing or giving campaign help, whether it’s in the Middle East or Latin America. It’s also overthrowing regimes with the use of our intelligence agencies—
REMNICK: —and with the backing of foreign policy establishments, whether historically in these rooms or Washington or what have you. There’s a long history to this—a long history to our hypocrisy here, is there not?
MCFAUL: Yeah. I actually wrote another book about that—
REMNICK: I know.
MCFAUL: —back in 2009. Yes, and, you know, when I give my lecture about that meeting between Putin and Obama, I always say—and by the way, there’s a lot of empirical evidence to support Putin’s hypothesis about American foreign policy. That is true.
REMNICK: Iranians, Guatemalans and—
REMNICK: The list is very long.
MCFAUL: That’s right. But I would say two things. One, not all administrations act the same way. So there’s variations for—
REMNICK: Why should they—but why should they differentiate administrations? They’re dealing with countries and histories.
MCFAUL: But no, they’re not, and my story is—I’m glad you said that because I don’t believe that. I don’t believe there’s something called the American national interest, that when you show up at the White House you’re handed the book.
I actually showed up at the White House on January 21st, 2009, and that doesn’t exist. And I say that because this is now a battle we have in the social sciences, right. We kind of write out individuals. It’s all about states and they’re all bouncing around as billiard balls in the balance of power.
My book is a refutation of that. There’s a lot of contingency in my book. There’s a lot of if not—you know, had Boris Nemtsov become president and not Putin, the trajectory would be different. Barack Obama’s foreign policy was different from George W. Bush’s and we—
MCFAUL: —were not handing out bags of money for people to overthrow regimes. We did not do that. That’s hard to explain, I can tell you, as the U.S. ambassador in Russia in 2012 when I’m trying to explain that and people are seeing continuity but realize empirically there is discontinuity.
And then, number two, I just want to say something more normative—two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because we did that in 1953 doesn’t mean it’s OK for Putin to be meddling in our affairs in 2016, and maybe we need a regime—a treaty, an agreement—where we try to codify some of the rules of the road where we say these are the things that are left out, and in particular, we have a big project on this at the institute I run at Stanford on cybersecurity and disinformation. And in those two domains, they sometimes overlap but in some places they’re different. There is a lot of really scary things coming.
REMNICK: I think what Ken is probing at, too, is—and I’ll get your question next—what Ken is probing at too is do you have any information that’s not already public or any—
MCFAUL: No, and if I did I wouldn’t be—I’m not stupid enough to say it now. But—
REMNICK: I had to ask. You know—
MCFAUL: Yeah. Yeah.
REMNICK: —it’s what I do.
REMNICK: Yes. Go ahead.
Q: Thank you. Evelyn Leopold, resident correspondent at the United Nations.
Lately, the Russians have been playing up their anti-fascism, the World War II victory.
Q: Stalin won everything. Then what is the attraction of the—why is there such a relationship with Marine Le Pen, with the FPO—with the Freedom Party in Austria—and so forth?
MCFAUL: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. So I think Putin believes you can be anti-fascist and pro-nationalist and conservative at the same time and those are not contradictions, in his mind. But it does—it is an interesting thing. You know, part of that narrative—and it’s kind of a grotesque narrative, in my view—describing the leadership in Ukraine as fascist, by the way—so they’re definitely trying to echo the May 9th time—I mean, the biggest holiday in Russia today is May 9th.
That was not true 20 or 30 years ago, right, and this rewriting of history that David was alluding to earlier where one holiday has kind of faded away and this one has come in place—interesting. One other one, by the way, just—that I remember vividly as ambassador, the holiday June 12th in Russia is a very strange holiday.
That’s the day that the Russian Federation, back in 1990, voted to become independent from the Soviet Union, and over time in the early years that was Independence Day, right—like we all celebrate Independence Day—and over the Putin years it’s kind of blended into—I don’t even know what they call it anymore, just National Day.
But it’s a big celebration. You go to the Kremlin and you—you know, you see Putin there and I remember being there and realizing that almost nobody at this party except for me knows the original history of it. They’ve just written out—we’re just—but I want to come back to this nationalism thing because it’s nasty. It’s part of the disinformation campaign, and, tragically, part of the echo chamber I want to come back to. It works. Part of the genius of Putin is not to just make arguments on his own but either exacerbate tensions that are already in society, right. He couldn’t do the things he’s doing in our country if those tensions and polarizations didn’t exist already.
But then, number two, but, you know, some correspondents and some people reporting on this just echo those themes, and the Nazis in Ukraine. I was just in Ukraine two weeks ago. There are Nazis in Ukraine. Let me be clear. I want to be clear. There are Nazis in America and there are Nazis in Russia. I’ve seen them. I’ve been there. I’ve seen them with their swastikas. I’ve seen them salute—ethnic Russians.
But they don’t run the government. The prime minister is Jewish—proudly Jewish, by the way. He’s not—you know, sometimes Poroshenko he seems a little confused about his Jewish heritage even though his father is Jewish—he kind of—(inaudible)—is not. But that is part of the way to bring together that old history, the picking and choosing that David was talking about, to remind them that, you know, we were fighting this war in World War II and we are fighting a war again. If you watch Russian television, they feel like they’re fighting a war. We used to call it the two N words—Nazis and NATO—and they’re bringing that story together.
REMNICK: Really quick, this gentleman right here.
MCFAUL: Oh, not him. Anybody but him.
REMNICK: Oh, did you already ask a question?
Q: No. No. No. No.
Q: I’m Tim Frye. I got a little—
REMNICK: Don’t try to pull a fast one.
Q: I got a little shout out earlier.
REMNICK: Oh, OK.
Q: Tim Frye from Colombia University.
So I want to ask you to look forward a little bit, because you make two arguments that I agree with that—I think our intention and their intention in my own mind as well. So I agree with you that Russian foreign policy, particularly since 2012, is largely driven by domestic politics. At the same time, both you and I are big pro-engagement people—that we need to be talking with Russia on all different kinds of fronts—cooperating with them—you know, it’s something that we do. But is it—how do you answer the argument that this is all just a waste of time? If it’s driven by domestic politics, you know, what’s the point of engagement?
Q: Are we better off just trying to contain them?
MCFAUL: Yeah. Is this the last question?
MCFAUL: Maybe. We’ll see. So—
REMNICK: Depends on you.
MCFAUL: In my slide deck when I talk about this, Tim, I have a pie chart that I end with—50 percent containment, 25 percent engagement, 25 percent isolation. But I’m happy to play with those. I’m not quite sure that’s the right balance.
But I think—and I think this, tragically, by the way—you know, my book is a book of tragedy, after all—U.S.-Russian relations, Obama, and my own engagement with these issues over time—not in what we tried to do and, you know, I don’t consider my academic career a tragedy, by the way—very happy to be at Stanford and thank God for tenure—but I don’t see another choice where we’re in right now. And I invoked George Shultz earlier. I think, tragically, you got to go back to that.
People forget, in the cartoonization of the Cold War, that it wasn’t just about building Star Wars and breaking them. They were engaging on arms control and, by the way, I think on arms control would be where I would start—Putin’s announced all these new weapons. We’re in a qualitative arms race right now, not a quantitative one, and it is scary. It’s really scary. By the way, on the missile defense side, too. We need to talk to them there, push back on a lot of other things and I think there’s no other way to do it, and I think Ukraine is the battlefront state on that and if democracy can take hold there—and that’s a really tall order because the same things that Gregory was talking about are present there. But that, I think, is important. And then isolate, too. Like, I think we spent—you know, my chapter on Iran, which is the longest and most tortured because that’s where I think we made some of the biggest mistakes—it’s called “Chasing Russians, Failing Syrians.”
And when I look back on that history—and I say this in the book—I’m not sure I said it in real time as emphatically as I should have—but we always thought if we could just get the Russians agree with our theory, right—we needed—you know, Mr. Putin and Barack Obama and President Putin sat down in Los Cabos, Mexico, of all strange places and had this very theoretical debate, David, about how do you bring about peace and stability there.
Putin’s was you need a strong hand. You know, I heard echoes of Chechnya in the way he was talking, and Obama was talking about we need a pacted transition, echoes of what we were trying to do in Egypt. But we—we’re not going to close that impasse, so just stop trying to chase them around.
REMNICK: Can I just ask you, one of the great lines of the Obama administration, and it’s a very fatalist one, is Phil Gordon, who said, you know, in Iraq we tried full invasion and it was a disaster. In Libya, we tried a partial invasion and it was a disaster. In Syria, we did practically nothing—
MCFAUL: And it was a disaster.
REMNICK: —and it was a disaster.
REMNICK: When you were in the government and you have these jobs, do you really think that you’re in control of events? Because what I—what I—what I get a sense from from this book is what once you’re out of it, you begin to realize the limits of your capacity to, even with the greatest of intentions—
MCFAUL: Yes. Yeah.
REMNICK: —hold back the tragic dimension of the world.
MCFAUL: Right. Well, I’d say two things on that. One of my big lessons—I have a whole lecture on lessons of being a noodle-head academic goes to Washington and what did I learn. One of the things I learned, by the way, was the importance of knowing history and knowing a foreign language. So I’d like—I tell my students, most of whom are majoring in computer science, that those are good things to keep studying—but the more negative story, or maybe it’s just the more realistic story, is I was constantly impressed by the limits of American power.
You know, there’s a crisis, something happens, and you’re looking for a strategy. I mean, I was in charge of developing the strategy towards Russia, right. That was my job. And what you realize is your instruments of power, the things you pull on, one, it’s a pretty limited menu. Why do we always go back to sanctions? Because that’s what we can do. All—some of the other options are not practical when it comes to Russia.
And then two, yeah, we—you know, people—you know, we’re in New York so we’re more sophisticated. But down in Washington, where I just was yesterday, there is this kind of mindset, like, we sit at, you know, at other think tanks and, you know, whether I say this or that really matters and there’s the intramural debate first, so you got to, like, win that, and then there are other players. They get—you know, they get a say. They get a vote. They get—they get to move on the chessboard.
And I came out impressed by the limits. I also, though, want to—that’s too negative. Every now and then, the stars align where you can get things done and most certainly the reset years were that. I mean, we got some big things done. 2010—the years of academia—no disrespect, Professor Frye, but for me—I’ll just speak for me—I won’t speak for all of academia—they kind of blur, like, you know, what did I do in 1997—I can’t quite remember. I had a comparative politics article or something. You know, they all kind of blur and you—students and that.
But I have some very vivid memories of some things that we got done—to do as opposed to to be. A lot of people just join the government and I am blah, blah, blah. We got some big things done. 2010, we reduced the number of nuclear weapons allowed in Russia and the United States by 30 percent. You know, that’s what I did. What did you do?
You know, that’s something tangible. So every now and then it happens. But then that window closes pretty quick, and by 2012 we were just playing defense. That was my job as ambassador—basically, just playing defense—and I think that’s the mode with looking for pockets of cooperation when our interests overlap but playing defense and, I fear, for a long, long time.
REMNICK: Michael, thank you very much and thank you all for coming.
MCFAUL: Thank you. (Applause.)