Obama's Russia expert on the "giant gap" between Trump's policies and his friendship with Putin

Former U.S. ambassador to Russia on Trump, Putin, the Mueller probe and how U.S.-Russia relations got this way

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published June 23, 2018 11:00AM (EDT)

Michael McFaul (Getty/Astrid Riecken)
Michael McFaul (Getty/Astrid Riecken)

Michael McFaul served as Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and before that on the National Security Council as special assistant to the president and senior director of Russian and Eurasian affairs. He is also a distinguished academic, who specializes in Russian affairs and America's bilateral relationship with Russia, and used his years of scholarship to help Obama develop his "Russian reset" policy.

That policy, you may recall, was Obama's much-maligned attempt to put the United States on a better footing in its post-Cold War relationship with Russia. It may be strange to recall that there was a time when Republicans criticized a Democratic president for trying to improve America's relationship with Russia, instead of it being the other way around. One might well wonder what the architect of that policy thinks not only of President Donald Trump's odd relationship with the Russian government, but about the broader sweep of U.S.-Russia relations in the aftermath of the Cold War.

This is the subject of McFaul's new book, "From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia."  and a subject we explored at length in a recent conversation. Unlike pundits on the right who regularly proclaim that "there was no collusion" or, for that matter, those on the left who are just as adamant that there was — McFaul is careful to distinguish between what he knows for sure and what he can only speculate about.

If we had less baseless certainty and more caution in our ongoing conversation about Russia — or, for that matter, in our political discourse in general — our nation would no doubt be much better off for it. My conversation with McFaul has been edited for length and clarity.

Why don't you describe the thesis of your new book?

My book traces the end of the Cold War at a time when we were very optimistic about a closer relationship with Russia -- and even the Soviet Union before that, in the Gorbachev era -- to our current moment of confrontation right now with Russia. I try to explain that and walk through the history, partly as a social scientist and partly as an actor in the story from time to time. In that way, it’s a unique book for me. I’ve never used the word "I" before in anything I’ve written.

I won’t try to go through the entire book right now, but I explore several different kinds of explanations, the first being that this is just a normal balance of power and politics, and now that Russia has become a more powerful country, we should expect this kind of confrontation.

To refute that I say, yes, of course, power matters, but it’s not the complete story. One, we’ve seen other countries around the world rise in power and not be confrontational with the United States and two, it doesn’t explain why this confrontation now. Russia was much more powerful many years earlier. So that first theory I go through and would say, yes, it’s partly true but not sufficient.

I then talk about American mistakes and things that maybe U.S. leaders did to provoke this confrontation. I assess all of them going back to the early '90s and the assistance or insufficient assistance that we gave to Russia at its time of transition.

In fact, I think those early decisions were most consequential in terms of this explanation. But I march through NATO expansion and the Iraq war and the bombing of Serbia, the Color Revolutions [in Eastern Europe]. What I conclude is yes, there was confrontation and tension as a result of those things, but then you have this period, this interregnum of cooperation during the years of the reset between President Obama and President [Dmitry] Medvedev, and that to me is evidence that those earlier periods of tension cannot be cited to explain our current moment of tension.

Do you think it might be fair to compare this to the interregnum between World War I and World War II? There were tensions between Germany and other countries prior to World War II, but we don’t consider those tensions to have marked the start of that new conflict. Is that a sound analogy?

Yeah, that’s interesting. I haven’t thought about that analogy. I want to think about it before I confirm it or disconfirm it, but there’s something to that. The tensions of World War I did not mean that there was inevitably going to be World War II. These earlier tensions in U.S.-Russia relations, in my view, did not mean we were preordained to have the confrontation we do today.

To add to the third and final theory that I talk about -- and by the way I want to be clear, I don’t talk about these things as theoretically as we are talking about them right now. I deliberately try to keep political science jargon out of the narrative to make it accessible.

But the third piece that I dig into is changes in Russian domestic politics as the real driver of our current conflict, and I focus on two in particular. One, the return of Vladimir Putin as president, which was announced in September of 2011, and then he wins election in the spring of 2012. I think the change in leadership there had a profound impact on U.S.-Russia relations because Putin certainly sees the world in zero-sum terms and he sees the United States as a competitor. He’s paranoid about the United States as using our power to overthrow regimes we don’t like.

By the way, there’s some empirical evidence to support that hypothesis over the last 70 years. But that worldview is then coupled with a second factor in Russian domestic politics, which was a mass mobilization, a societal mobilization against the Putin regime starting in December 2011 and lasting for about six months, where in response to a falsified parliamentary election in December 2011, you had the greatest mobilization against the regime since 1991, the year that the Soviet Union collapsed. I think the confluence of those two factors together, Putin’s return and that protest against him, led to renewed tension in U.S.-Russia relations, because Putin blamed us for that mobilization against his regime.

Do you think, and I’m going to be blunt in this question, that Donald Trump has been compromised by the Russian government?

I don’t know. I think it’s an important question. I’ll tell you what I know, and then I’ll tell you what I think we need to learn from Mr. Mueller. What I know is Vladimir Putin and his proxies did various things [referring to stealing data, spreading propaganda on social media and openly siding against Hillary Clinton]. I keep adding "proxies," by the way because I think some people that are not familiar with that system don’t understand that he deliberately developed cutouts and third parties to do these things so that he can deny that he was involved. Nobody should be confused: You do not bring allegedly compromising material on a candidate in the U.S. presidential election unless the Russian government is sanctioning that act. It just doesn’t work any other way in that system.

So he did all those things for sure. The things that I don’t know are two things. One, I don’t know what compromising material the Russian government may have gathered on Trump when he visited in 2013. I can tell you that the Ritz-Carlton [in Moscow], where he stayed -- the Russian government has tremendous capabilities to monitor people that stay there. As I write in my book, when we stayed there with President Obama, we built a submarine-like structure within one of the suites in the Ritz-Carlton to give us the opportunity to have a confidential conversation with President Obama. Those are the lengths to which we went in that facility.

So the capacity, I think, is pretty clear. Everybody understands that, but what happened there [during Trump's visit], I don’t know. And then the second thing, and to me more important or possibly more damning in some ways, is on the financial side. And here's what I know and here’s what I don’t know: I know that President Putin and his proxies use money to create leverage over individuals within Russia and Europe.

They provide lucrative deals and free money and assets, but in return they then have leverage on you when you accept those terms. That’s just a very common instrument of influence that the Kremlin uses today. That I know. But what I don’t know is whether they used that instrument with the Trump campaign, with the Trump family and with Trump's associates. That’s the piece that we need Mr. Mueller to help us understand.

To me, it would seem we know for a fact that Trump has extensive business connections to Russia and Ukraine. That’s beyond dispute. It would seem highly implausible that these connections would exist and that Putin wouldn’t use them, especially on someone who is a presidential candidate. Am I wrong?

I just want to wait for the facts. I think it’s plausible. Yes, absolutely. But to make such a claim, I think, requires really hard evidence, and we have anecdotal evidence, we have circumstantial evidence. We have strange meetings. You know, why is your Jared Kushner meeting with the head of your bank, Mr. Gorkov, a bank that is completely controlled by the Kremlin? That seems very odd to me. Why is he seeking to have a conversation with people in Russia through some confidential channel, and even asking to go to the Russian embassy to have that? That seems very odd to me. But in my mind, there are two explanations: One is that there was some leverage created and two, that Mr. Kushner was just extremely naïve in dealing with the Russians at that time. I think we need to wait for the investigation to complete its work.

I’d like to pivot to Trump’s recent foreign policies. During interview with Fox News, you said that in many ways you’re pleased with his policies toward Russia …

His administration’s policies …

Yes, because the second part of my question was going to note that Trump’s rhetoric seems at odds with his own administration’s policies at times. To what do you ascribe this discrepancy?

Well, first of all, I want to say it is extremely unusual. I can’t think of another case with any president, with any bilateral relationship, where you have just this giant gap between the administration’s policy and the president himself. It’s extraordinary. Time and time again we get new evidence to underscore the fact, right, including just recently when the president suggested that Russia should join the G7. To the best of my knowledge, that was not a policy that was discussed and treated and chewed on in the White House situation room: Does that make a policy recommendation for the president.

As far as I can tell nobody had discussed that issue and then he just said it. And it's the same with Trump's more recent comments about how it's legitimate that Crimea should be part of Russia. To my knowledge, unless there are secret document I haven’t seen, that is not official administration policy. How do we explain it? That’s harder. On tone hand, I think candidate Trump and President Trump just kind of doubled down on this affinity with Putin. He seems to like this alleged strongman.

I personally don’t think Vladimir Putin is a very strong leader. He has to repress people the way he does. That doesn’t, to me, exhibit strength. That exhibits weakness. But Trump talks about these kinds of leaders in a consistent pattern. He admires some of them, so maybe that’s the explanation. The other explanation is about some leverage that they have on him and, again, I just honestly don’t know if that’s true yet.

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By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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