Putin’s Actions are ‘Not Just About Geopolitics and Spheres of Influence’–an Interview with Ambassador Michael McFaul

Generation Editors Izabela Chmielewska and Kurt Klein sat down with Ambassador Michael McFaul during his visit to UCLA last spring. Since then, Russia has conducted airstrikes in Syria that are ongoing. Russian President Vladimir Putin states that the strikes intend “to stabilize the legitimate government and to create the conditions for a political compromise.” In this interview, Ambassador McFaul gives insights on the future of Eastern Europe, Edward Snowden, recent Russian foreign interventions and how the US and allies should respond.

KURT KLEIN (KK): The New Yorker described you as a graduate student as “determined to establish liberal values and institutions – civil society, free speech, democratic norms – in a land, that for a thousand years, had known only absolutism, empire, and the knout.” What part of the world do you currently see as the place where graduate students like ourselves can effectively promote these values?

MICHAEL MCFAUL (MM):  I was in the Soviet Union doing my research, but not to promote democratic values.  The way that Mr. Remnick wrote about it confused two different things: my thesis was actually about southern Africa – Anglola and Mozambique – and how external actors influence internal change.  And that has been a theme of mine academically off and on for about 20 or 30 years.  In parallel, when I arrived in the Soviet Union for the 1990-91 academic year as a Fulbright Scholar, I was also hired as a consultant by the National Democratic Institute, an American organization that promotes democracy around the world.  We were there as the invited guest of different political organizations and the government of Russia.  We were partners with the newly elected city councils of Leningrad and Moscow, and brought in city council people from New York City and Los Angeles, like Zev Yaroslavsky, to interact with these new politicians.  So it wasn’t a hostile place, it was a friendly one.  Today, the transitioning countries like Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, as well as Burma are receptive to interaction and friendly to outside experts.  Rather than promoting, which is outdated, I see it more as transmitting ideas in an effective way.  That’s what I would do if I were your age today.

IZABELA CHMIELEWSKA (IC):  In your opinion, what is the optimal solution for Ukraine?  Will the country have to divide between East and West?  Will it join the EU?  What would you like to see happen in Ukraine, and what do you view as a realistic solution?

MM:  Ukraine’s first challenge is to stabilize its economy.  I’m impressed by what they have done so far, but I am also anxious about the road ahead.  They have a big IMF program, but the external assistance is not enough to do the reforms that are required of them.  Second, Ukraine has had a hard time consolidating democratic practices.  They had a chance after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, and they had a second chance after the 2004 Orange Revolution, and now they have their third chance.  I believe that the economic reforms and democratic consolidation are more important tasks than fighting the war in the East because getting them right would create incentives for the people in the East to stay within Ukraine.  The biggest challenge is that Russia, and more precisely Vladimir Putin, does not want them to succeed and is creating just enough tension to undermine the economic reforms and the government in Kiev.  That is their struggle moving forward.  Joining the EU should be a long-term goal, not a short-term one.

IC:  I read your piece in the New York Times in which you said that if you want to beat Putin, you should support Ukraine, and I very much agree.  So what role should the Eastern European EU states take, especially the Baltic states that have large Russian minorities, and neighboring post-Communist states that have successfully transitioned, like Poland?

MM:  Poland is the poster child, the success that all Ukrainians should aspire to.  If you go back to 1990 and look at GDP per capita, Poland and Ukraine very similar.  Today, Poland is four times as rich as Ukraine.  They did that by transforming their political and economic system at the same time.  Estonia is another successful case.  I think learning from the Poles and other partners in the region is a good thing.  In fact, President Poroshenko and Prime Minister Yatsenyuk have brought some advisers from Poland and Lithuania to join the government to with reforms.  Ukraine should work together with NATO allies to bolster its deterrence efforts vis-à-vis Russia.  The Eastern European EU states should also keep diplomatic unity and stand against lifting anti-Russian sanctions prematurely as the debate rises.

IC:  You have recently tweeted about Putin’s defensive statement of the WWII Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact between Hitler and Stalin, and basically called his public declaration not smart.  What is the danger in Putin lauding such a statement?

MM: The historical facts surrounding this pact, which triggered World War II and the dual invasion of Poland in 1939, is now being distorted as Putin rewrites history in Russia.  That is dangerous.  I don’t really understand Putin’s logic trying to justify this pact.  Even Soviet leaders were quiet about this fact and did not trumpet it is as some kind of necessity for the Soviet Union.  There is also this phenomenon in the Russian media called “what-aboutism”.  If you criticize the Ribbentrop Molotov pact, they say “well, what about Munich”?  If you criticize the invasion of Ukraine, they say “well, what about Iraq”?  Well, two wrongs don’t make a right.

IC:  Angela Merkel met with Putin a day after Western leaders boycotted Victory Day in the Red Square.  Is that a step in the right direction?  How do you see her role in this political impasse?

MM: Merkel is without question the most important player.  I would like to see the Americans more involved, although as we are talking right now, Secretary Kerry has just gotten out of the meeting with Putin.  I am impressed with the position that Merkel has taken on Russia, and I think it’s a principled one.  Even during that meeting she called out the annexation of Crimea a violation of international law, which it is.  It takes courage to do that, and I also think it’s important to engage, as she is doing.  Just because you meet with somebody doesn’t mean that you agree with their views.  I think it’s important to understand what Mr. Putin is thinking.

IC:  Is Russia’s nature as the dominant nation-state the driving force of its actions, or is it really Putin?

MM:  Well, that’s the subject of my lecture tonight, that’s exactly the theme!  But my bluff, as they call it in the government, is bottom line up front.  So the bluff of my talk is on this balance – both are important factors, but I attribute more of the causal explanation to Putin.   I can imagine a different Russia behaving in a different way, not because I have a great imagination, but because I saw it.  Russia had a different set of aspirations when I was there as a graduate student in 1990-91.  All of this was not inevitable in my opinion, partly due to some mistakes that the West has made, but more to do with Putin’s fear of the challenge that society demonstrated after the elections in 2011.

KK:  You’ve mentioned rewriting history.  What are your thoughts about RT (Russia Today), the Russian state-funded media organization.  What do you think the United States should do regarding RT and its growing influence in the world?

MM:  I am very impressed with RT, its strategy, and its resources.  Some people criticize it and think that it’s not worth their time and attention – I disagree.  They give away world news to countries that can’t afford to have reporters around the world for free.  Very clever strategy.  The response should be investing in local investigative journalism in Russia, rather than Voice of America on steroids.

KK:  Why did Putin give Edward Snowden asylum? What did he hope to gain and what value does Snowden hold for Russia?

MM: In the immediate run, it was a giant public relations coup for Putin because it has turned the world debate on its head.  Now, we were the ones violating human rights and our Constitution, and Putin had the champion seek asylum in his country.  Of course all the things that Mr. Snowden complains about United States, much of which I am sympathetic to, happen in Russia all the time, though it doesn’t get much press.  The second objective was intelligence gathering, especially the methods of the NSA.  In his defense, Snowden says he hasn’t told them anything, but some people in the government are worried about what he knows and may share.

KK:  You wrote in your March 23, 2014 op-ed piece: “The United States does not have the same moral authority as it did in the last century. As Ambassador, I found it difficult to defend our commitments to sovereignty and international law when asked by Russians, ‘What about Iraq?’” – the ‘what-aboutism’ – “To win this new conflict, we must restore the United States as a model.”  What exactly is this new conflict?  Is it referring to just Ukraine or the overall relations with Russia, or maybe more abstract ideals?  How would the United States restore itself as a model?  Is it just foreign policy, or it it also domestic affairs?

MM:  Putinism does not have the same appeal as Communism.  And therefore the ideological content of this confrontation is not the same as it was during the Cold War.  But it’s also not zero-sum, it’s not just about geopolitics and spheres of influence.  Putin has a set of ideas that he is propagating around the world, and they come in two broad forms.  One is anti-American.  He argues that the United States is an imperial country, a unipolar power, and he claims to be the leader of the anti-imperial coalition.  And that’s a really smart argument.  Though I think he undermined it by invading his neighbor.  But he is the only leader around the world of that stature to stand up against the United States, which rallies people, especially on the left.  The other set of ideas carry the social-conservative, nationalistic message.  They are mostly earmarked for the right-wing parties of Europe, but also to groups in the United States, like the Evangelical churches.  In that campaign, he is standing up for family values, against liberalism, against LGBT rights and gay marriage, against all things that – in his world – come from the liberal, decadent European West and the United States.  So we need to be engaged in those debates on why our system of government, our pluralism, is a better system.  That gets me to the second part of your question – it is both domestic and foreign policy for which we have to right some of the wrongs, like closing Guantanamo.  My former boss [President Obama] is doing some of this, and agrees with me; I spoke to him about it personally.  If he were here with us, I think he would say, “I wish we had done more faster” on that front.  The other part is to restore the economic and political models of America.  I think we are doing pretty well with rebuilding the economic model.  We have come out of a very difficult recession, way ahead of most developed economies.  I live in the Silicon Valley – a land of opportunity, a land of creating wealth and products, a magnet for the entire world to come work.  People are not flocking to Moscow to work on technology – they are leaving Moscow.  The second piece of the restoration is the political model.  The dysfunction in Washington is not very inspirational right now.  I think we should try to do better on that front.  I don’t have a silver bullet for it, but making our democracy function a little more effectively would have positive results for our foreign policy.


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