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‘But I love Russia, and I love Russians’ Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul speaks to Meduza

Source: Meduza
Photo: Dmitry Kostyukov / The New York Times / Scanpix

Michael McFaul, a former advisor to President Barack Obama, is considered one of the chief authors of the famous “Reset” attempted in US-Russian relations. From 2012 to 2014, McFaul was the US ambassador to Russia. After leaving Moscow, he left the diplomatic service and returned to teaching political science at Stanford University. Ambassador McFaul recently sat down with Meduza's Ilya Krasilshchik to discuss the conflicts that divide Russia and the US today, how the two countries' leaders should structure relations, and why America suffers from a shortage of experts specializing in Russia.

The past two weeks, traveling between universities in the US, I've heard roughly the same thing everywhere: there's an enormous problem with American specialists on Russia. The leading experts are the still-living Sovietologists who suddenly find themselves needed again. Do you find this to be the case?

It's more complex than that. There's good and there's bad. On the one hand, in academia, after the end of the Cold War, there was a renaissance in the study of Russia, because for the first time ever you could study Russia like a normal country. You could go there. You could talk to people. You could do survey data on public opinion. You could write about elections. I wrote many articles and one book about Russian elections, where we used the same methods that we use to study American elections. 

And I would say that period was a great growth time for academics interested in Russia, and that's my generation (people younger than the Cold-War generation, but not the new generation—somewhere in between). 

But then two or three things happened that have created this problem, or this crisis [in the field of Russian studies]. One is that, in American social sciences (economics, political science—I'm in the department of political science here [at Stanford]), there's a trend away from studying one country. So if you look at the super stars in political science in America, they're not specialists on Russia or China or Canada or France; they're specialists on general trends: the relationship between democracy and development, and so on. They use statistical data to compare lots of countries. At my department here at Stanford, too, these scholars are the stars. 

That's where the trends are for political science: they're not for people that know individual countries, like me. So, if you look around the major universities in America, you'll find fewer and fewer Russia specialists, and that means we don't teach graduate students or Master's students or undergraduates about Russia. We teach them about more general trends. And that has led to a falling off of students—especially young, PhD students who then become professors who try to keep Russian studies alive. 

One other thing that has happened—what is another trend—is that there's been an explosion of think tanks in Washington. You probably noticed them in Washington, right?

Yes, they're everywhere.

They're everywhere!

The good news about that is that there are specialists on Russia who can get jobs in those think tanks, who could never get a job in a university. The bad news, in my opinion, is that there's not much quality control. Anybody can say, “I'm a Russia specialist,” and then appear on TV, and write a blog. There's no difference between a professor at Harvard and a director of a think tank in Washington in the noise that is “the experts.” 

And I know my colleagues in academia. You see, I'm very rare. I go back and forth. There aren't many people who were in government and also political science professors. There are very few of us (like three or four in the whole country). I think that's led to a deterioration of analysis of Russia. 

The good news is that people can adapt, and institutes can adapt. I started a program on [Russia] recently, and just like that [snaps fingers] we had lots of student interest in things related to Russia and Europe. I think it's incumbent on people like me to help bring Russian studies back to the university. Because I myself have not taught a course on Russia for 15 years. I haven't even been teaching about Russia; I've been teaching about democratization, US foreign policy, democracy development, and rule of law. Those are the courses I've been teaching. I've decided that next year I'm going to go back to teaching Russia.

But you're in Stanford and all these think tanks are in Washington, DC. And they're there because they want to influence policy. 

That's right.

President Dmitry Medvedev during his visit to the US in 2010.
Photo: Dmitry Astakhov / TASS / Scanpix

I've been told that nobody in the United States is terribly interested in getting involved with Russia, but it's the opposite with China and the Middle East. There will always be business to do with China, and the Middle East will always be a mess. But when it comes to Russia, you can't always do business, and it's not awful enough all the time to guarantee a future, in terms of a career.

I think that's true. To me, it's tragic. To me, if you go back just several years, when there were new opportunities, and there was a push to have more contact with Russia. President Medvedev came to Stanford. He spoke here in 2010, and was greeted by thousands of people. He met with our students, and it felt like this was going to be something. There was Silicon Valley, and there were companies in Russia. Lots of activity.

And now there's lots of uncertainty, in terms of career paths. You're right. And so now the only career path with guaranteed job security is in the US government, but those jobs are not interesting, unless you get in at the highest levels. At a place like Stanford, and this is one of the most prestigious universities in the country right now, why would you do all that, when you can just walk down the street and go work for Google? So we're competing to get those people interested in Russia-related jobs. It's a problem. 

But right now the problem in US-Russian relations isn't about what happens in the years to come, but what happens right now. Does the US government have a problem today finding qualified area experts? 

I'd say two things: one is that, despite all the problems, in my opinion (and I'm a very biased person here—I worked for seven years for Obama, two in the campaign and five in the government)... It was my view, when I was in the government, that, in the senior positions dealing with Russia, we had tremendous expertise. 

Over at the Pentagon, we had Celeste Wallander, who now works for the president at the White House. (She's a former Harvard professor.) At the State Department, at my level, we had a lot of strong people. When I worked at the embassy, my senior staff (keyword “senior”) were firstrate. My political officer, for instance, was a guy named Howard Solomon. (He works in Lithuania now.) He knows more about Russia than anybody in the US knew 20 years ago or 30 years ago. 

But here's the problem: it's thin, and it can easily change. And we've got elections coming up.

And what about the elections? Will US-Russian relations change with a new US president? Is Russia an issue at all in the US presidential election?

Is Russia a theme? At a low level, yes. And it will become a bigger theme, if it's Clinton versus Trump, because Trump has said some very... unique things about US-Russian relations. And he's said some very unique things about our relationship with our allies in Europe that will create a debate. 

He's said “unique” things about nearly everything, it seems...

Yes. I'm trying to be diplomatic! I'm a diplomat! 

In full disclosure, I am an informal advisor to Secretary Clinton. She's another of my old bosses. We just hosted her [at Stanford] last week. I have a pretty good sense of her positions on Russia—in fact, a very good sense. By the way, after I introduced her, she said thank you and so on, and then I mentioned something about our last trip together, which was to Vladivostok. And she said, making everyone laugh, “What happens in Vladivostok, stays in Vladivostok.” 

Because of Trump's positions, you're going to have a debate about how to deal with Putin. You're going to have a debate about the NATO alliance. And you're going to have a debate about Ukraine. Traditionally, foreign policy isn't important at all in American politics. When it is, it's usually not about Russia. But, as it was in 2008, when I worked on that campaign with President Obama, when there's a big event in Russia... Back then, it was the Russian-Georgian war. This time, it will be Russian intervention in Ukraine. There is a group of voters in America who care a lot about Russian policy. There are people of East European descent: Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles. 

How many people are we talking about?

It depends on which state. Remember our Electoral College is everything. But they tend to be concentrated in what we call swing states—in states that sometimes go Democratic and sometimes go Republican. So, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, Florida. Florida is a big swing state, and there are tens of thousands of Polish-Americans in Florida.

And they care about Russia?

And they care a lot about Russia (in the ways that you would guess). And there are lots of Ukrainian-Americans in Pennsylvania, for instance. For those groups, this is going to be an issue where Trump versus Clinton is a stark contrast, if it's those two. And this could have an influence on the election. 

So Russia becomes more of an issue in a race between these two candidates?

Correct. But not until then. It's too early now. 

Hillary Clinton and Michael McFaul. March 2016.
Photo: Carolyn Kaster / AP / Scanpix

When discussing Russia today in the United States, how possible is it to avoid the terminology of the Cold War? It seems dangerous when two countries can only talk about each other as enemies...

As you might imagine, I give a lot of talks on Russia, all over the country. About once every two weeks, I'm giving a major talk. And I'd say a couple of things. One, there's a big interest in Russia. I'm sometimes speaking to 800 people in states like Montana. Eight hundred people came to my talk about Russia in Montana. I was in northern Florida six months ago. Nine hundred people showed up for a talk on Russia. What I mean to say is that there is interest in this topic. 

These were just regular people who came to listen to you?

Yes, just regular people. Not experts. 

I also work for a news agency called NBC News, so I can tell the ebb and flow of the news interest by when they ask me to be on TV. And I would say that your general thesis is absolutely right. There's a very simplified story that goes back to the Cold War. Most people focus on its outcome, and when I give my talks I've seen this. 

But there's a bigger debate about “who's at fault.” And I think you'd be surprised—especially at university campuses—that the question is more contested among elites, especially liberal elites in America. And that's fine. I have my own very strong views on that, personally. And I'm actually writing a book about it, so I have my own argument. 

But the biggest message I always have, in all of my speeches and when I'm on TV, as well, is to fight the stereotypes about Russia and Russians. The first thing I say is that you're not allowed in my class or my lectures to say things like, “Russia thinks this” or “Russia thinks we should”... I've never met Mr. Russia. Have you met Mr. Russia? I've never met that guy, or a Ms. Russia. [Laughs.]

There's no one view in Russia. There may be more popular views, but it's a much more complex society than I would say more Americans and Europeans understand. It's much more nuanced. And even the way the regime—Mr. Putin and his regime—deals with society is much more complex. [Just look at] how they deal with you [Meduza]! Most Americans are shocked that Meduza exists. And that you're not arrested when you fly to Moscow. 

Yes, I've heard this many times from Americans.

So that's interesting, right? That means Russia is not exactly like people think it is. 

And what are the chances of improving relations between Russia and the US? It seems like both presidents have given up on one another.

I'd say three things. The conflicts are real. And they're not just based on personality differences between Putin and Obama, or something like that. It's because it's a view shared by everyone in the Obama administration and most American foreign policy elites that Russia annexed territory in Ukraine and then fomented this proxy war [in the Donbas], and that violates the rules of the international system. 

I've met lots of Russians who say, “Can we just get over this, and get back to doing business?” And that fundamental conflict will not go away any time soon, in my opinion. 

The second thing I'd say is that I've worked with Putin, I've been in many meetings with Putin, and he fundamentally thinks of the United States as a competitor and an enemy. That's not going to change. He's had that view for a long time. I first met him in 1991.

1991? And he was saying the same thing?

Well, I didn't know him as well then. Let me just speak about him as president. I've seen him talk with Obama about these issues, and he's got that view and that's not going to change. 

I met him actually through [former St. Petersburg Mayor Anatoly] Sobchak. It was a program I was doing with Sobchak, and Putin was in charge of foreign contacts for Sobchak. 

Vladimir Putin and Anatoly Sobchak in 1993.
Photo: Mikhail Razuvaev / Kommersant

Do you remember anything about Putin specifically from this period?

Not much. He didn't make a big impression. His deputy made a bigger impression on me. Igor Sechin. I met Sechin back then, too. He was very friendly. He was one of the first guys I met who openly told me that they worked for Soviet intelligence—this was still in the Soviet Union. (This was in 1991 before the collapse.) I got to know him [Sechin] pretty well. We both speak Portuguese. 

You talked in Portuguese?

A little bit. But there are two more things I want to say: one is that we can agree to disagree on one set of issues, and cooperate in a smaller space on other issues. And I think that's what Obama is doing. And that's what the next president should do, but with no illusions that cooperation in Syria is going to lead to another Reset. I think that's naive, and that's not going to happen. I was the “author of the Reset.” I'm ”to blame.”

Why are you to blame?

I mean that many critics blame me, saying we were the ones who did this [attempted the Reset], and it was a mistake. I don't agree with this. I'm writing a book right now about how we were right to have done what we did. It's called “The Reset.”

The last thing I'll say is that, even when there is disagreement about these other things, we cannot isolate Russians. I'm not saying Russia [the country]—I'm saying Russians [the people]. To me, that's not good for our interests. I don't think it's good for Russia's interests, and so we have to make sure that we try to keep borders open, keep universities open, and keep exchanges going...

But isn't there a danger that you isolate Russians when you isolate Russia? Technically, our own government is isolating us, but it's in response to Russia's international isolation. 

And we need to make sure that Russians understand that it's their government doing that, not us. I have no problem with you at all criticizing my president. Knock yourself out. I've heard it all. I used to be the ambassador, right? 

But what you can't do is say, “Because your president was such an idiot on Syria, I'm not going to go to Stanford.” That's crazy. It's crazy. Just like for me, I was very critical of lots of policies that the Putin government did, but I love Russia. And I love Russians. And you can't make me out to be anti-Russian just because of what I said about Syria. And that's the thing that I think we have to fight against. 

But do you think the US government should work to isolate Russia from the world? The Russia that's responsible for annexing Crimea?

Not isolate, but there need to be consequences for bad behavior. So, when Russia annexed Crimea, I think it was 100 percent right to do sanctions. If sanctions are isolating Russian government officials, well they should think about that the next time they think about annexing territory. And, by the way, they are! I think sanctions have been incredibly effective. Absolutely. 

Regarding Crimea, the US has stated that annexing part of another country will result in consequences. But Moscow responds that Russia isn't the only state that changes the rules here, and the Kremlin points, of course, to Iraq and America's campaign there. But there were no sanctions against the US or its coalition. How should the United States handle this perception in Russia?

I would say two things. One is that the United States actually paid a terrible price for invading Iraq. Thousands of Americans died, tens of thousands of Iraqis died, we spent a lot of money there, and we achieved very little results. And we alienated lots of our allies during that time. Were formal economic sanctions put in place against us? No. But did we pay a terrible price for that? My answer is yes. 

The second thing I would say is that we have this phrase in English: two wrongs don't make a right. So if you steal my bicycle today, does that give me a right to steal your bicycle tomorrow? That's a strange logic. Right? If you thought Iraq was wrong, then you should think these kinds of unilateral uses of force are also wrong. If you think “Krym nash” [“Crimea is ours”] was right, then you have to say, “Oh, well, the Iraq war—that was fine.” But people don't say that. They say, “Okay, well what about....” It's called whataboutism. “Well what about Iraq? Well what about Syria? What about this and what about that?”

My point is that two wrongs don't make a right. If you were for the war in Iraq, or you're for Syria, or for Kosovo, and—more directly to Russia (because those analogies are a little bit false, in my view)—the [analogy] that's closest to Russia is if you were for Chechen independence. People [there] wanted independence. If you were for Chechen independence, then I can understand your enthusiasm for Crimea joining. But if you were against Chechen independence, even though the majority of the people wanted to leave [the Russian Federation], you can't be for annexation. That's just logically inconsistent. 

I've spent a great deal of time looking at Putin's speeches. I do it for a living, but I mean about Crimea [specifically]. I don't remember a speech before 2014 where Mr. Putin said it's a great injustice that Khrushchev gave away Crimea, and “We need this back.” And I can't recall a speech where he said, “Do you know that the ethnic Russians in Crimea are being discriminated against? They're being killed. It's very unstable and very uncertain there, and we have to defend them.” If somebody had said that before 2014, that would be a little more interesting. But the fact that it's all said afterwards suggests to me that this is really about what happened in Maidan, and not about Crimea. 

What about Russia after Putin? It's hard to imagine any future Russian president who would give Crimea back. It would be political suicide. So how does the West and the US deal with the next Russian president, even if he's democratic and “much better”?

I don't know the answer to that question. 

But this is the reality in five or ten years. 

My prediction is that it will be the policy of the United States, whether it's a Democrat or Republican president, for decades to come, to never recognize the annexation of Crimea. To hold on to the false illusion that that [position] might change would be misguided policy. 

At the same time, I can imagine a scenario where progress on other fronts would lead to... if there were a true, democratizing moment in Russia, that that would be embraced. What I worry about is that we won't recognize those moments because there's such little faith in America right now that there can be positive change in Russia at all. I worry about this. I worry about isolationism. 

I worry about people just checking out and just thinking that there's nothing good that can be done there. “Let's just stop thinking about Russia.” That, to me, is the real tendency right now. It's not confrontation. Sometimes, when I speak to Russians, they think that Americans get up every morning and all we do is think about “Chto delat' s Rossiei?” (“What do we do with Russia?”) That we wonder “what should we do to weaken Russia?” That's what I worry about. I worry about indifference. I worry about people not caring, thinking Russia doesn't matter. 

Russia is isolating itself. Look at it today. We just had almost every major leader on the planet in Washington [for the fourth Nuclear Security Summit]. Putin's not there. He decided not to come. I worry that people will begin to think about Russia as not being even important to engage. And that would be a tragedy for Russia and a tragedy for the United States. 

So, on the one hand, we have Russia ignoring important international meetings, and on the other hand we have Syria, where Moscow has made it abundantly clear that this campaign was part of bringing Russia back to global politics. Why the paradox?

I think that's the wrong way to think of Syria. That's what the government sells, right? But I have a different view. I think Putin has been quite successful in his policy in Syria. I think we should acknowledge that—that he achieved his objective. And his objective was to strengthen Assad, and he's done that. His objective was not to defeat ISIS, despite whatever propaganda has been said. It's as clear as day that that was not his objective. Most of the attacks were not against ISIS; they were against other groups there. But we should give him credit that he achieved his objective. 

2016 Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC.
Photo: Sean Kilpatrick / The Canadian Press / PA Images / Scanpix

But isn't Assad fighting ISIS, too? 

In terms of fighting ISIS, the United States and the coalition are fighting ISIS a lot more than Mr. Assad. Now, don't get me wrong: it's very rational. I think it's a smart policy to say now that Assad needs to be part of the negotiations, so we can have a coalition government to deal with ISIS. That's [Russia's] strategy. But nobody (at least among the people I know, who are dealing with the Russians, and I know many people) is thinking, “Oh! Isn't it great that Russia is now a great actor in the war!” It's more like Russia put a gun to our head and they've achieved this result, and we have to deal with them. 

So you're not coming into the international community on Syria as a respected partner; Putin is coming in as a necessary partner. It's a strategy. I get it. You can be a tough guy. Bullies get a lot of attention. Tough guys get a lot of attention, but it doesn't mean reintegration. I don't think anybody has changed their views about Mr. Putin as a result of Syria. 

So the US-led coalition is actually bombing ISIS, but part of this coalition is Turkey, which we know has bombed the Kurds. Erdoğan is a tough guy, too. He's a bully, too. So why is he part of America's coalition?

Erdoğan is very complicated. You're exactly right. On the one hand, we have similar objectives. You know: the enemy of my enemy is my friend. But on some very particular issues, we have radical differences with Mr. Erdoğan. He just said that in his speech yesterday in Washington about how we totally disagree about the role of the Kurds in Syria. 

And Turkey has an open border with ISIS.

But it's an illustration of my point: the bully that is Erdoğan—we have to deal with him because of the nature of the crisis. But nobody is respecting him for what he is doing. He just came to Washington and the president of the United States didn't even meet with him. 

You've pointed out the tension between having common interests but maybe not common values. And that happens a lot in diplomacy. 

Russian soldiers at Palmyra, Syria. April 2016.
Photo: Valery Sharifulin / TASS / Scanpix

So you've laid out a very pragmatic position regarding Turkey. With the US and other countries, it seems there are two general strategies: the “policy of pragmatism,” where you cooperate with nations when it's in your current interests, and the policy of “we're spreading democracy throughout the world.” How do you reconcile these two strategies?

I would say a few things. First of all, it is true that the United States, over our history, from the very beginning, has had allies that are autocratic regimes. Our first—remember, going all the way back to the beginning of the American Republic—our most important ally was France, a monarchy and a dictatorship. They are the reason why we're free. Without the French, we would have lost the war against the British. And, just so you know, if you go back and you look at that history, then there was the French Revolution, and there was a debate in Washington about whether we support our allies and our interests or these people who wanted democracy. So the tension goes all the way back to the beginning. 

The second thing I would say is that our most enduring allies have always been democracies. If you think about America's closest partners in the world, they're democracies. All of the autocracies with which we've had alliance relationships have always been tense. And they only become stable when those countries make transitions. Throughout our history.

And there's something I've written about called “the false promise of autocratic stability,” which is to say that autocracies can be our allies but they're never our long-term allies because autocracies have the problem of remaining in power. So Iran was an incredibly close ally of the United States for decades under the Shah. And then, one year, they became our worst enemy. That only happens in autocracies. It doesn't happen with democratic alliances. 

The fourth thing I would say about this tension you've highlighted is that it's real. There's no solution. Our critics say, “Well you need to be pure, one way or the other.” And I would just say that, [with] all administrations (Obama, Bush, Clinton, and all the way back to the French Revolution), this is a tension between interests and values. The way presidents resolve it is they say we have short-term interests that we have to pursue, and we also need to pursue our long-term values—our long-term interest in supporting values. And I agree with that. I think that's smart. What I think is not smart is the use of military force to promote democracy. It just doesn't work. It never has. And we should get out of that business. 

Ilya Krasilshchik

Palo Alto, California