- Show Notes
Michael McFaul served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia during Barack Obama’s second term. He speaks with Preet about what Vladimir Putin is like in real life and how it felt to live under constant surveillance in Moscow. McFaul is the author of the upcoming book “From Cold War to Hot Peace.” Plus, Preet tries to untangle Donald Trump’s attacks on Amazon and Jeff Bezos.
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STAY TUNED: Breakfast with Putin (with Michael McFaul)
PB: Ambassador McFaul, really great to have you on the show. Thanks for joining us.
MM: Yeah, thanks for having me.
PB: So, there’s news about how Russia is expelling scores of American and other western nation’s diplomats following America’s decision to expel scores of Russia diplomats. It’s a never-ending cycle. But if I could just get your top-line reaction to the latest news, what would it be?
MM: Well, I think it’s tragic but expected. Vladimir Putin always responds to any actions that we have taken over the last several years. Sometimes he responds asymmetrically, by the way. At least the good news here is that it is symmetric and they are, as you just said, expelling 60 American diplomats. They’re also closing our consulate in St. Petersburg which I find especially tragic. What I think people should understand is that when we close consulates, we’re not punishing business people or in the case of closing Seattle, Russian oligarchs. We’re making it harder for everyday citizens of the United States and Russia to travel back and forth and I believe that’s not in America’s national interest. So, I would have preferred that we not go after the consulates but this was to be expected.
PB: Was it also tragic that the Americans closed the consulate in Seattle, then?
MM: Tragic, that’s probably too strong a word. To somehow impede Russian intelligence gathering in the United States of America is always a good idea. And there’s no question that that consulate was used for intelligence purposes as well, just like all the other consulates and embass[ies] are used. But I would have preferred that we expelled those who we believed to be Russian intelligence officers based in Seattle and still kept the consulate open so that we could still keep open the channels of communication and interaction between our societies.
PB: You said a minute ago that the Russians always respond, and sometimes asymmetrically, but they didn’t last December when Barack Obama was still the president and took retaliatory action because of the interference in the American election and expelled diplomats. And the Russians did not do anything, correct?
MM: Yes, they were waiting for a better deal. That’s for sure.
PB: What do you think went on there? Someone like Vladimir Putin who has to project strength and power, even if he doesn’t have it, always responds, as you say. So what happened back in December?
MM: Yes. Well, I’m glad you pointed that out because that was extraordinary. Everybody expected that there would be a tit-for-tat response and there wasn’t. And I think it’s pretty clear that the Trump campaign folks and the then-transition folks had communicated to the Kremlin that, “Just wait a minute. Hold on. Don’t respond. Once we get to the White House, we’re going to reverse these things.” We don’t know the full details yet. We need to wait for the investigation to be completed, but I think the evidence that we see so far already, particularly the conversations that happened between then-General Flynn, Michael Flynn, who was a campaign advisor and transition advisor to President-elect Trump at the time, and Ambassador Kislyak. It looks pretty clear that they were signaling, “If you just wait till we get there, we’re going to reverse this negative trend.” Obviously they did not do that. That did not happen, but I think that’s what they were promising Putin at the time.
PB: I want to get back to interactions between Russia and America but let’s take a step back and talk about your career a little bit. So, one of the things you did most recently, as our listeners now know, is you were the ambassador from America to Russia from 2012 to 2014. Give us a sense of, what is that like to be an American in that position in Russia?
MM: Well, let’s back up even further just to give some context and remind your listeners that, for most of my life, I’ve been an academic. I’ve been teaching at Stanford for a long time. I’ve known Russia. I lived in Russia and the Soviet Union many times.
PB: And you speak Russian.
MM: I speak Russian. It’s not as good now as it used to be because I’m on the sanctions list so I can no longer travel to Russia.
PB: As am I. Welcome to the club.
MM: Yes. So, in fact this is the longest period I’ve been out of Russia, I haven’t been there for four years now, going all the way back to 1983 when I took my first trip to Leningrad, then the Soviet Union, to study Russian as a student. I got involved in the government because I joined up with the Obama campaign, one of the first foreign policy advisors. And so when he won, I joined his team at the White House. I served at the National Security Council from 2009 to 2012. And when I started to make noises about coming back to Stanford, the President said I couldn’t leave at that time because, and this may sound shocking today but, at that time we were cooperating with the Russians on a whole host of issues. And his argument to me was, “How can you leave now? We have so much momentum.” But, by the time I got there in January, 2012, that momentum had ended. Vladimir Putin was on his way back as president, replacing a person that was more cooperative with our administration, President Dmitry Medvedev. And by the time I got there in 2012 we were already in a downward spiral. There are lots of causes and noises, but the main contentious issue at the time was that there were demonstrations against Vladimir Putin and his regime at the time. This is back in late 2011, early 2012. And he blamed us for that. He said that we were supporting those demonstrators, that we were fomenting revolution, and by the time I got there in January of 2012 he accused me personally of being sent by Barack Obama to coordinate and support the political opposition to him.
PB: Let me ask you a personal question. It’s a personal and official question. When you were representing the United States in Russia, either as the ambassador or otherwise, do you believe that you were under constant surveillance personally and electronically?
MM: It’s not a belief, it’s a fact. The answer is yes.
PB: And how do you know that’s a fact.
MM: That’s probably things I can’t talk to you about.
PB: But there’s some you can. That’s well understood by everyone.
MM: Well, just to be clear, Russia is one of the countries in the world that has the greatest capability to gather that kind of information about anybody and everybody. I assume that every email I sent on an unclassified system was being read. I assume that every phone call I made on an unclassified phone was being listened to. I assume that every conversation I had in my house, it’s called Spaso House, was being recorded. And there were very few places and interactions that I could have living in that country that I knew were not being recorded.
PB: And you’re trained to understand that, right, as a diplomat? We train our people, and I assume the same is true in China, in maybe every country to different degrees. And you’re trained to be careful in your communications, right?
MM: Correct. That’s exactly right.
PB: But what is that like as a person?
MM: Well there are special rooms at the embassy that we have reserved for classified conversations.
PB: I want to get to those in a second and test whether or not we have great faith in them. When you were living in Russia, for a period of time you had your family there, right?
MM: Correct. Yeah.
PB: What is that like, just as a person who is there in an official capacity, but then you go home, you have dinner with your family, you talk to your kids, to have them understand that everything you’re saying is being listened to? How does that change the conversation at the dinner table?
MM: Well, it’s difficult. I don’t want to dress it up in any other way. Being ambassador was fantastic. Let’s get to that in a minute, the job itself.
PB: You have a nice big house, right?
MM: You have a beautiful house, your job is to represent–
PB: Caviar for breakfast everyday?
MM: We didn’t have any caviar. I’ll get to the surveillance in a minute, but your main job is to represent what I think is the greatest country in the world in Russia, and to drive around with the American flag on your car, to be the president’s representative and the people’s representative of the United States of America. I just love that feeling and I miss that feeling. Secondly, a part that I think a lot of people might not understand about the job, one part of the job is the diplomacy between our governments over very difficult issues. For me, at the time, issues like Syria, Edward Snowden. They closed down the US Agency for International Development, for instance, on my watch. They made illegal the adoption of Russian children by American parents, that was heart wrenching. So that’s my job with the Russian government, and that was hard. But the other part of the job is to enhance and promote connections between our societies. So, I hosted the NBA one day at my house. They haven’t been to my house here in Palo Alto. But, my sons are big basketball fans so we had a dozen NBA players at our house.
PB: Does the ambassador’s residence have a basketball court?
MM: They didn’t before we arrived but they did when we came. We put in a basketball hoop. And we also had a gym at the embassy, so we played basketball there as well. We hosted Herbie Hancock. I got to invite 500 of my closest friends in Russia to come hear one of the greatest jazz musicians. He was an idol of mine when I grew up. If you ever get a chance to be ambassador, take it.
PB: Well, I’d have to get off that list first.
PB: Yeah, there are a few countries.10:24So, back to the conversation at the dinner table. Everyone’s sitting around. You’re asking your basketball-loving kids about their homework or about what they’re doing that evening, but you know people are listing. Do you just have stilted conversation or you just decide, “We’re going to be ourselves and let the chips fall where they may,”?
MM: We were all briefed on it. We’re even briefed that if my wife and I need to have a serious argument, we had a special room for that.
PB: You go to a skiff.
MM: Yeah. That’s exactly right. Thankfully, we did not have to use that facility.
PB: I would imagine that helps to break the cycle of relationship anger. “Here we are in a skiff,” it’s kind of funny.
MM: But back to your earlier point, that is the seriousness with which our government goes to deal in this very hostile environment. And it’s not just me. It’s all of our employees, back then we had 1,500 employees, are dealing with this environment all the time. And it does create psychological trauma for people and it is difficult and sometimes people make mistakes.
PB: Right. It’s hard service. But do you think the surveillance only applies to official representatives of the United States or, you’ll see where I’m going with that, do you believe the Russian government, on a regular basis like other countries, also engages in the similar types of surveillance of significant Americans. Business people, for example, who are not in government?
MM: So, the Russian government has that capability, and I think that’s the hard part for people to think about. They have invested enormous resources in that intelligence gathering capability. How they use it and against whom they use it, that’s a different matter of which I do not have specific information. I know where you’re going, and I don’t have any specific information about that even though Donald Trump did come to Russia when I was the ambassador. But do they have that capability? The answer to that is yes, and therefore anybody traveling to Russia, including private officials, should be briefed about that capability and should come prepared to know that they’re activities could be monitored at all times.
PB: And the same is true with China. There are certain countries we worry about more, like China for example. But what is the point, for people to understand, of a foreign government exercising, if they choose to, the capability to monitor, surveil, make recordings of non-official visits by private citizens from America? Is it to have something in the bank if later it becomes necessary? Is it just to gather intelligence to understand America? I did multiple spy cases, and you know about them, where people were doing, in some cases, not much more than trying to understand American culture and business and academia and politics so they could meddle in the election in an intelligent, non-identifiable way. What’s the reason for keeping an eye on people who come into Russia?
MM: I think all of the above. First and foremost, gathering intelligence. Second, gathering kompromat, a Russian word that we now use. That most certainly is part of the FSB’s toolbox. Third, on occasion, and this happened to me, sometimes they would reveal that ability just to put you on notice. I had, for instance, a conversation recorded. I was at a Marriott Hotel briefing the US Russia Business Council Executive Committee, and they released a piece of that tape and spliced it in a certain way to make it sound sinister and put it out just as a shot against the bow to remind me that they were everywhere. And from time to time, and this was some of the most difficult moments of my time serving as ambassador, they would follow me in a way that we were know we were being followed. The FSB, they’re good at their trade, and they can follow you and monitor you in a way that you would not know. But then they would turn up the heat sometimes. I had a security detail, so I had people trained to identify threats to me, and every now and then they would show up at my son’s soccer game in a way that we would all know that they were there.
PB: It was sort of an intimidation tactic?
MM: Yes. There’s no doubt in my mind. And it almost always involved my children because they knew that that was a way to get under my skin and their psychological assessment of my in that regard was correct.
PB: John Brennan, who is not one known to hyperbole in saying outrageous things, who was director of the CIA and the National Security Advisor under Obama, recently said that he seems to have come to the conclusion that Vladimir Putin and Russia may have something on Donald Trump. Do you have a reaction to that?
MM: Well I also worked with John Brennan. I worked with him for three years at the White House and then when he was at the CIA I was at the embassy. I have a great deal of respect for him. He is not prone to hyperbole, as you just said. That is not his nature. And so those comments really did get my attention. I’m just speculating and I don’t want to get ahead of my skis or Mueller’s skis, but I do know, given the work I used to do, that another dimension of Russian foreign policy is to use economic tools to create leverage. They do that all the time. There’s no such– there is such a thing as a private sector, that’s not right. But there are many instruments of economic activity that are actually instruments of Russian influence, particularly companies that are either owned or controlled by the Kremlin, of which many of their largest companies and banks are. They do that in other countries, that I know for sure, and that’s why we need to know whether or not they were using those instruments of influence with respect to what happened in our country.
PB: Do you think it may be true that Vladimir Putin and Russian officials have something compromising on Donald Trump?
MM: I don’t know.
PB: Do you have other explanations? What explanations do you have, and people speculate about this all the time, for the dynamic of President Trump never saying a negative word about Vladimir Putin?
MM: Well, I don’t know what material they may have on him, but I want to know the truth and that’s why we need the Mueller investigation to finish its work. I think all Americans who care about national security should want to see the conclusion of a thorough investigation.
PB: I agree with that.
MM: With respect to the second question, it’s one I think about and talk about often. There may be these other explanations of some leverage, but I do think there’s a more simple explanation, a hypothesis, and I just want to keep putting this in the realm of hypothesis as an academic, cause we just don’t know the end of this story yet. But, an alternative hypothesis is that he believes in his own power of persuasion and his own ability to engage with leaders like himself, and he believes that if he can just have some face time with Vladimir Putin, he can turn around this bilateral relationship. I think he’s wrong about that. I think he’s naive about that. I think he mixes up ends versus means when it comes to diplomacy and foreign policy. The goal of American foreign policy towards Russia, and frankly any other country, should always be defined as concrete American national interest and the means for achieving them might be diplomacy and happy talk, but it might also be coercion. It might also be sanctions. It might also be isolation. The goal of US foreign policy should never be “a good or better relationship with Putin” because what good does that do? And I think Trump has that mixed up in his head.
PB: What was your take, person to person, on Vladimir Putin? What kind of a person he is as opposed to what kind of a leader is he?
MM: So, I actually first met Vladimir Putin in the spring of 1991, which is a kind of an amazing fact. He, at the time, was the deputy mayor in St. Petersburg to a reformist western-leaning mayor named Anatoly Sobchak. And I was there with a democracy promotion organization called the National Democratic Institute interacting with the newly elected officials at the regional level to talk about how do democracies adopt budgets. So, that was the first time I encountered him. I’ve seen him over the years, but of course I got to see him up close in my years at the White House and as ambassador. I think it’s wrong to talk about Putin as having the same set of views all the way through. I think his views changed and I think they hardened over time, becoming more anti-western and anti-American. Vladimir Putin, by the way, in 2000, for instance, even suggested that Russia should join NATO. This was not a guy in the early years that was hell-bent on restarting the Cold War. But over time a couple of things happened. One is, he’s been in power now for almost two decades. He stopped listening to people around him. And that was most certainly true in our meetings with him. He carried himself as somebody who knew everything, who’d been around the world, who was on the global stage for longer than anybody, and had a kind of arrogance, therefore, in the way that he dealt with President Obama. And by the way, I was in the room not just with Obama but other leaders of our administration who would meet with Putin from time to time.
PB: And he talks down to folks?
MM: He’s just very dismissive. He doesn’t listen very closely.
PB: I’m just curious because we read about these things in the paper and we hear what the readouts are, and they’re very formal. They’re a little less formal sometimes when Trump has meetings with foreign leaders. We hear about them from the foreign leaders, not from our own press or from our own White House. I’m just wondering if you can give a sense to people of what it’s like in the room. Is it tense? Do people try to break the ice? Does Putin make a joke? When someone is being dismissive, do the American folks, Obama included, dress him down? What’s the dynamic personally?
MM: Well, the dynamic between Putin and Obama also changed over the years. The first meeting we had with Putin, he was prime minister. We went to Moscow in the summer of 2009, July. We went out to Putin’s dacha, to his country estate, had breakfast with him. It was a very elaborate breakfast, by the way. And then we moved outside to the patio to continue the conversation.
PB: What was for breakfast?
MM: Various different kinds of eggs. There was some caviar.
PB: Various different kinds of eggs. Were they all chicken eggs?
MM: I don’t remember. But it was very colorful, I do remember that. There’s actually a great photo in Pete Souza’s new book about Obama that captures that breakfast table.
PB: I just bought that book. Yeah.
MM: Well, you can look it up there, and you’ll see me taking notes. It was a quite elaborate production, I do remember that. And we were worried, there were many forms of caviar, not just one, and I remember us joking, “Is this legal for us to be eating this?”
PB: Do you think that question still gets asked by American delegations?
MM: I don’t know. I’m not going to comment on that.
PB: Okay. Fair enough. So you had your gigantic caviar-laden breakfast.
MM: Yes. I barely ate, because I was taking notes furiously. I was the note taker for that event. But here’s how I’d describe that event. The first hour, literally the entire first hour, Vladimir Putin went on and on and on about all the mistakes that the Bush administration had made in US-Russian relations. He had a real chip on his shoulder. By the way, he had a soft spot for President Bush, and he went out of his way to say it was his administration, not President Bush. And that gets to something, his theory of American foreign policy making is that he firmly believes that there is this deep state in America, people like you and at the CIA and at the Pentagon.
PB: I’m a podcast guy.
MM: Yeah, well back in the day. The deep state, the Siloviki, as they call them, the power ministries that they have in their system, he believes that our system is run in the same way and that they really drive policy. And by the way, that is still his theory about what is happening in the Trump era today. That Trump’s trying to do the right thing and it’s this deep state that is blocking him.
PB: But that doesn’t make a lot of sense. If he is willing to admit that different administrations have a different approach, unless he says everything is constant at all times, it has to be driven a little bit by the folks at the top. Did he mean the Bush administration failed Russia because of the deep state alone or because of other people like Dick Cheney and others who are not part of the deep state but are just, in his view, bad advisors to Bush?
MM: So he would not make the distinction you just made. He would say that Cheney is part of the elite that come in and out of government that basically have the same anti-Russian views. And in particular, he’s got this very strong view that we go out and we use overt and covert power to overthrow regimes that we don’t like. And let’s be honest, there’s empirical data to support that hypothesis about American policy over the last 70 years. He laid out that theory of American power to Barack Obama and when they got to Iraq, and he went on and on about how that was a terrible mistake and “you guys don’t understand the Middle East,” and “this was highly destabilizing,” President Obama just very quietly said, at the end of that long soliloquy, “I agree.” He said, “I was against that war long before it was initiated. And that got Putin’s attention, to your point that you just made.
PB: Right, right. That’s disarming.
MM: Because he was like, “Hey, wait a minute. You’re the Americans.” And he’s like, “No, we change. We have different views.” And that was a curious twist in the conversation that we then ended with, as we walk to our cars after about three or four hours of conversation, the feeling I had about Putin was like, “Well, hey, maybe this guy is different. Maybe he will change things.” I’m going to leave an open question there. He also said, “Go deal with Medvedev, because he’s in charge of foreign policy. I’m not in charge of foreign policy. Been there, done that with you guys. I’m not going to go down that road again.” Because remember, after September 11th, he did reach out to President Bush. They did bond over a common struggle to fight global terrorism. And after trying to do that with Bush, he feels that Bush and his administration betrayed him. So his attitude in 2009 was, “Okay, maybe you’re different. Knock yourself out. Go work with the new, young guy who’s in the Kremlin.” And I think that when 2011 happened and when the Arab Spring happened and when the United States intervened militarily again in a foreign country just like we had done back in Iraq in 2003, and in his view, using covert power in Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004, the so-called Color Revolutions, that when Putin said, “Uh-huh. The Americans, they’re just behaving just like they always do and therefore, we have to push back.” And I want to underscore, his theory is flawed. We did not overthrow regimes in Georgia in 2003 and 2004, but if you have a suspicious mind, as Putin does, about us, you connect dots that may not actually exist and that most certainly is his theory about American foreign policy.
PB: Assume Vladimir Putin was out of the picture in this period, 2011 and 2012, either because he didn’t want to come back into the same degree of power or he just was not around anymore. How is the world different today? The other way of asking that is, how important is Vladimir Putin himself as a personality, as a person, as a leader, to the relationship between Russia, the United States, and other countries, and the predicament we find ourselves in today? How much of it is driven by him versus structural, cultural, political, strategic factors?
MM: That’s exactly the theme of the course I’m teaching in the spring. You just articulated what will be the final examination question.
PB: So, why don’t you tell your students what the correct answer is.
MM: So, it’s agents versus structures, right? And in many ways, most of the fundamental questions in social science is about that tension.
PB: People will be asking the same question about Trump and America, in some ways.
MM: Correct. I lean on the agents side and on the regime side. So individuals matter, but it also matters what regime governs inside a country, whether it’s democratic or autocratic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence of American history that all of our enemies have been autocratic countries and some of our closest allies have been democratic countries. But with respect to your specific question, I want to talk about two periods of history, not just one. But let’s take the first one that you mentioned first which is 2011. Had Dmitry Medvedev stayed on as president for whatever reason, I do think the dynamics would’ve been different. I don’t think Dmitry Medvedev, for instance, would have ordered the annexation of Crimea. He valued his relationship with the West. He fundamentally saw Russia’s long-term future as being part of the West, not being antagonistic to the West. And I can tell you, I sat down, I was in the room with Medvedev in his meetings with Obama and I was in the room with Putin in his meetings with Obama, and there was a difference in the way that those two Russian leaders saw the world. Now, Medvedev’s problem was that he wasn’t strong enough or ambitious enough to really push his agenda of modernization. And, remember, at the end of the day Vladimir Putin was always the central decision maker, even when Medvedev was president. But I do think individuals mattered and had Medvedev been around, the trajectory would’ve been different.
PB: Does Vladimir Putin fear anyone?
MM: [pause] That’s an interesting question. I think he respects President Xi, and probably fears China. He would never say that publicly, but in the long run that is a country that I think is going to have increasingly conflictual relationships with Russia. I think he fears, respects the CIA. I think he sometimes overestimates their capabilities, but he also understands their formidable capabilities. And I think he also more generally thinks about America’s tremendous powers in ways that makes him uneasy.
PB: What about internally, within Russia? Does he fear any political foes?
MM: Well, internally, I think he’s got a very complicated balancing act he has between the power ministries on the one hand, so the Russia Intelligence Services, the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Defense, who he needs on his side on the one hand. And on the other hand, the market reformers, there are pro-market people, market reformers is too strong a word, but the people that basically manage the Russian economy, those are all people that are more pro-western than the intelligence services and that is a difficult balancing act. And it’s not always clear to me that the Silivoki, those power ministries, are always acting directly in accordance with what Putin wants. So whether he controls them, the power dynamics I do not think are stable. And I think he has to worry about those power ministries in particular.
PB: Ambassador, we have so much to talk about. We could have gone hours more. In closing, would you like to say something to the listeners in Russian?
MM: [speaks Russian] So the quick and dirty translation is “Thank you very much. Sorry for my accent. I hope one day to be able to return to Russia and speak in Russian with Russians there.”
PB: Ambassador McFaul, thank you so much for your time.
MM: Thanks for having me.