“I’m Scared of That World”

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia on the disinformation campaign against him—and Russia’s increasingly sophisticated attacks on reality.

Michael McFaul.
Michael McFaul in Moscow’s Kremlin on Feb. 22, 2012. Denis Sinyakov/Reuters

From 2012 to 2014, Michael McFaul served as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia. This was a time of tension in the ever-worsening relationship, but one that almost seems quaint in hindsight. Russia had not annexed Crimea, the ensuing American sanctions had not enraged Vladimir Putin and his inner circle, and the idea of Russian meddling in a presidential election eventually won by their preferred candidate, Donald Trump, would have seemed deranged. And yet, here we are.

In his new book From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, McFaul looks back at his time in Moscow, explains why it came to an abrupt end, and examines how U.S.-Russian relations went even further off the rails after he left. His book is both a history of the post–Cold War period and an account of trying to conduct diplomacy with Putin and his inner circle.

I spoke by phone with McFaul recently. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how people still misunderstand Putin’s power, whether the Obama team did enough to combat Russian interference, and what has and hasn’t surprised him about the still mysterious Russia scandal.

Isaac Chotiner: When you look back on the U.S.-Russia relationship over the past decade, do you see the fundamental realities of the relationship as being inevitable based on the different interests of the countries? Or do you think there was a different path out there, and because of policy mistakes on one or both sides, we didn’t end up in a better place?

Michael McFaul: I think that’s the fundamental question. I do not think we were destined to be in this conflictual relationship based on interests, or history, or the balance of power in the international system. I don’t see it that way at all.

I think the real drivers for our current confrontational relationship were two things. One is Putin came back as president. One might have thought that the difference between being prime minister and president wouldn’t have been that much on policy. It turned out to be rather fundamental, because his worldview was very different than President [Dmitry] Medvedev. He saw us as a competitor. He framed issues in zero-sum terms. Medvedev did not. Just that change had an impact. It would have been different had Medvedev in some way become president in 2012.

In combination with that, what I think was fundamental in driving us apart were our different responses to popular movements in the world. First starting in the Arab Spring in 2011, where we reacted to those events just like everybody else. We didn’t promote those events initially, but Putin thought that we were promoting regime change in all of those countries, not just Syria but Egypt, and Libya, and the entire region. That became a real confrontational moment in our relationship. Even more important were popular demonstrations first in Russia that started in 2011 and bled into 2012, and then Ukraine in November 2013, ending with the fall of [Viktor] Yanukovych in 2014. In both of those cases, Putin thought that we were trying to foment revolution.

Wouldn’t the Putin case be that we did overthrow Muammar Qaddafi and were clearly supportive of the revolution in Ukraine? Again, that doesn’t excuse his behavior at all, but it does seem like his worldview is not coming out of a vacuum.

Yes and no. First of all, to run the initial counterfactual, you’ve got to think about two different counterfactuals. One is: What if there was no Arab Spring? It wasn’t inevitable that that would happen the way it did. We most certainly didn’t anticipate it, I can tell you that. What if there weren’t popular demonstrations in Russia against the regime? I think U.S.-Russian relations would have been on a very different trajectory. Same with Ukraine. Those were all shocks to the U.S.-Russia relationship, exogenous shocks is what we could call it in political science, that neither we nor the Russians had any control over. You take those out, you have a different trajectory.

The second one is important, the way you just described Putin, and you’re right. If Putin is the president, and is in charge, and these events happen, given his worldview—his personal worldview, not the Russian worldview—that’s the way he will frame, and understand, and theorize, if you will, about what was happening in those events. By the way, he was very blunt about that in explaining it to Obama when they met.

But imagine two other counterfactuals. One, Medvedev stays as president. In fact, you don’t even need to think about the counterfactual. When Medvedev was president, there was a color revolution, a so-called color revolution in Kyrgyzstan. The regime was overthrown. One hundred people died. Three hundred thousand people left the country. It felt like it was a civil war, and we didn’t get into, “You’re to blame,” “No, you’re to blame,” over that. We actually worked with Medvedev to defuse that crisis. Kyrgyzstan’s not as important as Ukraine, of course, but it’s a part of the Eurasian Economic Union. That’s the dog that didn’t bark. That’s the nonevent that could have been a major event.

Then the second bigger counterfactual: There’s this myth that is locked in after 20 years of his rule that Putin was the natural outcome of the chaos of the ’90s and that there was this massive popular demand for Putin, and Putinism, and the strongman taking over in Russia. That’s myth, because the truth is Putin was chosen by Boris Yeltsin to be the next president of Russia. The people ratified it, but it was Yeltsin anointing him as his successor, back when Putin had an identification of 5 percent. Nobody knew who he was when he was prime minister. If you think about that event, and imagine, had the other heir apparent from 1997 become president. And we know from his memoirs, we know from things that he’s said, that Yeltsin actually had chosen Boris Nemtsov to be his heir apparent. He brought him from Nizhny Novgorod to be the first deputy prime minister. He was grooming him to be his successor. What happened was that August 1998 financial crash, which then compelled Yeltsin to fire that whole government. Had that not happened, August 1998, again another outside variable, it starts in Korea, not Russia, and Boris Nemtsov had become president, I think the trajectory of U.S.-Russian relations would have been very different.

You keep bringing up Medvedev, and I think the common perception in the West was that he was essentially Putin’s puppet of some sort, and was doing Putin’s bidding, and Putin could choose, which he did, to come back, and that he always held power. From what you’re saying, it seems like the Russian system is maybe more complicated than that.

Medvedev strikes me, and I got to know him pretty well when he was president, as a leader with lots of ambition, and I would say instincts towards political modernization, economic modernization. He’s the guy that started their equivalent, what they would like to be their equivalent of the Silicon Valley.

We still have time to warn him.

He had constrained power because of Putin, and when push came to shove, he was ready to play second fiddle and step down. When he did that, by the way, it really disappointed not just Western liberal opposition leaders, but the like-minded thinkers like him in the Russian government.

So why did he do it?

Because he was offered, “Either you step aside, or I’m going to run against you and crush you, and you’ll have no job.” That was what he was offered, to be prime minister or to be on the sidelines.

Why did Putin feel the need to step aside initially in the first place then?

He did not want to violate the constitution. I believe that. I do think he thought that this might work, to have the good cop, bad cop, to have Medvedev as this face to the external Western world while Putin could be doing other things. We tend to grossly oversimplify the way the Russian government works. In that system, Medvedev was in charge of foreign policy.

We even tried to reach out to Putin, for instance in trying to get new sanctions on Iran. When we did, he pushed us back and said, “Go deal with Medvedev.” I actually set up that phone call in the fall of 2009 where we called Putin under the excuse of talking about our Olympic bid, because he’s the expert on the Olympics. Obama called him, and then he tried to segue from that conversation over to Iran. Putin said, “I don’t do foreign policy, because I’m the prime minister, but I just happen to have the president sitting right here. We’re having lunch. Let me hand over the phone to him.” That was a clear sign to us about who was in charge.

Then the biggest moment, if you don’t want to believe my anecdote, the clearest moment where you had a really stark disagreement about foreign policy, was in the spring of 2011, when we were fearful about genocide in Benghazi, Libya. We wanted to stop that, what we thought was going to be just a slaughter of innocent civilians. Medvedev supported us. He went along with U.N. Security Council resolutions. He didn’t vote for them, but he abstained from them, knowing fully well that that was going to lead to military intervention. That had never happened in the history of Russia or the Soviet Union at the U.N. Security Council, where they were acquiescing to military intervention in a sovereign country. Putin didn’t like that decision, and he came out after the resolution passed, two days later, publicly for the first time ever, chastising Medvedev for being naïve about American intentions. In my own view, that was the beginning of the end of Medvedev as president. I think it was also the beginning of the end of the reset.

Some people have speculated that Obama and Putin’s personal chemistry was really bad, and that played a role in worsening relations. From your experience, was that true?

Well, yes and no. Was it true that they had bad chemistry? The answer to that is yes. They are very different people. Medvedev, temperamentally, educationally, normatively was much closer to Obama than Putin. Remember Medvedev was a lawyer, 10 years younger, didn’t go to KGB school, didn’t spend most of his formative years working for the KGB.

But I would also say that we tend to overestimate, including me in my previous writings, the role of chemistry in diplomatic relations. Nobody does anybody any favors because they had a nice piece of chocolate cake or they had a good summit. Everybody’s out there defending what they believe to be the national interests of their country. In that respect, no amount of chemistry was going to overcome Putin’s fundamental distrust of us when it came to what he believed was our role in fomenting these popular uprisings.

From what I’ve read, it sounds like the Obama people and Obama himself, just like everyone else, thought Hillary Clinton was going to win, and that really than rather rock the boat before the election, they decided not to respond maximally to Russian interference. Do you think, in retrospect, that was a mistake?

Yes. That’s a hard call, because they were damned if they did, they were damned if they didn’t. They knew that. I had left the government by then, but these are all people I know well. They tried to square the difference with that Oct. 7 statement that they made. In retrospect—and I’m glad you used that phrase, because it’s easy to say in retrospect—I would have liked them to make more of that timing. I worked at the White House for three years. I know if you want to create news, there are ways to do it. You have the president make the statement. You background it with journalists. It’s called the rollout. They did a rollout of that statement that was very distant from the White House for political reasons. I think they erred too far on the side of caution, but I think it’s a really close call. I don’t want to pretend that it would have been easy to do.

Every time I interview someone who spent a lot of time in Moscow or spent a lot of time around the Russian elite, I like to ask them what they make of the Russia scandal, because I find people often have a different take than people here do. What’s your perspective on it?

When I was the U.S. ambassador, I experienced firsthand this disinformation put out about me. I guess we call it fake news now. They put out nasty things about me that were just untrue. They were untrue. They would Photoshop my image on posters, and made it sound like I was trying to overthrow the regime. The bottom of it, real bottom-feeding, was when they put out a video of me suggesting that I was a pedophile. That level of disinformation and just grotesque stuff, I experienced early on. That part that is all revelatory for people that don’t understand the Russian system as well, I knew back then, because they had been using those tactics not just against me but against opposition leaders as well.

By the way, I think there’s a lot more coming on that front, because the technology is getting better. I’m scared of that world, where you’re going to watch a video of me someday, and it’s going to look like me and sound like me, but the words are not going to be mine. It’s going to be hard to know whether it’s really me or not. The Russians have invested heavily in those kinds of technologies. That’s the one I would say where what I experienced and what we saw in 2016, I see continuity.

Second, and I don’t want to get ahead of my skis here, because I don’t know where the investigation will end and what Mr. Mueller’s going to find, but I do know that Vladimir Putin uses surrogates all the time, business surrogates, to create leverage with people through business arrangements, usually through corrupt business arrangements. That’s how he creates leverage against the oligarchs inside of Russia, and that’s how he operates in parts of the post-Soviet world. That murky world of giving money, paying three times the price for this, that, and the other, those are very common Putin instruments of influence that I have seen up close and personal in Russia. I won’t be surprised by that part.

The part that does surprise me was the audacity of the intervention. Both the stealing of the emails, and publishing them through surrogates, sending Russians into our country acting as Americans. I’ve lived in Russia for six or seven years of my life. I’ve known Putin since 1991. Even I was shocked by the chutzpah and the audacity of those activities. I would not have predicted that in 2016.