Deciphering Russia

Former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul talks in a Tufts podcast about Russian election interference, nuclear arms fears, and Vladimir Putin’s end game

Michael McFaul in front of the U.S. flag

Tell Me More is a Tufts University podcast featuring brief conversations with the thinkers, artists, makers, and shapers of our world. Listen and learn something new every episode. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, Spotify, Stitcher, and SoundCloud.

The United States has evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to destabilize American democracy, as we know from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s twenty-two-month investigation. What does the history—and recent experience—of U.S.-Russian relations tell us about how we got to this point today?

In this episode of Tell Me More, Michael McFaul, who was U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, talks with Daniel Drezner, a Fletcher School professor of international relations, about Russia’s interference in the election, as well as his fears about a new arms race and what it has meant for him to be banned from returning to Russia. McFaul, the author of the memoir From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, served five years in the Obama administration. He’s now a professor at Stanford University, where he directs the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.


Recommended links: Michael McFaul website / Twitter / Facebook


HOST: Welcome to Tell Me More, a podcast series featuring distinguished visitors to Tufts University who share their ideas, discuss their work, and shed light on important topics of the day.

The United States has evidence that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election in an attempt to destabilize American democracy, as we know from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s twenty-two–month investigation. What does the history—and recent experience—of U.S.-Russian relations tell us about how we got to this point today?

Michael McFaul, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 under the Obama administration, shares in a wide-ranging conversation with Professor of International Politics Daniel Drezner from The Fletcher School his view on Russia’s interference in the election as well as his fears about a new arms race, and what it has meant for him to be banned from returning to Russia. McFaul, the author of the memoir From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia, served for five years in the Obama administration. He’s now a professor at Stanford University, where he directs the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. Let’s listen in.

DANIEL DREZNER: We’re here today to welcome Ambassador Michael McFaul and also professor of politics at Stanford University. I’m particularly happy to see Professor McFaul, because my last year in graduate school at Stanford was your first year as a professor.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes, my first year on the job, right.

DREZNER: You gave me lots of good advice actually about the job market, if it makes you feel good. Let’s talk about the book. In 2008, you were invited to put your work at Stanford University on hold and join Barack Obama’s presidential campaign as Obama’s adviser on Russian affairs during the year when Dmitry Medvedev was elected president of Russia and Vladimir Putin was the country’s prime minister, the nominal number two.

You then served as U.S. Ambassador to Russia from 2012, when Vladimir Putin was elected president of Russia, to 2014. You write about your work in the book, which was published in 2018 and is a New York Times bestseller—again, the title From Cold War to Hot Peace. Can you begin by describing the climate in Russia during your years serving the Obama administration as well as the state of the U.S.-Russian relations at the outset?

MCFAUL: Sure, well, first, thanks for having me, Dan. I’m glad I gave you good advice because you’ve done really well, so it must have been something smart. I arrived in Moscow in January 2012 right as U.S.-Russian relations were pivoting in a very negative direction. It was a departure from the previous four years when we had a much more cooperative relationship. The trigger for that is different from earlier triggers in confrontational periods in U.S.-Russian relations. Earlier triggers were oftentimes foreign policy things that were done by one side or the other.

This was a trigger as a result of politics inside Russia. In particular, there were massive demonstrations to protest a falsified election in a parliamentary election in December 2011. Putin—to marginalize those protesters and to mobilize his base because he was running for president at the time—he was in the midst of presidential election [and] turned to this kind of Cold War-era, anti-American propaganda lines, and blamed us for those demonstrations.

That was the moment that I arrived. Now, I want to be clear, as two social scientists, we know that causation and correlation are two different things. It was an accident of history that I think a lot of people forget that I arrived then and not nine months earlier when President Obama first asked me to do this job. He asked me to do the job at the height of cooperation—this was early 2011. By the time I got there, things had changed pretty radically.

DREZNER: During your time with President Obama, you focused a lot on the Reset, the policy that you helped craft. What changes did you see happen because of that policy? What were, do you think, the tangible results from it?

MCFAUL: “Tangible results” is a really good phrase, because I was always against pushing for a “better” relationship with Russia. I only saw better relations as a means to an end, and to make it the objective of diplomacy—I would say this about any bilateral relationship, including our allies—the objective should always be about tangible things in the security realm and the economic realm, even about our values, if you want to do that, but concrete things. That’s the way we frame the Reset, at least from my vantage point. I know that the president endorsed that strategy.

I do think we got a number of things done. We signed a new START Treaty, reducing by 30 percent the number of nuclear weapons allowed by the United States and Russia. We opened up new supply routes through Russia into Central Asia in Afghanistan—it was called the Northern Distribution Network—as a way to reduce our dependencies on Pakistan. We cooperated with Russia very closely vis-à-vis our strategy towards Iran.

The initial phase, it was a pressure track, and so we got them to cooperate and put in place significant sanctions against Iran. And remember, they had a lot more economic activity with Iran than we did, so that was asymmetrically more costly to Russia than it was to us—and yet, they cooperated with us. Then they were a vital partner in getting the Iran nuclear deal. Without them at the table, I don’t think we would have got that done.

We did a number of economic things, too. Most importantly, we brought Russia into the World Trade Organization. After twenty years of negotiations, we finally completed that set of negotiations, and trade between the United States and Russia did increase by 40 percent during that period. And attitudes of Russians became more positive towards America and vice versa. So, across many dimensions, I think, there were concrete achievements and the prospects of even things going in a more cooperative way long-term.

DREZNER: We are both social scientists and while the word “reset” is obviously most closely associated with the Obama administration, you could argue that if you go back to the George W. Bush administration and, frankly, if you talk about the Trump administration, the bilateral relationship seems to follow a very familiar narrative at this point, which is there’s this initial warm outreach by the United States to Russia. There’s some degree of talk of comity and so on and so forth. Then, the relationship curdles. I mean, that certainly happened with Bush years, it obviously happened with the Obama years, and you can make the case that it’s happened during the Trump years as well. Is this a relationship that you think is fated to be an enduring rivalry, or do you think that it’s possible to view a different kind of great power relationship in the future?

MCFAUL: It’s a great observation about those three administrations. I remember very vividly my first conversation with outgoing Assistant Secretary for Europe Dan Fried at the time, who said, “Yeah, you guys are going to go through this.” He was part of it for a while. He was in the government throughout that time and the same way that it ended during the Bush years.

I would say a couple of things, however, there are some caveats. Number one, our reset—as we just went over the list—we actually achieved concrete results. I don’t know what that list would be in the Trump era. I don’t know what tangible achievement they have in US-Russian relations. Bush administration, I would say the same. Remember, initially, the Bush administration was engaging in this reaching-out to President Putin because they were going to do some things unilaterally that they knew were going to displease Putin.

DREZNER: Withdrawal from the ABM Treaty.

MCFAUL: First and foremost. I actually briefed President Bush two weeks before he met with President Putin with a group of three or four others—our former and my current colleague Condoleezza Rice was the national security advisor at the time. It was really clear for me from that conversation that that was their strategy.

DREZNER: Was that the meeting where infamously Bush said he looked into Putin’s. . .


DREZNER: . . . soul? Yeah. Okay.

MCFAUL: He was ready to do that. He was thinking about trying to do that, to try to achieve this objective of taking the edge off of pulling out of the ABM Treaty. Then, of course, September 11th happened and that did create a real bond, I would say, between Bush and Putin. For a while, they did think that they were fighting a global war against terrorism together. I also want to remind—there were some other resets that I think were even more consequential. The Gorbachev era, call it a reset—détente, if you want that word—but that was way more dramatic than what we did.

I would say the early years of the Yeltsin era as well, between President Clinton and President Yeltsin. I bring those up to remind your listeners that I see actually a lot more discontinuity in US-Russian relations over the last thirty years. It’s become very vogue these days to say, “It’s always been this way and always will.” No, I see a lot more variation. I think the variation depends in part on the kind of political system that you have in Russia. I don’t think it’s just a coincidence that the more autocratic Russia’s become, the more tension they’ve had with the democratic West. And not just the United States by way. It’s with other democratic countries in Europe as well.

DREZNER: Is any kind of substantive cooperation with Russia possible if the leader at the top is someone like Vladimir Putin? Is what’s required a two-track strategy of how do we deal with someone like Putin and then what we do with Russia after Putin?

MCFAUL: Yeah. Those are big, tough, interesting questions. With Putin, cooperation is possible as long as you acquiesce to all the things he wants. That’s the way he sees it. He sees the confrontation as all about our mistakes and that’s why he was so excited for candidate Trump because candidate Trump talked that way. It was candidate Trump who said that he’d look into recognizing Crimea as part of Russia, that he would lift sanctions, that he thought that NATO was obsolete, and never said a word about democracy and human rights.

Had President Trump followed through on those things that he just talked about as a candidate, I think U.S.-Russian relations would be a lot friendlier or better. Remember what I said earlier: better is not the objective. The objective is things that are good for the United States. I think Putin still holds out some hope, maybe after re-election, that he’ll be able to pivot back to that personal relationship with Trump that he thinks could be moved in a positive way, cutting against the grain of the deep state that is constraining President Trump. That’s the way he talks about it, even in his last big speech on foreign policy not long ago. He went out of his way to blame—and Dan, I think he’s talking about you and me, by the way—foreign policy elites for troubles in U.S.-Russian relations.

DREZNER: Yeah, that’s definitely, yes. Thank you for including me in that.

MCFAUL: Yes, but he didn’t single out President Trump.

DREZNER: Can you talk a little bit about your opinion about Russian meddling in the U.S. 2016 election? You said in the talk that you thought that while Russia has intervened or attempted to intervene in previous elections—and this is, I think, acknowledged fact—that what they did in 2016 was more, I think the word you used was “impactful.” Care to elaborate on that?

MCFAUL: Yeah, I’d say two things. One is they had multiple instruments that they were deploying to try to shape the election. Two, it’s hard to trace causality here because there are so many other factors at play. I think one intervention in particular—it’s called doxing, where they stole information from the DNC and John Podesta, the chairman of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, and they publish that via WikiLeaks. That had a profound impact on the way that people perceived candidate Clinton.

There’s been some panel data that I read recently about October—polling people three times in October and she fades from strong “qualified to be president” at fifty-six, I think, and then it falls to forty-eight just within that period. There are other things going on and—

DREZNER: I was going to say there were a few other events, yeah.

MCFAUL: There were other events. I’m not an expert on this, but I know a lot of experts on this. The story they tell is that the story was all just this mish-mash of the missing emails and the WikiLeaks emails and the constant repeating of that story by candidate Trump. I think he mentions WikiLeaks 165 times, if I’m remembering, off the top of my head, in October. They very much had a strategy to just tie that all together, whereas all of his various scandals that came up intermittently never tied together in one knot.

Through that period in October, his number stayed the same. He does not fall in October. I jumped ahead of myself. That’s the impact part. Did they try to influence? Did they have a candidate? The answer is yes. Putin said it himself at the Helsinki summit: he wanted Trump to win. Did they try to help? The answer to that is yes. It was multiple means. I mentioned doxing, that’s one. They also used conventional media, Russia Today. There are other platforms, Sputnik. They then used social media and disguised ways as we now know, through the Internet Research Agency.

They’re doing two things to the same end. One, just sometimes it was just overt support for Trump and overt, negative tweeting and information about Clinton. More generally, just polarizing society, playing on polarization that was already there—the theory of that was that that was going to help Trump as the disruptor. So they did that. We also know that they pledged—whether they delivered on it, we still don’t know—they pledged to provide disinformation on Secretary Clinton to the Trump campaign and they had this famous meeting where Natalia Veselnitskaya got a meeting with the three top people in the campaign because of this promise.

One other thing: they cruised around on the electoral infrastructure in twenty-one states, according to the intelligence community. Thankfully, they didn’t use that capacity to disrupt the election.

DREZNER: If memory serves, that was the one direct message that President Obama gave to Vladimir Putin in fall of 2016.

MCFAUL: Yeah. From what I understand, there were multiple messages with multiple actors. Again, I don’t know what Putin’s calculations were, but that, without question, for the Obama administration, that’s what they were most worried about in 2016. Then, there’s one more tool, an instrument of influence that they use within Russian society, most certainly in Europe, but I don’t know if it’s been used here. That’s money and loans, free money, to create leverage. I know that I’ve seen many instances of that. That’s how Putin rules Russia in a way. We still don’t know the full story there with respect to the Kremlin and the Trump organization.

DREZNER: Let’s talk a little bit about presumably one area where we would like to see more bilateral cooperation, and that’s arms control. The United States has now pulled out of the INF Treaty. START II is to set to expire, I want to say—2021. There doesn’t seem to be any indication of momentum in terms of renewing that. What do you think the likelihood is of another arms race, replaying what we saw back during the Cold War? Furthermore, what steps would you recommend to presumably limit that possibility or to at least allow for some cooperation in that area, even if there’s not necessarily cooperation across the board?

MCFAUL: I am worried about a new arms race. It’s one that I fear we’ll lose, for a couple reasons. One, the Russians have invested heavily in modernizing their nuclear arsenal; we have not yet. That’s number one. Number two, they have some new weapons that are not even controlled by the new START treaty. That worries me—particularly, this underwater torpedo—nuclear-armed torpedo. Number three, the INF Treaty limited these intermediate-range missiles. That was a fantastic achievement by the Reagan administration, because there was a huge asymmetry, an advantage to Russia, because they happen to be in Europe. We’re not.

It took considerable amount of political will in Germany and the U.K. to deploy those missiles. People forget there are millions of people demonstrating on the streets against those deployments. Russia doesn’t have to do that. They can deploy in Russia. I fear if Russia, now that they’re no longer bound by the INF Treaty, starts deploying, it will be very difficult for us to respond on land, given the politics of our very difficult—how was that for a diplomatic term?—transatlantic relationship with a lot of those countries. Where are we going to put those missiles? We’re at a real disadvantage on that front.

Finally, just generally, I think, the world is better off with fewer nuclear weapons than more. As I used to always say in the government, a play on Ronald Reagan, “Don’t trust, only verify.” I think a big part of arms control is the sharing of information to reduce uncertainty about what the other side is doing, so that we don’t do things based on bad information.

That’s what the new START treaty helps us do. It has the most comprehensive set of inspections we’ve ever had. We lose that, so it’s not just about keeping a cap on the number of nuclear weapons; it’s becoming where Russia goes dark. If Russia goes dark at a time when it takes less time to launch a nuclear war because that’s what you get with these intermediate rockets. Remember, that was one of the main reasons to get rid of them, is it was too short of a time to when you had to make a decision. ICBMs give you more time. That’s not a good thing. We’ve seen from time to time miscalculations—what happened out in Hawaii not too long ago when they thought they were under attack. Accidents can happen.

DREZNER: Your colleague Scott Sagan has written. He’s written the book on this.

MCFAUL: Exactly. Professor Scott Sagan at Stanford can paint many nightmare scenarios where you stumble into conflict. We really can’t afford to stumble into conflict when nuclear weapons are involved.

DREZNER: You are now on the sanctions list from Russia, which means you’re barred from returning to that country. Do you think you’ll ever go back?

MCFAUL: Yeah, I’m an optimist. Based on no empirical data, just because I was born in Montana. I mean, I don’t want to joke about it….

DREZNER: Yeah, growing up in Bozeman—I understand why you’re optimistic. It’s a gorgeous place.

MCFAUL: Yeah, it’s a nice place. You’ve been there. I’ve been out of Russia for five years now. That’s the longest I’ve been out of that country since 1983. I used to go there a lot. I’ve lived there many times. I have lots of Russian friends, many of whom I haven’t seen. So I don’t want to joke about it. It is, for me, a personal tragedy that I can’t be there. After the Helsinki summit and the day after when the general prosecutor’s office gave a press conference about wanting to interrogate several Americans that allegedly had broken Russian law…

DREZNER: Right, including you by name, yeah.

MCFAUL: And I was on that list. I think it would be dangerous for me to go there right now.

DREZNER: I have to ask, what was your reaction that day? That had to have been a surreal moment.

MCFAUL: It was. It happened over two days, because in Helsinki, just to set the scene again, three days or two days before Helsinki, the big summit between Trump and Putin, Mueller indicted thirteen Russian GRU officials. In a very classic tit-for-tat that Putin likes to play, he came to Helsinki to say, “OK, you want to interrogate these Russian intelligence officers? Here’s our list of Americans that we want to interrogate because we believe they broke Russian law.” I was on live TV for NBC when they started to discuss this at the press conference. President Trump said he thought that was a great idea, a very generous idea.

I actually gave him a pass then, because my explanation is he doesn’t know what he’s talking about—that this is a good reason why you should have staff in there that can help you with these things. He’s got a very competent Russia hand on his NSC staff—Fiona Hill—she could have helped him in that situation. That was the first blush.

It was only on the plane ride home the next day from Helsinki to San Francisco that I started to get bombarded with emails from Russian journalists. They were at this press conference by the prosecutor general—the equivalent of our attorney general—and he gave a press conference going through the names that Putin was referring to. That’s where I was on the list, and just to be clear, the alleged crime that I committed was not when I was ambassador. It was when I was working at the White House, coordinating U.S. policy in response to the death of Sergei Magnitsky. That was my crime. That was surreal. That was weird. I was like, “Oh my god, I thought I’d left my problems with Putin behind. I’m living quietly in Palo Alto and now they’re reaching out to make my life more complicated.”

Then, for two more days, the Trump administration didn’t bat that back. It took a lot of effort before they finally did—a 98-to-zero resolution in the Senate. The good news is that they did. The bad news is that I still have to worry when I travel abroad, because Russia is a notorious abuser of the Interpol system. I think it’s a low probability that they would go after me, but my lawyers assess that it’s not a zero probability.

DREZNER: Right and after the Skripal incident, I talked to a lot of old Russia hands after that who had the opinion of “Wait, that’s a different line that was crossed right there.”

MCFAUL: Right. One has to worry.

DREZNER: Yeah. Just one last question. Can you tell us one thing about your time spent working under President Obama that people don’t know.

MCFAUL: Something people don’t know about Obama. He played a ton of Spades. I bet you that’s something most people don’t know.

DREZNER: Really? That I did not know that. Wow.

MCFAUL: His ritual…

DREZNER: You mean in traveling?

MCFAUL: Yes. His ritual, we would get on the plane, Air Force One, if it was with him. He would do—take off his suits. He’s a very skinny guy, too. A lot of people seeing him up close, he’s a very fit man. I played basketball and football with him a few times. He’s a fit guy. He would do the rounds—with me, it would be something substantive, usually talking about our negotiating strategy for when we land.

Then, he would retire up to the front of the plane, which is where his office was or where the conference room was. It was almost always the same three guys. I could probably name them. Reggie Love, his body guy, his kind of assistant, Pete Souza, his photographer, many of whose photos are in my book. The third was Marvin Nicholson. These are people you wouldn’t know. Marvin was the trip director. He’d been with him through the campaign.

They would play Spades for hours and hours and hours, and they would have running games throughout the entire trips. I remember once we were at the NATO summit in Lisbon. I thought, we’re doing some important negotiations. This was about missile defense stuff with Medvedev and we’re in the hold room for the American delegation. We’re all mulling about and nervous—people are there like Axelrod; he’s a nervous guy. Tom Donelan—trying to get us all on focus. And Reggie pulls out the cards and they just start playing Spades. It’s like, “Come on, now. We got some work to do here.” That’s what he would do when traveling, and then he would golf, of course, was the other way to unwind.

DREZNER: The Spades thing is good. I like that. That’s a good way to close. Thank you, Ambassador McFaul, for being here. I encourage everyone to purchase From Cold War to Hot Peace, which is now in all fine bookstores and online available. This is Daniel Drezner, signing off.

HOST: Thanks for listening to this episode of Tell Me More. Please subscribe and rate and review us wherever you get your podcasts—and to be the first to hear about new episodes, please follow Tufts University on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We’d also welcome your thoughts on the series. You can reach us at That’s T-U-F-T-S dot E-D-U. Tell Me More is produced by Katie McLeod Strollo, Anna Miller, Dave Nuscher, and Steffan Hacker, who also edited this episode. Web production and editing support provided by Taylor McNeil. Special thanks to Lindsay Hammes, Valerie Wencis, and the Russian and Eurasia Program at The Fletcher School. Our theme music is sourced from De Wolfe Music. And my name is Patrick Collins. Until next time—be well.

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