Putin’s Russia today – Former Ambassador Michael McFaul on “Intelligence Matters”

In this episode of “Intelligence Matters,” host Michael Morell speaks with Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and current director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Morell and McFaul discuss Russian President Vladimir Putin’s main geopolitical objectives and personal anxieties about the West. McFaul shares behind-the-scenes details of meeting and negotiating with Putin, as well as thoughts on how the Biden administration should approach its relationship with the Kremlin.


Putin’s attitude: “[H]e’s been in power for over two decades. So he thinks he knows everything. He doesn’t listen even to his closest advisers anymore. They’re all second-tier people compared to him. It kind of reminds me of what I used to read about Stalin. He has no peers inside the country anymore, in his view. So he’s quite arrogant.”

Putin’s negotiating techniques: “He likes to stare. He’s done it to me. And believe me, it’s scary, especially when you’re sitting in his office on his side of the wall and your bodyguards are on the other side. He’s got an intense way of looking at you. He did this once to me when he was basically accusing me of supporting the opposition in Russia, and he wants you to blink literally and figuratively.” 

Emboldening Putin: “From his perspective, he’s gotten away with a lot recently, right? He annexed Crimea and he said, “I dare you to unravel it,” and we failed to do so, right. We played a game of chicken in Syria…In 2016, when he violated our sovereignty and our elections, he dared us to push him out and to make him pay, and from his perspective, he doesn’t think that he personally has paid a price, even though many oligarchs have and most certainly the Russian people have.”  

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MICHAEL MORELL: Mike, thanks for joining us on Intelligence Matters. It’s great to have you on the show.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Great to be here.

MICHAEL MORELL: So Mike, I want to start with with a little bit about you. For our listeners, and I’d love to hear about how you got interested in Russia and how did you find your way to the government the first time?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, I got interested in Russia from high school debate. I grew up in Montana and my junior year, we moved to a town called Bozeman, and I tried to get the easiest English credit I could, and I was told, ‘Take the debate class.’ So I just I want to underscore the serendipity there.

And the topic that year was U.S. trade policy. And so my debate partner and I ran a case, as it’s called in high school debate, on increasing trade with the Soviet Union. This was 79-80. I don’t think I would have supported that idea a couple of years later, but I didn’t know better back then.

And that’s when I first got interested in the Soviet Union. My debate partner, by the way, is a guy named Steve Daines. He’s now Senator Daines from Montana, and we both just became intrigued with the Soviet Union. And then as a freshman at Stanford, I showed up here as a 17 year old kid and I took ‘How Nations Deal with Each Other’ a course on international relations, and first year Russian. And then I just I had a theory that, you know, if we could just understand that society better, we might be able to reduce tensions or at least not have misperceptions in terms of U.S.-Soviet relations. And, you know, in a way, I’ve been kind of thinking about testing that hypothesis for the last three or four decades. So that was the initial interest in Russia.

I then later studied there in ’83, ’85, ’88 and most importantly, ’90-91. So the year the Soviet Union collapsed I was at Moscow State University and became quite interested in under what conditions do regimes collapse and under what conditions do political movements, democratic movements coalesce? That’s been a part of my academic research ever since then.

And that really, I would say, was a formative year that made me interested not just in understanding Russia and the Soviet Union, but becoming more involved in a kind of, I guess we would call it policy, now, I would say I was more of an activist back then. Kind of an anti-communist activist.

MICHAEL MORELL: Do you remember what the mood was like on the ground when the Soviet Union fell apart and you were there?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes, I was physically not there in August 1991. I left Moscow in June of 1991. I was there for the run up and I went to all the demonstrations and I interacted with a group called Democratic Russia. I started working for an American NGO at the time, it’s called The National Democratic Institute. So I did become, you know, I wasn’t just an analyst, if you will. I was writing my PhD still, but I was also becoming a bit of an activist and it was — I then flew back in October, right after the coup failed in August 1991. And the mood was euphoric. I mean, the mood was, ‘We have defeated communism, we have destroyed the Soviet empire.’ — These are my friends, right? You know, these are Russians that I was interacting with, right? – “And we are now joining the West?”

And so, when I hear that, oftentimes it’s phrased that, the United States won the Cold War. Well, yes, the United States most certainly played a big role in winning the Cold War. But these Russians that I knew they were victors as well in the Cold War and Ukrainians and Estonians and Georgians who I knew at the time as well. So it was a euphoric moment. It felt like that Russia was going to join the West and become a democratic system of government and a market society, market capitalism. And of course, we know that’s not the way that story ended, but back then it was quite euphoric. 

MICHAEL MORELL: So your first job in the government? What was that? How did that happen?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: So my first job was at the National Security Council. You know these words well, but I didn’t know them that well. I was senior director for Russia and Eurasia Affairs, and I was an SAP, Special Assistant to the President. And I started — President Obama was sworn in on a Tuesday, and I started that job on a Wednesday. I landed that job through, I worked on his campaign and there was a group of advisers and one of them was a friend of mine from Stanford and Oxford, where I went to school, Susan Rice. And I signed up pretty early on, Mike, back when I honestly didn’t know much about Senator Obama at the time, but I trusted Susan’s instincts. And she said, “This is one of the smartest guys I’ve ever met and he’s going to be elected president and you should get on this bandwagon.” And I did. And that was a great ride. So that was my first job.

And then as I tried to leave that job and go back to Stanford – remember, you know, academics spend, I think the average is 18 months in the government. Many universities have a requirement that you have to come back after two years. And so that was always kind of the clock in my head. But in 2011, my immediate boss at the time, Tom Donilon, he was the national security adviser at the time. This will sound funny now, but he was like, “Mike, how can you leave now? We’re in such a cooperative time with Russia, with President Medvedev.” And we’d just gotten in the start treaty done. We just got the Iran nuclear deal done. They were about to join the WTO and they just voted with us — or they abstained, to be clear, to allow the use of force against Libya, something Russia had never done. So the height of cooperation. And he’s like, “You can’t leave now.”

And he called me back a couple of hours later, he said, “I talked to the boss and he said, ‘You can’t leave either,’ – President Obama.” And that’s how it was from that conversation until the end of the year that they proposed that I stay in the government but do a more family-friendly job, which turned out to be true, by the way. And that’s how I became the ambassador to Russia starting in January 2012.

MICHAEL MORELL: Any particular memories stand out of your time in Moscow.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Oh, well, Moscow was a fantastic job. I mean, in many ways it was a difficult time in terms of my day job, which was, you know, right as I landed in Moscow on the streets of Russia in Moscow and St. Petersburg and other big cities were the biggest demonstrations against the regime since 1991. Since that year I was describing, 1991, and that meant, you know, for Putin that that we were out to get him. And he blamed Obama. He blamed America. And when I got there, he blamed me personally for seeking to foment revolution in Russia. And you need to remember, in his mind, I’ve always worked for the CIA, and I want to be clear, I’ve never worked for the CIA.

MICHAEL MORELL: I can attest to that.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: You can attest to that. But, you know, in their coating of things going way back to 1991, I was a revolutionary fomenter. And so I…

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