Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama from 2012 to 2014, remains a busy man after leaving the circus of professional political life.
I had been chasing him for an interview for several weeks before he finally had enough time to devote to talking. He was able to fit me in for a phone call during a car ride to the airport in mid-May. McFaul is on tour, heavily promoting his new book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.” I spoke quickly, feeling the pressure of time, but I was struck by McFaul’s relaxed tone as we were talking.
His cool, open demeanor belies the stresses he experienced while working in Moscow as ambassador. Having built an academic career as a Russia expert, as well as personal ties to Russia from having lived there, McFaul was well prepared to advise Obama when he was tapped to leave his perch at Stanford University and join Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.
McFaul eagerly moved into the world of high-level government during the Obama administration, orchestrating a new template for U.S.-Russia relations while at the National Security Council (NSC). The gist of the new strategy, famously called the “reset,” was to pull Russia closer to the U.S. orbit through greater cooperation on issues such as arms control, Afghanistan and Iran, while increasing Russia’s integration into the international community — for instance, by bringing it into the World Trade Organization (WTO).
When Obama named him U.S. ambassador to Russia, McFaul thought he would continue the progressive work he had been doing inside the White House, but his efforts were thwarted from the start. The Kremlin began a smear campaign against the new ambassador as Vladimir Putin — having been in power since 1999 — was running for president again and dealing with a wave of pro-democracy protests.
McFaul’s career-long focus on democracy promotion made him the poster child for accusations of foreign interference. A fluent Russian speaker who spent time as an undergraduate student in the Soviet Union, McFaul is a prominent scholar of Russian politics and democracy movements in the region, authoring books such as “Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should, How We Can” and “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin.”
Under Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, McFaul was able to move forward with the new reset policy from inside the White House. When Medvedev, Putin’s protégé and effective stand-in, gave way for Putin’s return to power in 2012, McFaul came under attack as Putin antagonized him to win political points and maintain his iron grip on the Kremlin. The disinformation campaign against McFaul included accusations that he was a pedophile and a CIA agent working to overthrow the regime. The ambassador, who met with high-profile Putin critics shortly after his arrival, was harassed and vilified by pro-Kremlin press.
It all became too much for McFaul, a self-described lover of Russia who found himself hated by the powers that be. He resigned as ambassador and segued back into academia, to his family’s relief. Happily ensconced in California, he is currently the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a political science professor at Stanford University, his alma mater.
Even now, he still gets no love from the Kremlin. In 2016, post-ambassadorship, he was officially banned from entering Russia. That doesn’t stop him from speaking out about Putin and U.S.-Russia relations in media appearances and commentaries for The New York Times, Politico and other news outlets, as well as in his new book.
President Trump in a sense tried his own reset with Russia, repeatedly praising Putin on the campaign trail and pledging to work with him. But Trump’s own détente was quickly derailed when evidence surfaced that Russia meddled in the 2016 election to tilt the vote in favor of Trump over Hillary Clinton, who took a much harder line on Russia.
Meanwhile, Trump’s “America First” platform has ushered in a period of U.S. retrenchment, leaving a void that other global players such as Russia and China are eager to fill. As the administration tries to avoid messy entanglements overseas and cracks down on trade and immigration, aggravating many of America’s traditional allies, Putin has seen his stature grow, both at home and abroad.
Despite a climate of political suppression, Putin still enjoys high approval ratings and handily won presidential elections in March, leaving him in power for at least another six years. Although the U.S. under Trump has maintained sanctions against Moscow for annexing Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine remains at a standstill, with pro-Russian separatists controlling the southeast of the country. Meanwhile, Russia’s other provocations in the region — and Trump’s denunciations of NATO — have put Eastern Europe on high alert. And Putin’s intervention in Syria has left him the kingmaker in any resolution of that seven-year war, with ramifications for the Middle East and beyond.
In this new era of great power competition with echoes of the Cold War, McFaul’s insights, gleaned over decades, remain as relevant as ever.
The Washington Diplomat: You were an academic before joining up with Obama. What made you decide to take that leap?
Michael McFaul: I’d always been interested in policy issues as well as theoretical issues for many years. I worked in a think tank in Washington for a while. But to be honest, it was a phone call early in the campaign from Susan Rice. She was putting together an advisory team for his run for the presidency. She asked me if I wanted to join, and I said yes. She’s an old friend of mine from Stanford and Oxford.
When we won, there was a bit of musical chairs and dancing around, and it wasn’t clear what job I would be offered. When I was offered Russia policy at the NSC, I thought it was an opportunity of a lifetime to work for a guy I had grown to deeply admire, so I dragged my family from paradise.
The Diplomat: What was your perspective on Russia while you worked for Obama? How did that compare with Obama’s perspective? And how did the interplay of your two views manifest itself in U.S.-Russia relations during your White House tenure?
McFaul: I just spoke to the president last week. But let me go back to 2009.
Because I wasn’t in Washington or Chicago, I did not know him well. I did travel with him once in August 2008 on the campaign trail after Russia intervened in Georgia. That first impression made a big impression on me. I got to learn that he’s a very intellectual guy. He wanted to talk about big ideas. He didn’t want someone telling him what to do. He wanted to understand the conflict. We talked, just the two of us and [campaign strategist] David Axelrod on his plane, about the nature of international relations, not just Russia. He engaged in that in a very intellectual, sincere way.
When I got to the White House, we ran a very formal process, the interagency process. I chaired the interagency policy committee on Russia at the assistant secretary level. That was where we formulated the ideas of the reset. Then we got the president to endorse the policy.
Obama thought very similar to the way I did. There was hardly any daylight, both on substantive issues and analytic framework. I think that’s why it was so easy to work with him.
The Diplomat: Under Putin, Russia is an autocracy disguised as a democracy. Yet many Russians, including young people, approve of Putin. Why do you think that is?
McFaul: It’s good to start with the beginning of his time. He was chosen by [former Russian President Boris] Yeltsin. He was barely known to anybody in 1999 when he became prime minister.
People will say there was a demand for a strong leader, [but] that was not the way he started his career. Over time, he developed some ideas, but he rolled back checks and balances on presidential power. It’s easy to be popular when you control all television, the parliament and limit what civil society can do to you.
Over 18 years, it becomes hard for anyone to imagine another leader. There’s no one else on the campaign trail. There is no young, charismatic leader.
It’s important to remember that he doesn’t run against major competition. I think about my son’s basketball team playing against the Golden State Warriors — it’s obvious who’s going to win.
He has rallied support around the flag, like all leaders do when they go to war. If you watch Russian TV, Russia went to war not against Ukraine but against us. That was the messaging. There is a rallying around the flag.
The Diplomat: What do you see as your greatest achievement as U.S. ambassador to Russia?
McFaul: I was mostly playing defense as ambassador.
When I was at the White House, there was the New START [Strategic Arms Reduction] Treaty [and] Russians in the WTO. We really got a lot accomplished.
When I became ambassador, we were playing defense on those issues. Putin didn’t want to engage with us. Putin didn’t want New START, missile defense had fallen through, there were conflicts over [National Security Agency leaker Edward] Snowden, USAID, etc. I helped take the edges off those things.
Greatest achievement: demonstrating openness and the ability to engage directly with Russian society. I don’t think many other ambassadors did as much in that domain as I did. I had the advantage of a Twitter account. That was brand new. I also spoke Russian. I didn’t need a translator. I had already lived in Russia for several years over my time as an academic. I knew thousands of Russians already. I wasn’t brand new to Russia. This was an important part of public diplomacy.
There were little things. We reduced down to 30 the number of days it took to get a visa. I believed the more Russians travel to the U.S., the better. It’s crept up to 250, and I heard even 300, days to get a visa.
The Diplomat: What was your greatest disappointment as ambassador?
McFaul: I guess the greatest disappointment was how the Kremlin and their media sources treated me, as if I was some usurper of the regime, that I was sent by Obama to overthrow him [Putin]. That was a propaganda effort that started even before my first day at the embassy. Channel One did a big hit piece on me. I didn’t expect that because I was Mr. Reset. I was about changing relations. I arrived at a time when Putin was insecure about his power. He came after me that way. It was personal. I regret that was an image of me that so many Russians still have. It’s false. It’s disinformation, but it stuck because Putin controls the media. It’s hard to counter that effort.
The Diplomat: The Cold War seems more pertinent than ever with evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. What does this say about the new world order?
McFaul: My book is called very deliberately ‘From Cold War to Hot Peace.’ I use the phrase ‘hot peace’ to echo the Cold War. It’s not a return to the Cold War. Some of the problems we face today are even harder than in the Cold War. Russians — it’s brand new they meddled in our elections. That did not happen in the Cold War. Same with annexation. We thought annexation was returned to the dustbin of history in World War II. Other elements are similar but different. We have reduced the number of nuclear weapons in the world during the Cold War, but we are in a qualitative arms race with Russia.
The ideological dimensions [of the Cold War] may appear over — the battle between communism and capitalism, freedom, however you phrase it — but from Putin’s perspective, there is a new ideological fight, and he considers himself to be leader of a world conservative family values movement as defined by him against the liberal, decadent West. So, it’s not the same dimensions of ideological struggle, but it is an ideological fight. He’s invested hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars in this fight through thought control — TV, etc. Today’s hot peace is worse than the latter decades of the Cold War.
The Diplomat: What advice would you give the current U.S. ambassador to Russia?
McFaul: I did get a chance to speak to Ambassador [Jon] Huntsman. He called me graciously to seek my advice. I advised dual-track diplomacy. Engage with the government if you can. Continue to seek avenues to cooperation. Remember you’re there to serve the U.S.’s interests, not to have a good relationship with Russia. That’s diplomacy. [The point of diplomacy] is not to improve relations. It’s to advance U.S. interests. People mistake it for having dinner parties.
I already see him [Huntsman] doing engagement directly with the Russians, not just government. That’s a very important part of diplomacy today. In an age of instant communications, the job of an ambassador is to do direct diplomacy. [The practice of acting] after receiving a cable from D.C. is diminishing. Public diplomacy must be a bigger part of the portfolio.
The Diplomat: Now for the lighter stuff. What was it like living in Spaso House, the U.S. residence in Moscow? Any memories you’d like to share?
McFaul: Spaso House was fantastic. I urge anyone to look up the virtual tour. It’s an early 20th-century mansion. Our entire house in Stanford could fit in the chandelier room. Incredible staff. We were treated like royalty. Part of the job of ambassador is to host fabulous parties — having [American jazz pianist] Herbie Hancock performing in your house, having the NBA over. We had 22,000 guests in our two years at Spaso House. We were told by the staff that we set a world record. It was a terrific thrill to live there, especially on July 4. It was a highlight to celebrate our culture, history and heritage. Those were great days.
The Diplomat: What’s life like after the ambassadorship?
McFaul: I have a fabulous life. I’m a tenured professor at Stanford. I live in California, where I love [the place I live]. I have a very diversified portfolio. It would be shameful to complain about my job.
I gotta say, I do miss being ambassador. I enjoyed every minute — there were a few I didn’t enjoy — but for the most part, it was a fantastic job. The honor to represent the country I love in another country I love was an experience of a lifetime. I would be deceiving you if I pretend I didn’t miss it from time to time.
About the Author
Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.