Michael McFaul Talks Putin, Russia, and the Alt-Right

Michael McFaul, Barack Obama
Michael McFaul briefs President Barack Obama in the Oval Office Feb. 24, 2010. Photo credit: US Air Force

Russia, Russia, Russia. Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has our gaze been so resolutely focused on the land of the Czars. And yet with all of that focus, it’s amazing how much we don’t understand about the country and its people.

Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, is suddenly front and center in the latest Trump/Putin controversy. At their recent summit, Putin is said to have made Trump an offer: The US could pose questions to Russian military intelligence figures named in Mueller indictments as alleged participants in email hacking — if Putin’s people can do the same with McFaul and Bill Browder, two well-known critics of the Russian president.

We may never know precisely what Trump and Putin discussed on the issue. On July 19, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.” But this may change.

What we do know is that McFaul understands a great deal about Putin and Russia — and he shares these insights with Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.

In this interview, recorded just before he became the latest mini-star in the ongoing Russiagate saga, McFaul reminds us that, though hard to imagine these days, Russia is more than just Putin. There is a far greater diversity of thought than US media give the Russians credit for: While many may be forced to go along to get along, there are many who don’t support Putin or his approach to the world.

McFaul emphasizes the fragility of Russian society today. He explains how Putin consolidated his power while the economy was working well. But with its recent slippage, he has come to rely more on jingoistic Russian nationalism, as exemplified by his military forays into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. According to McFaul, even that’s now wearing thin with the Russian people.

McFaul talks to Schechtman about Putin’s ideology what he really believes. About his conservative approach to governing, his genuine dislike for what he sees as the decadent liberal ideas of the West, and how he has given money to political organizations and NGOs around the world that support and embrace his ideology.  

McFaul says that Putin expects his struggle against the West to go on for years. At the same time, the former ambassador believes we can still engage the Russian leader on topics like arms control and even trade, as long as we always understand his motives and develop specific strategies to push back.

Finally, McFaul reminds us how much Putin’s personal philosophy has in common with the nationalist, nativist, anti-globalist desire for ethnic purity that has driven the American alt-right.

At a time when it seems that all our news about Russia is accompanied by noise and confusion, this is a calmer, more nuanced look at Putin and Russia today.

Michael McFaul is the author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 8, 2018).


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman. Not since the apogee of the Cold War has Russia been so paramount in our national discourse. The Trump administration, the events in Helsinki, and the events of the past few days have only brought this into bold relief. But Churchill’s riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma, is a very different Russia than the former Soviet Union. Although as Churchill pointed out, Russian national interest still seems to be the key.
Vladimir Putin, while rushing to the core, is somehow different from Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev, or even the czars that came before. And our conflicts and tension with Russia today are also different. We always risk making the big mistake if we don’t understand modern context, if we don’t understand that this is not Cold War 2.0 but rather a global conflict whose antecedence may be the cold war but whose reality is sui generis to the world of the 21st century.
Joining me to try and put all of this in context, particularly in light of recent events, is a man who truly understands Russia today. He is Michael McFaul. He’s a professor of political science, director and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served for five years in the Obama administration, first as a White House special assistant to the president, as senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, and as US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. He is a longtime Russian scholar, the author of numerous books, and his latest is From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.
Michael McFaul, thanks so much for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Michael McFaul: Sure, thanks for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: As we look at Russia today, what’s the biggest mistake we make in trying to view it through the lens of what we all experienced in the Cold War?
Michael McFaul: That’s a good question to start, I think the biggest mistake is to assume a monolithic regime and a uniform society that believes the same. I think there’s much more diversity within that society than most people believe or read about. There are people that support Putin with lots of passion, but there are people that don’t support Putin. There are business people that acquiesce to the rules of the Kremlin but don’t really wish it were otherwise. Then there’s just pockets of different kinds of innovative people in the tech sector and business and the arts. It’s not just everybody thinks the same and supports Putin.
Jeff Schechtman: There is the sense, and you’re right about this in From Cold War to Hot Peace, that there really are many different Russias today. That there’s a government, the oligarchs, the Russian people, as you say, the business interests, that it’s really difficult to get a handle on or try and look at it as some kind of monolithic Russian state as we were used to during the Cold War.
Michael McFaul: Yeah, that’s right and probably during the Cold War there was more diversity than we knew. It’s just hard to study that regime and that society, right? But today, just as you would never say in casual conversations, ‘Americans believe X’ or ‘America wants to do Y’ because Americans have lots of different views on things, right? I don’t think it’s quite as extreme in Russian society today, but there is not one view about the future of Russia internally and there is most certainly not one view about its foreign policy. And even within the regime, even within the government that serves Putin, I found, when I was ambassador, lots of diversity and lots of people that didn’t support his confrontational stance toward the West and the United States.
Jeff Schechtman: How does the Russian government today, the Putin government, reflect this difference and reflect the different interests that are in Russia today?
Michael McFaul: The main thing that happens in that society, both within the government and within the business community and kind of civil society more broadly, is to get ahead or to stay out of trouble you have to go along with Putin. That doesn’t mean you want to go along with Putin, that’s the difference I want to make, that you go along, you support the policy because you want to keep your job or you don’t want to go to jail or you want to keep your business, but it doesn’t mean that you think it’s the right strategy. In academia, when we write about this in political science, we call these “hidden preferences”, that people express something formally, like to a pollster about what they think, because it’s in their interest to do so. But if given the opportunity to express their true preferences, it might be something different. And you’ve got to remember there’s a lot of coercion in that system right now, where you do things not because you want to but because you don’t want to get into trouble.
Jeff Schechtman: Doesn’t that create a society with an awful lot of fragility that really seems built on, or propped up on economic success and that if for any reason that economic success breaks down, that it’s really easy to see it all crumbling?
Michael McFaul: I think that’s right, and I think we even saw signs of that back in December 2011 and spring of 2012 when there was a falsified election in Russia, part of a pre-election. Kind of normal standard rates, by the way, for Russia, 5% or so. But that time, because of smartphones and Twitter and Facebook, it was captured, it was documented, spun around the internet, and you went from 50 people protesting on day one to, within weeks, hundreds of thousands of people protesting and that really came out of the blue for Putin and his government. They thought everyone was happy but if you look at the opinion polls and to your point about economic performance, Russia was not doing as well in 2011 as they had been doing in the early years of Putin as president.
By the way, they did well in the early years because of oil and gas prices more than anything he did personally, but if it happens on your watch, you get credit for it. And as a result, people protested and I think he then cracked down and he arrested people and made it more difficult to organize protest. But that’s an illustration of maybe things under the surface are not as supportive of him as they might appear.
The other factor we have to add to it, however, is one other one that gave him a bump in the polls and support which was his intervention into Ukraine, so the annexation of Crimea and the supporting of the separatists in Eastern Ukraine. That event is portrayed as a war that Russia is waging on behalf of ethnic Russia inside Ukraine against us. I think a lot of Americans might be surprised to hear that but if you look at the news, that’s the way it was portrayed. And in all countries, Russia is no exception, when you go to war there is a rallying around the flag effect, but that’s beginning to wear off. People are beginning to wonder, okay that was a long time ago, economic performance is really sagging. The new numbers just came out yesterday for one of the major western banks that analyzes it and Russia is falling behind. So I think over time that’s going to create a problem for Putin.
Jeff Schechtman: How is this war different, how is the actions that Russia has taken in Crimea and the Ukraine, how does it differ for the proxy wars that Russia engaged in, that the Soviets engaged in during the Cold War?
Michael McFaul: That’s a good question. On the one hand, they look somewhat alike in that we’re doing battle, if you will, between the West and Russia and a third country. What’s different here is annexation. So I use the phrase “hot peace” to, like you said in the beginning, that was a great introduction by the way, to echo that there are some things that are similar to the Cold War but to also suggest that some things are different. And here there is one really big difference in that there was annexation of territory. One of the achievements of the Cold War era, and the Helsinki accords in particular in the 1970s, was that we thought we had gotten rid of annexation in Europe. That happened after World War II but then when we signed up to the Helsinki Accords in 1975, the idea was no more border changes. We’re going to keep these borders as they are. This is something new, annexation is something we thought we had outlawed after World War II and now it’s back.
Jeff Schechtman: Very different from spheres of influence, which is the way we looked at it during the Cold War, I suppose.
Michael McFaul: Yeah well, there’s an echo of it where again Putin is saying, what happened in Ukraine, just to be clear to your listeners, President Yanukovych was there, who was very close to Putin. He declined to sign an association agreement with the European Union, and people went out to protest against him and that led to violence and eventually led to the fall of President Yanukovych’s presidency. and he fled and went to Russia. We, in the West, the United States, we were watching these events and trying to diffuse them. I was still in the government at the time. But when Yanukovych fell, Putin blamed us for that, he thought that that was us fomenting  democratic regime change against one of his allies, and he did think of this as being in his sphere of influence because Ukraine is on the border with Russia and this felt like we were encroaching on Russia.
I want to say, underscore, that is not my view, that most certainly not President Obama’s view or other European leaders, but that’s the way Putin perceived it, and that’s why he struck back, that’s why he went into Crimea to take that land there and when it was easy to do then he doubled down with his actions in eastern Ukraine.
Jeff Schechtman: We talk so much domestically about the impact of globalization here in the US, the impact of modern, 24/7 communications here, how have these things impacted Russia today?
Michael McFaul: That’s a good question, there are some things very similar and some that are different. So on the similarity side, you do have Russia entering into the world economy over the last 20 years, punctuated by joining the World Trade Organization back in 2012, that was an accomplishment of US-Russian cooperation, by the way. There was this period from 2009 to 2012 where we actually were doing a lot of business with the Kremlin. That ended when Putin came back, but that has had the same pressures that you see around the world, including in our country where some of their manufacturing can’t compete, so you have a loss of industrial jobs, and as a result under Putin, a push for protection for some of those jobs, particularly in the manufacturing industries, car industry, so that’s happening there. You also have immigration pressures, largely from central Asia where lots of workers coming in, of a different ethnicity, of a different religion, and that is fueling nationalistic tendencies inside Russia as you see in other countries in Europe.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the other dangers that you talk about is really the danger of cyberwarfare today, talk a little about that, Michael.
Michael McFaul: Yah, I think… cyber is the great unknown to most people if you don’t have it, seen it up close and personal. I remember my first briefing at the White House about cyber threats and Russia is the country that has more of the capability than any other country, although China is catching up. It kind of reminds me in a strange way of the history with nuclear weapons back in the fifties, where we acquired this new technology and this new capability, but we hadn’t really figured out the policy and norms of how to regulate it and so people back then talked about using nuclear weapons in war, which of course today would be crazy, right? Well, cyber has that same capability.
And by the way, we have a lot of cyber capability too, the United States, where you can attack your adversary, and do great damage to their economy and not only to their infrastructure and the most dire scenarios where people would be killed. And yet there’s no norms, there’s no treaties to guide what you should be able to do with it, so that’s on the kind of security front. Then there’s the other front which we experienced directly in 2016, the disinformation front, where because it’s so easy to move information around today, and it’s not regulated, right? There’s no stopping of information from Russia at American borders, at least not yet. There is in China by the way but there isn’t in the United States, that means that they can easily participate in American politics, including presidential politics, and they can lobby on behalf of a candidate as they did in 2016. And when the Kremlin is tweeting “#CrookedHillary”, that’s pretty clear that they have a preference, right?
And then it’s going to get scarier, it’s going to get a lot scarier because the technology is evolving in such a way that it’s going to be difficult for us to determine what is real and what is fake. I’ve seen the future with some of our companies where I’m going to be giving a speech and it’s going to look like me and sound like me but some computer programmer is going to be providing the words. How do you deal with that and how are we going to be able to determine in the future what is real and what is fake? And the Russians have invested intensely in that kind of technology.
Jeff Schechtman: And the overlay to this is a point that you repeatedly make in From Cold War to Hot Peace, which is that Putin is no friend to the US.
Michael McFaul: Yeah, he’s not, and I do try to write about it in the book, the evolution of his thinking, because I do think there was an evolution, but today he thinks of himself back into an ideological struggle with the West. He thinks of himself as a conservative, orthodox thinker, like the last thinker in the world who supports those values, battling against the decadent liberal ideas in the West. He’s invested a lot of money to propagate those ideas with Russia Today and Sputnik, and the bots and trolls that they hire. They give money to like-minded political organizations around the world, especially in Europe. They support non-governmental organizations that embrace their ideology.
So he fundamentally wants to weaken the United States and weaken our allies, that’s his objective. It’s a long term fight that I think he’ll be waging for years to come. Like the Cold War, it doesn’t mean that it’s all confrontation. And in certain areas, I think he will be willing to cooperate with the United States. And on arms control for instance, just as we did during the Cold War, I think we would be well served to return to negotiating controls on nuclear weapons. The last treaty we did, I was part of the government that did it, it’s called the New START Treaty, it was signed in 2010, it expires in 2021. We need to replace that and we should engage with Putin on that particular issue. But I think, generally speaking, we need to understand what his motives are and then develop a strategy to push back.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about the way in which Putin’s ideology, very different than the struggle between communism and capitalism that shaped the Cold War, that the ideology you talk about with respect to Putin in some ways meshes with some of the internal political struggles in America today.
Michael McFaul: Well it overlaps and they see ideological allies here, that kind of nationalist, conservative, and I use the word conservative advisedly because there are lots of conservatives that would disagree with some of the things that he says but this more nativist, nationalist, ethnically based nationalism, anti-globalism, anti-international institutions, that’s his set of ideas and there are thinkers, and political activists in the alt-right movement in America that have… really admire Putin and believe that these ideas is a shared ideological struggle that they have in the world. I call it the “illiberal international”. You’ve seen this for years by the way, not just in this recent election where people of that persuasion here are often times quoting some of the big ideologues that are close to Putin so that is happening in Europe as well but you see strands of it in the United States. Guys like Steve Bannon, for instance, speaks admirably about this movement and they see Putin as a kindred spirit in the way that they look at global issues and the way they look at the way they define nationalism within the United States.
Jeff Schechtman: Michael McFaul, his book is From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.
Michael, I thank you so much for spending some time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Michael McFaul: Yeah, thank you, that was terrific, we covered a lot of stuff, I appreciate that.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.
And thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Michael McFaul (U.S. Department of State / Flickr).

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