FRED LOGEVALL: Good afternoon. And welcome, sincere welcome to all of you to the 2015 Bartels World Affairs Fellowship Lecture. My name is Fred Logevall, and I'm here today in my capacity as Director of the Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies. I'm also on the history faculty here at Cornell, and also serving as Vice Provost for International Affairs.
Just a thrill to have this opportunity. It's an opportunity I get once a year, which is to introduce our Bartels Lecture. It's a highlight for us on our calendar. In fact, I would call it the single-- with no disrespect to any of the other things we do-- the single biggest event for us at the Einaudi Center on our calendar is this particular lecture. And so to have this opportunity to welcome all of you and also to introduce our speaker is a thrill and an honor for me.
We are having this event this year in the context of some sadness. In January of this year, Cornell lost a wonderful friend, Hank Bartels. He passed away in January. I think his loss is felt all across this university for his constant and steadfast support for the university, his interest in what we're doing.
And with his wife, Nancy, Hank established the Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellowship in 1984. The idea for the fellowship was to bring world leaders in a variety of disciplines and professions to campus, not only to give the lecture that you're about to hear, but also-- and this was key to Hank, and I think it's marvelous-- also to interact with students, not just in the Q&A following a lecture or perhaps a reception of the type that we're going to have after this lecture, but also in a more, shall we say, formal setting, or at least in a classroom setting. And that's what we have done since 1984.
The generosity of the Bartels, the vision that they have shown have, I think, had a profound impact on Cornell's programs, on the student experience. Both of them, Hank and Nancy, in particular in their meetings with me, stressed the connections with the undergraduates at Cornell that they wanted to try to foster, and they have certainly done so.
Their legacy and Hank's legacy will be felt for a very long time to come. He was a remarkable man, Hank Bartels. And his dedication to Cornell, I think, was an inspiration for all of us. And so Nancy and the family are in our thoughts today as we proceed, as we're gathered here for this lecture.
We've welcomed-- and if you have a program, you'll know what I mean. We've welcomed some 30 Bartels World Affairs Fellows over the years. There's a full list on the back of the program. It's a very distinguished list. I think you'll agree. Prominent international leaders who have shared their experiences, their thoughts on pressing issues of the day.
And I'm just delighted to have an opportunity to introduce this year's fellow, Ambassador Michael McFaul, who is with us today. And just delighted that he's here.
Ambassador McFaul served for five years in the White House as part of the Obama administration's team on foreign policy. He was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council. Then was US ambassador to the Russian Federation.
He was an architect-- I would say the architect-- of President Obama's effort to reset-- that was the term used-- to reset American relations with Russia. He is one of a very small number-- in fact two, if I'm not mistaken-- non-career diplomats. If you look at that last, I think, 10 ambassadors to the Soviet Union in Russia, almost all of them have been career diplomats. Ambassador McFaul is the second who is not in that category.
He was, prior to joining the government, on the faculty at Stanford University. Has been there since 1995. He's now back in Palo Alto. He is currently professor of political science, Director and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Affairs at Stanford. He is also the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, where he, for several years from 2003 to 2009, co-directed a rather timely project, the Iran Democracy Project.
Ambassador McFaul earned his bachelor's degree in international relations in Slavic languages, and his master's degree in Russian and East European studies from Stanford in 1986. He spent time in the Soviet Union as a student at Leningrad and Moscow State Universities. Then as a Rhodes scholar, completed his PhD in international relations at Oxford in 1991.
He's one of the leading US experts not just on Russian affairs, but on democracy and democratic transitions. His current interests include American foreign policy, great power relations, and the relationship between democracy and development.
The author of numerous books-- way too many for me to list, but many of them are listed in your program-- he has published very, very widely on a range of subjects. He is also an analyst for NBC News, and we are extremely fortunate to have him with us today. Please join me in welcoming Dr. Michael McFaul.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thank you so much. It's an honor, and actually a humbling experience to be here for this lecture. I have seen the list on the back of your program. I don't think I compare to most of them.
And so what I'm going to do instead is to try to be entertaining, and then you're going to tell me if I was the most entertaining speaker. I don't have the biggest title, but I hope that I will be somewhere-- I'm somewhere between a recovering bureaucrat and an aspiring professor. And that's what I want to do today, is to tell you a little bit about how you recover from being a bureaucrat and aspire to theoretical things again.
And what I want to do today is, depending on how much time we have, is to answer one really big question. If we have time, maybe we'll get to the second question, but I want to answer one big question, because that's what we should do as academics. This is my academic hat.
It comes from an experience I had right after I left government. Came home to Palo Alto. I live on Stanford campus. And one of my neighbors said, Mike, you should come over for lunch. We're interested to hear about your experiences in Moscow.
So I went over to lunch, and we started talking. And my neighbor started telling some stories about his time in government. My neighbor is George Shultz, just so you know.
And George mentored me for three decades. Incredible career, fantastic person in many different ways. Started telling about his last two years in government. 1987, 1988, the end of the Cold War. And George is a fantastic storyteller, by the way. You should invite him sometime.
And he started to talk about this historic moment, the relationships that he had with his counterpart in the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze. Ronald Reagan, of course, was president while Mikhail Gorbachev was the leader in the Soviet Union. And he ended with a smile on his face, saying, man. We did some really good work in my last two years in government.
And as I left, I got on my bicycle, my one-speed Schwinn. And I thought to myself, man, what a disaster happened on my watch my last two years in government, right? Because everything that George had just talked about, which we all thought, by the way, was going to be permanent, right? It's the end of history. It's the new era. It's integration of Russia into the West.
Suddenly-- well, not so suddenly-- but the last two years that I was in government didn't seem so inevitable. On the contrary, I would say it represented the end of George's time, right? I mean, just think about the obvious facts about where we're at right now.
Russia intervening in its neighborhood, annexing territory, the United States portrayed as the enemy. I think we're up to 83%-- by the way, I just checked the polls before coming out here-- in terms of those that have a negative view of the United States. Putin, it's a zero-sum struggle against the West. And it's not just about interest, but I would say it's about ideological things. I'll get to that later.
And then our response also, I think, demonstrates there have been real signs of conflict. I won't go through the list. But I do think you have to go deep into the Cold War, not just the end of the Cold War. Things were better in the Brezhnev era, I would even argue. I think you've got to go deep into the Cold War to remember a time when there was so much confrontation between the United States and Russia. And I would argue as I do with the last bullet point here, Russia and the West.
So what happened, right? Why are we in this mess that we're in? And I really do think it is a mess. A really serious one. A scary one. Really scary. So what happened? That's all I want to do today. If you leave today with an understanding of my answer to that question, that's all I aspire to do. And I'm going to use lots of ways to build the argument, and I'm even going to-- have you ever had cartoons shown in this lecture?
Never any cartoons? All right. So I'm going to make some history tonight. We're going to show some cartoons to try to explain this argument. And I want to tell you where I'm going right now. This is in government. I learned this from General Petraeus, I believe, was the first person that taught me this. My bluff. Any military folks here?
AUDIENCE: Bottom line up front.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: There you go. Correct. The bottom line up front. So my bottom line up front is that I'm going to go-- I'm going to veer to this third argument, just so you know where I'm going. But I want to march you through these others to add force and to add explanation for why I think this ultimately is about domestic politics in Russia.
For the social scientists in the room-- and I'm assuming there's some-- well, I know there's some. They're sitting down here for sure. You'll see that my argument starts with looking at what we call structural theories. Or that's what I used to remember that we called them back when I used to think about these things in that way. And then I move through different levels of analysis until I get to individuals.
And just to be very simple about this, structural arguments basically say that innate forces make history, right? Balance of power, culture, geography, and that individuals just reflect those bigger structural forces. And that's a cartoonization, of course, on purpose.
The other side, the cartoonization, is that people make history. They're shaped by these forces. But that actually, individuals matter, their ideas matter, and that shapes history to a greater extent than these other things.
Now of course, the truth is somewhere in the middle. But I'm going to really hone in by the end of my talk on the role that individuals play, and give you an argument for why I don't think these structural arguments are as compelling as focusing particularly on the Russian story.
And I want to flag that, because we're going to have lots of time for questions, right? So you're going to see that I'm going to really focus on change in Russia, not change in the United States. And I'm not doing that just because I'm an Obama hack, though I am. I worked for him for seven years, actually. I did two years on the campaign with him.
But I really do think this story's mostly driven by what happens inside Russia, not inside our country. But I want to challenge you right now to think about that. Any questions, tell me why I'm wrong about that.
OK. So let's start with the first argument, because they build on each other until I get to the end. First just, I don't know how you teach it here, but IR Theory 101. Or back when I took it, it was called Poli Sci 35. This is an argument about the nature of politics that has to do with the balance of power in the international system, right?
You've probably seen this map before. This starts-- we're at 1835 now. And we're just rolling through European history right now, OK? And what you're seeing is the borders are changing. Countries are getting powerful. Other countries are getting weaker, and the borders are changing.
And so one explanation for why we see Russia changing the borders in Ukraine right now is just this. This is history. This is the nature of international politics. It's been true for 1,000 years. Why, McFaul, would you not think it would be true in the year 2014, right? I won't go through this whole thing. It would take up too much time. But you get the sense, right?
The last move on this-- you can see Crimea there, right? It's in the Golden Horn. It's part of the Mongol Empire now. Right when we get to the end, that piece flips from Ukraine to Russia in this map, right?
So the argument here applied to the current case, Russia's confrontation with the West, is that this is just the natural order of things, right? Russia was weak after the collapse of the Soviet Union. It had this interregnum of weakness.
But now Russia's back. Russia's back in the kind of normal way that we would expect. It's actually not the basket case country that you read about 20 years ago. If you look at military capacity or even economic capacity, Russia is not a superpower, but a power, and most certainly is rising in power. And so we should expect these kinds of things to happen when great powers rise up and press against weaker powers, especially countries like Ukraine or Georgia or others in their neighborhood, right?
So I don't want to take on the burden of refuting that thousand years of history. I want to be clear about that, that what I'm about to say about Russia and other countries is not to say that I haven't one theory that fits all countries at all times in terms of explaining all conflict. But I had some problems applying that theory, that explanation to the Russia that I knew and the Russia that I worked with while at the White House and while ambassador.
First point, just a more theoretical, general point. Of course, not all countries that rise up and accumulate power attack their neighbors, right? So there's already-- there's got to be something more to the story. Why did Russia at this time do it if, in fact, you think that way?
Second one-- that's too much of a counterfactual to get into today. Let's just skip that one. 20 years ago, one could imagine a more democratic Russia. I most certainly did. I might have behaved differently. And maybe we should come back to that in questions, but that requires so much of your imagination, let's just skip it for now.
I want to focus on this third one. Does anybody remember Putin's speech where he said we had to bring in all ethnic Russians from other countries and bring them into the Russian Federation? This is a trick question. Trick question. When did he give it?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: OK-- oh! That's the best answer I've ever heard to that question. Exactly. He didn't give it in 2012 or 2002 or even 2013. That's the point I wanted to make. But you really-- perfect answer. I'm at Cornell, after all. I should expect these good answers, right?
That's right. He wasn't focused on that, right? He wasn't talking about the necessity of a great power to accumulate new power and to bring in folks. And you can think of other leaders, actually other European leaders in the 20th century that talked that way before they came to power. That's not what Putin was talking about while I was ambassador.
In fact, when I was ambassador, the most important foreign policy objective for Putin is probably one that nobody's ever heard of. I forgot. I'm at Cornell. I'm sure there's someone in this room-- there's many people in this room that know it. But most Americans have never heard about it, because nobody was writing about it. Nobody was thinking about it.
It was the creation of the European-- Eurasian Economic Union, Putin's response to the EU. He wanted to bring together all the countries of the former Soviet Union into this economic union to balance against the EU.
Now some would say it was coercive. Some would say it's not. We could talk about that maybe later. It's not important to me. What was clear-- and you know, if WikiLeaks ever gets a hold of our cables, you'll see it-- we reported on this as being the thing, the foreign policy objective that Putin was most focused on. Not Iran, by the way. Not Syria. This was his big baby. This was his big project.
To make it work, he wanted all of Ukraine-- not just Crimea-- all Ukrainians to join the Eurasian Economic Union. Now why? Well, the other partners at the time, Belarus and Kazakhstan, pretty small countries, small populations. Ukraine was the big prize in terms of taking this thing and having enough liftoff, critical mass to make it go.
Part of it, by the way, is there's 40 million-plus consumers in Ukraine, depending on how you count, whether you count Crimea or not. And those consumers are some of the few consumers in the world that actually consume Russian products. Anybody bought anything made in Russia recently? Do they sell Baltika beer here in Ithaca?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: No? We got it in Palo Alto. Anybody? Seriously. Have you ever bought anything from Russia in the last-- well, any time? Aside from being a tourist in Moscow and the dolls you get? I got that. But I mean, Made in Russia that says on the back. I think my suit's made in Hungary. Anybody seen that? Well, no, you don't, because they're not very good at that.
There's one place, however, in the world where people buy Made in Russia products. It's Ukraine. And therefore, Putin was ready to fight hard to get them in. In fact, in the struggle between the EU and their accession agreement offered to Yanukovych and Putin's offer to Yanukovych to join this union, he put on the table $15 billion as an incentive structure, an incentive for Yanukovych to join, right?
So that's what he was focused on, not invading Crimea. Not putting troops and his proxies into eastern Ukraine. So something else has to be added to this story to have a more complete understanding of why this conflict in the year 2014.
Two other small footnotes, just to remind you, even in 2012, 2013, and in the beginning of 2014, Putin was not talking about us as being supporters of Nazis in Ukraine and the enemy of Russia. That wasn't part of his lexicon at the time. And even in a few small ways-- I don't want to exaggerate them, but I think they're interesting-- he was still trying to signal that he wanted Russia to have some kind of working relationship with the West.
When I was ambassador, for instance, he let out Mikhail Khodorkovsky from jail. He was a Russian billionaire. I think he was worth about $40 billion when he was arrested. Spent 10 years in jail. Finally let him out. And I asked a very senior official at the Kremlin, why did you let him out now?
And he said, we want to have a better working relationship with you guys. It was for you. You, the United States. He let out-- I don't want to ever say the name of this man, so you can read it.
He let out those women who I met with as ambassador, again, as a gift, as one of my colleagues at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said to us. And for me, most spectacularly was this party, this fantastic party that Putin threw. He spent $50 billion on it, allegedly.
Was anybody there at the Sochi Olympics, by chance? Any athletes? You were. Oh. Who is that? You were there. Wasn't it fantastic?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Or did you have yellow water?
AUDIENCE: No. From an athletic perspective, it was fantastic. From a media perspective, different.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Did you live with the athletes? Are you an athlete?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Uh-huh. So I was there too. Sorry we didn't meet. I toured your facilities. You know, OK. I can't compare to other Olympics, I confess. It's an n of 1 for me, I understand.
But it was a pretty spectacular event. A lot of money spent. And the messaging of that event to me as a keen consumer of the message was, this is not your Soviet Union, right? We're different. Russia's back. We're part of the world today. We're not separated in the way that we were the last time some countries visited to attend an Olympics back in 1980.
There were 10,000-- do you remember them? There were 10,000 of these Russians in these incredibly colorful outfits, running around. Mostly college students, fluent English. And their job was to make you feel like you were in a friendly place. And I took 200 photographs with various kids like that, running around. The US ambassador, the nasty West representative. That was the atmosphere.
And really strikingly, if you watched the closing ceremonies, you may remember there was one episode where in the stadium, they had these placards, these photos or drawings-- I think they were drawings-- of their writers flip up. I don't know if you remember that.
By the way, just a footnote. How many countries could go through a stadium of 40,000 Americans and flip up 50 or 60 writers? How many countries have 50 or 60 writers? But 50 or 60 writers that would flip up, and everybody in the stadium knew who they were? Pretty impressive culture and history that they have.
Two of them jumped out at me, Brodsky and Solzhenitsyn. Dissidents. This was to say-- and I know the folks that put together this show, this was to say, we're reclaiming these people. This is part of Russian history. We're back. This was for everybody, for us to say, this is not the old Soviet Union.
So why do you put all that money up, put $50 billion, why do you put on all this show, and then a week later invade Crimea? There's something more to the story we have to add.
All right. Second explanation. It's all our fault. You know? This is popular in Moscow in some circles in Washington. Most certainly, there's got to be some people here in Ithaca that think this, because it's always our fault, right?
So let me unpack two different kinds of arguments about US policy, one of which I think is important to understand as at least part of the explanation, right? And I meant to say it on the first piece.
It's a necessary condition that Russian power, this growing power to the explanation. Just think of the counterfactual, right? If Russia had no power, if Russia was Senegal-- I don't mean to insult-- anybody from Senegal? OK, good. Then I will.
You know. You know, maybe they have a lot of military power and economic-- I actually used to write about Africa. But we're not worried about a country with the military capacity of Senegal or the economy, because if no power, then it doesn't threaten the other places. It's an important part of the story that Russia has new capability. But what I'm trying to get at is, where does the intention come from to use that capability, right? So necessary, but not sufficient.
Likewise, I would say the US policy story is part at least of the post facto narrative. And here is the standard arguments that you'll hear Russian leaders make about US foreign policy pushing, pushing, pushing on Russia to make democracy and do markets, and then we expand NATO, and then we bomb Serbia, and we invade Iraq, and then we overthrow countries, leaders that are friendly to Russia in places like Serbia, Georgia, Ukraine, and then we do the same in the Arab Spring, and then we try to do the same thing in Russia and Ukraine.
That's the basic narrative today about why Putin just finally had to push back. He had to push back on all this stuff and reassert Russia. And that's why you see what is happening today in Ukraine. In other words, the expansion of NATO-- I heard you just said John Mearsheimer here-- great guy. He's just wrong about most things.
I really like him, by the way. But you know, this argument that because America pushed for the expansion of NATO, that's why Putin had to invade Ukraine. That's kind of the argument. John's really popular, by the way, in Moscow these days.
I want to be clear. There's something to this narrative. And in fact, I quote my own self here, just to make sure that you know to keep me honest, right? I was worried about this. I was worried that we weren't going to help the transition enough, that we weren't going to see that this was a pro-Western revolution, that we were going to be stuck in our Cold War ways, and that there would be a reaction to it because we wouldn't do enough.
Just to point out the date of this piece, August 19, 1990. For those of you who know Soviet history, that's one year anniversary before it happened of the August 1991 coup. So I was writing about that. You know, Gorbachev's going to collapse. There's going to be this revolution.
By the way, for those that are interested in theories of revolution, I was using Crane Brinton's kind of anatomy of revolution to make these rather bold predictions. Unfortunately, they came true. 90% of everything else I predicted did not come true. I'm self-selecting here.
But there was reason to be worried about that, right? I want to be clear that you understand that I felt that way in real time about these debates, including the debate about NATO expansion, by the way.
But there's a problem with that explanation, and that's something called the reset, as you mentioned, right? For better or ill, I was the architect of the reset, or part of the team, including with that guy, of course. By the way, this is my first day in the Oval Office as a US government official. It's the president's third day. And he's about to call Medvedev for the first time as President of the United States. I was told later, although I don't think this is true. One of the aides as I walked out said, sir, you're really not supposed to touch the desk.
I'm not sure if that's true or not, but I do remember being told that. But after all that nasty stuff I just talked about, we did this thing called the reset. And the essence of it's pretty simple. I could make it more complicated. But in the interest of time, I won't.
We came into power, right? We won November of 2008. We had a transition period. We reviewed all of the policies as every administration, I'm sure, does. I was in charge of the policy review for Russia. And as we walked through first President-elect and then President Obama, our thinking and our explanation for why US-Russian relations were as difficult as they were back then-- remember, the Russians had just gone into Georgia in August of 2008, the same year.
He kind of looked at all this and he said, I just don't get it. Why does Russia want Iran to have a nuclear weapon? Why does Russia want al-Qaeda to win in Afghanistan? Why does Russia not want to reduce our nuclear arsenals?
In other words, he marched through the kind of big issues that we later tackled for the next three or four years after this. And for him, leaving aside history, leaving aside personality, you know, Putin versus Cheney and all that stuff, and just thinking about our national interests, he saw-- and it really was him, although helped by good staffers-- that there was more overlap in terms of our interests, security and economic interests, than confrontation. If we just kind of looked at things in a dispassionate, rational, and with a fresh look.
And in particular, he had this fondness back then-- he doesn't use it much now-- of talking about win-win outcomes in international relations between states. Not zero-sum. But if we work together, understand our interests, we can achieve outcomes that are good for your country, good for ours. And if you look at some of his early speeches especially about Russia, you'll see that he used that phrase quite a bit.
And we got some stuff done. We got some pretty big stuff done. This is in Prague, signing the new START Treaty. We got rid of 30% of the nuclear weapons in our arsenals. We haven't finished it yet, but we're on our way.
We got done something called the Northern Distribution Network, which I'll bet most people never heard of. This is a supply route to Russia-- to Afghanistan, excuse me-- part of which goes to Russia through airplanes, through trains, through trucks to supply our troops and other personnel fighting the war back then in Afghanistan.
When we came to power, this had just gotten started. It was started before we came into the government. But it was about 2%, and 3% of our supplies. By the time I left the White House, it was over 50% of our supplies, including flying US soldiers through Russian airspace. That hadn't happened since World War II. And suddenly-- not suddenly, but in this moment of the reset, you had this cooperation against a common enemy in Afghanistan.
By the way, that may seem not that important to you. There must be a lot of ways to get to Afghanistan. Well, actually, in 2009, over 90% of our supplies went through the southern route through Pakistan.
And you may recall, we were increasing some of our operations in Pakistan. Some pretty hostile operations, including one very famous one against Osama bin Laden. And we worried that if we did that, if we violated their sovereignty with that audacious operation, the government of Pakistan was likely to close those supply routes.
And we were right about that. They did. That's exactly what they did. But when they did it, they closed it at 45% levels rather than at the 90%, 95% levels it was in the beginning.
And I should go through these quicker than I'm doing. Iran put the most important sanctions, the most comprehensive set of sanctions against Iran ever in UN Security Council Resolution, 1929. That was done primarily because of our cooperation between the United States and Russia.
And then dogs that didn't bark, I think, are also important to remember in this period. The Kyrgyzstani revolution. I think we say Kyrgyzstani now instead of Kyrgyz. That happened in 2010. Val Bunce is here, so she knows about it. But I'll bet you the rest of you didn't read about it, because it didn't really happen.
There were 100 people that died. The regime fell. 300,000 people left Kyrgyzstan, fled into Uzbekistan on the verge of what we feared was going to be an ethnic civil war in Kyrgyzstan. I was still at the National Security Council at the time. Without question, it was the scariest period of my time in the US government. Because I worried, as I said earlier when we were talking about this in Professor Evangelista's course, I worried that we were about to witness genocide and have very few means to try to stop it.
But that worst case scenario never happened, because working with the Russians, President called Medvedev, and then met with him and said, it's not in our national interest for a civil war in Kyrgyzstan. We have this base, the Manas Airbase, renamed the Manas Transit Center.
That was my innovation, just to disguise what it was, but you could pretty much tell it was an airbase. We had some vital interests there. They had them. And the story-- it's a long one, but the essence of the story was we managed that, and that nightmare scenario never happened.
It took some time on these things, these four. And I'll just go on from-- I won't go through the rest. Because I want to stress for you that these are not kind of marginal, mealy-mouth, you know, symbolic gestures that we were doing with Russia. We weren't just holding hands and singing "Kumbaya" and talking about peace and understanding, right? These are core national security concerns for the United States of America at this time. And on all of them, Russia was our partner, not our enemy, not our competitor.
So we need to understand-- I'll come back to it-- that these were really big things. I'll skip these little things in the interest of time. Just to remind you, you know, here are US and Russian paratroopers in Colorado, doing a counterterrorism exercise just three years ago.
Then we got some economic stuff done. I'll go through this quickly. There's my former governor at Cisco with President Medvedev. That's that guy right there when they were trying to build their own Silicon Valley. We got a bunch of things done. We got them into the WTO. PNTR, Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Russia. New visa regime. We had momentum, even on the economic story. It's modest, but moving in the right direction.
Increased travel. I fought hard with Homeland Security and other agencies that get really nervous about too many Russians in our country. We liberalized the visa regime, and the numbers went the right way.
This one, I hope you can see, this is just Russian attitudes towards the United States. And after hitting 17% right after the Russian-Georgian war, at the peak of the reset, 60% of Russians had a positive view of the United States, just three years ago. And by the way, same thing in our country. Over 60% of you all had a positive view of Russia just four years ago.
All of that happened after these events. After NATO expansion, after the Iraq war, after the Orange Revolution in 2004. So for me, you can't explain this or this by citing those factors, right? All that stuff happened.
It was real. Believe me, I was there. It was real. It felt real genuinely, like we were creating a different kind of cooperative relationship with Russia. All of that stuff, the reset happened after the other earlier events. So there's got to be something else to the story to explain how we got to where we got.
Now there's another one. I hope-- and somebody was telling me this is a pretty liberal town, so maybe I don't have to take too much time on this. But there's another argument, of course, in the spirit of, it's all the West's fault, and that's, Obama's weak. Obama created the permissive conditions for Putin to go into Ukraine. He didn't deter Putin enough. You know, he was just weak, and this is what happens when you have weak leaders in the White House.
This is a little bit unfair quote. I'll read it if you can't see it. This is from the speaker of our house, talking about Obama. "When you look at this chaos that's going on, does anybody think that Vladimir Putin would have gone into Crimea had George W. Bush been president of the United States?" I saw this live, so I'm kind of [INAUDIBLE] the spirit that he said it in. "No! Even Putin is smart enough to know that Bush would have punched him in the nose in about 10 seconds."
So that kind of captures that kind of argument, right? And again, let's give him a break. It's two weeks before the election. He's probably speaking-- well, I don't know where he's speaking. So let's give him a break. People say a lot of silly things right before elections. I grant that.
But just to remind you why I think that's a silly argument. First, we did push back. And maybe we can leave that for questions and talk about that. But the second thing I just want to remind you of is that every time leaders in the Kremlin have thought about using force in Eastern Europe, they talked about the American factor.
In fact, I've fought about this, right? So when I was at the White House, we would have a discussion about Iran or North Korea or Libya or Syria. And at some point in the conversation, the president would turn to me and say, well, what are the Russians going to do about this? What do the Russians think, right? So that was my job.
There must be-- in fact, I think I know who it is-- an equivalent person at the Kremlin. Ivan Ivanovich. Let's call him Ivan Ivanovich. So every time they get ready to use force in Eastern Europe, Brezhnev or Khrushchev or Putin turns to Ivan Ivanovich and says, what are the Americans going to do, Ivan Ivanovich? And the answer every time is, nothing.
We haven't, in all these historic times, right? Even Ronald Reagan was unable to deter the crackdown against solidarity in December of 1981. I don't think anybody would accuse Ronald Reagan of being weak on the communists. I think the pattern's pretty clear.
What's interesting about the pattern is not our ability to deter aggression. It's actually what happens later. And I would argue-- and now I'm going to provoke you-- that if you compare all of these cases, Barack Obama, President Obama's response to Ukraine looks most like Ronald Reagan, and not like the rest.
Do you know how many people George W. Bush put on the sanctions list after the Russians went into Georgia? Just guess. How many Russians put on the list? Zero. How many Russian companies? Zero.
And we could go through in terms of the responses, even non-lethal assistance. The debate that is in the news right now, non-lethal versus lethal, the amount of non-lethal assistance sent to the Ukrainians is already quite substantial. So I don't think the Obama weakness argument is too compelling. But of course, I'm really biased, so I accept that.
So last one, last argument, and then I'll take your questions. So you know, we've talked about the balance of the international system and the power. Russia's most certainly a rising power. We've talked about US policy. And most certainly, some of the elements of that US policy helps the post facto explanation that Putin provides to his people for what they're doing now.
But as I've talked about, there was these other moments in US-Russian relations. There must be something else that happened after this reset period that helps us to understand how we got to the mess we're in. And in my view, it really does focus mostly-- most of the explanation comes from looking closely at Russian domestic politics. So let me go through this, and then I'll end and take your questions.
So I want to focus on two big changes. There are many more if I had more time. But the first one is Putin to Medvedev. This photo, by the way, if you're wondering, this is at their party Congress in September of 2011 when Putin announces-- it looks like he's announcing with vigor that he's going to run for president again. And Medvedev announces that he's not going to run for president.
Now I remember that day very vividly. I was still in Washington. I'd already been nominated. I was going through the process. And you know, this news hit us. And a couple days later, I was in to see the president on something else, and he pulled me back and said, well, what do you think of this?
And I said, well, you know, you've developed a relationship with Medvedev. And he had. They had a pretty good working relationship. So you know, we're not going to benefit from that going forward.
But remember, Putin's always been the big dog. Putin's always been the big decision maker. That was our analysis in the government. I suspect a lot of academics thought that as well. Medvedev's just a marionette. Medvedev's just the puppet, right? There should be continuity. There shouldn't be change.
What's the big deal? He just moves down to the Kremlin. Moves out of the White House. That's where the prime minister sits in Russia. But there shouldn't be a big shakeup. By the way, the Russians, including Medvedev himself, were also communicating that message of continuity at this time.
Turns out we were wrong about that. And in fact, I think in retrospect we were wrong about thinking of Medvedev as just being a weak president, doing what Putin wanted. Because it turned out as we learned in more interaction with Putin that they have different world views.
Putin sees a world in zero-sum terms. Medvedev saw the world in win-win outcome terms. Putin sees the United States as a competitor. Medvedev saw the United States as a partner. And perhaps most problematic for us, as you'll see later, the United States for Putin uses its power to overthrow regimes that it doesn't like.
By the way, a lot of empirical data to support that hypothesis, if you look over the last seven years. And he, therefore, has this paranoia, especially about the CIA-- he's really fixated on the CIA-- and thinks that this is part of what the United States does, irrespective of whether the president is Bush or Obama.
Obama, by the way, one time tried to push back on this analysis as Putin went through this litany of regime change episodes. And of course, he went through Iraq as well. And finally, the president, when he got the chance to speak, he said, hey. You and I, we were on the same boat on that, man. He didn't say man.
Mr. President. [INAUDIBLE]. I was against that war too. And Putin kind of paused and remember, yeah, but you know, it's just-- he didn't say this exactly, but he kind of implied, yeah, the military industrial complex basically runs your country anyway. You guys come and go, but there's this tradition in US foreign policy.
So that creates problems, right? In terms of seeking win-win outcomes. And I think in retrospect, we underestimated this difference between these two gentlemen when we were dealing with Medvedev. I think we underestimated how far in Medvedev had leaned to try to make the reset work.
Second thing. In between-- second fact. In between this announcement in September of 2011, the previous slide, and the presidential election in March of 2012, there was a parliamentary election in Russia in December 2011. By my estimates, I used to-- our estimates as a government, it was stolen. Kind of falsified at the levels of previous elections, right?
No big deal. It's just the way Russian elections are. Nobody really thought much of it. We got our analysts inside the government, outside the government, and this is kind of just normal falsification. Nothing extraordinary.
But between this election and the previous one, some things have happened in society. People got richer, people were thinking about their rights a little bit more, and technology helped. You had smartphones, [INAUDIBLE], Twitter, Facebook.
And so this time when this falsification happened, it got discovered. It got documented. It moved around the internet in a rapid way. And some folks, especially urban, rich, educated folks-- not everybody, but those folks-- that's Bolotnaya Square, if you know Moscow, December 2011. They decided that they were going to protest this election.
They were going to say, we don't like this, our votes being stolen. And they whipped themselves up, as these events sometimes do, and they moved from initially just protesting the vote to eventually, as these protests grew, to protesting the entire regime, the entire Russian regime.
Putin didn't like it. Surprise, surprise. First he was pissed. I mean, I've heard him talk about it. And he was like, these people, I made them rich. Why are they turning on me now? I'm the guy that turned Russia around. I'm the guy that-- you know, that Yeltsin guy, he was the guy that led to economic disaster. I'm the one that made them all rich. How could they turn on me now?
Now my own view is that oil and gas prices made them rich a lot more than probably Putin. But happens on your watch, whether you're an American president or a Russian president, you take credit for it, right?
But the second response was how to deal with these protests, how to respond, and how to come up with a new argument for first the campaign, which he won a couple months later, but then just an argument for legitimacy for Putin to be in power. The economy wasn't growing in the way it was during his first eight years, and now he's coming back for a third term.
And so they debated it, and I'm going to come back to that for a minute. It was not inevitable the response that they came up with. But Putin decided that they needed to crack down on these folks. And as part of the crackdown and as part of the argument to his electoral base and to his supporters to resurrect the United States as an enemy, and as the force that was creating this, right?
These people didn't come and organize themselves just like in Serbia, just like in Ukraine in 2004, just like in the Arab Spring. This was the United States that was making this happen. And that's the argument that Putin began to sell.
I'll skip through these in the interest of time, just talking about different things that we were doing. But over time, first we saw this. This is exactly when I land in Moscow six weeks after this. This is all happening. We're like, oh. Let's just relax. It's just a campaign. It's just electoral politics. And over time, we learned that it wasn't just electoral politics. It was here to stay.
I then became a part of it. This is a month after I was there. And because of some of the things I written as an academic, unfortunately, you don't get to hit the Delete button when you join the government. Actually, [INAUDIBLE]. And you know, they cut and pasted some things I'd written in my previous life to talk about the fact that I was sent by President Obama to foment regime change in Russia. That was my assignment.
And so here, Navalny, one of the opposition leaders, he was my project, right? This is from Russia Today. They even said one time that it was McFaul that sent Navalny to Yale for six months so that he could get his revolutionary training. And I tweeted back. I'm on Twitter, by the way. Follow me if you want to. Keep debating these things. I tweeted back, why would a Stanford guy send somebody to Yale? Come on, man.
But this was the new Russia. They put out a calendar.
McFaul girls. And every month had a different opposition leader in it. Both in Russian and English, by the way, so you could get both versions. This is a poster from, for those of you who know the Russian history, from the May 6 demonstration in 2012, one that actually turned violent and people were arrested, and some of those people are in jail today.
And this just says, the political circus is coming back to the arena. And you can see me, I hope. And I'm surrounded by other opposition leaders. And I'm Paul the artistic director, if you can't read that in Russian. This woman, by the way, is Sobchak. She just announced today that she's fleeing Russia at the advice of the FSB, the successor organization to the KGB, because her fear is that she'll be assassinated.
Here I am, campaigning for Navalny. He ran for mayor. I didn't really campaign for Navalny. He ran for mayor when I was ambassador. He actually got a quarter of the vote with almost zero resources, no access to television. I'm Photoshopped here. I wish I had that big of hands for my basketball career.
But these are just to give you a flavor of what was happening when I was ambassador. And this is the cartoon piece. It's actually-- you don't need to know Russian. Just to give you a little flavor.
- [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
MICHAEL MCFAUL: They're saying, the opposition is in panic, because I've been thrown out of Russia.
- [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
MICHAEL MCFAUL: So the naming of a [INAUDIBLE] ambassador was a holiday for these opposition leaders. I did not have a plan.
- [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Here they're coming to get their instructions for the revolution.
- [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
MICHAEL MCFAUL: These are some of my other friends.
- [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
MICHAEL MCFAUL: That's Navalny. That's Nemtsov, who was just killed two weeks ago.
- [SPEAKING RUSSIAN]
Michael McFaul [SPEAKING RUSSIAN].
MICHAEL MCFAUL: OK. So you get the feel, right?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: That was on TV every day. Every day on all the-- not that particular clip, but those kinds of arguments about us being the enemy, supporting the opposition, as you saw there. All of those domestic problems were caused by us. Make us the enemy. That's how you mobilize people against that.
And by the way, just because he appears there-- with tragic consequences. You stir up hatred, you call these people enemies of the state, you label them the fifth column, and people get killed, as Boris Nemtsov just got killed a couple weeks ago.
Last piece on this. So just, this is more recent. This is after Ukraine. But just to give you a flavor for what's on TV these days in Russia. This is their main talk show, by the way. This is the equivalent of, like, 60 Minutes. This is comparing Barack Obama to the leader of ISIL here, or Islamic State.
And the guy-- his name's [? Kiselyov-- ?] he says, you know, at first glance, you might think these two people don't have much in common, but when you look closer at Barack Hussein Obama's views, you'll see that they share a lot of similar ideological points. And this list is disrespect for the rights of others, willingness to kill without a trial, aggression, and [INAUDIBLE]--
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Intolerance. Thank you. Messianism. So you know, you get an idea that he's picking and saying-- and he had little clips from Obama and this other leader about how they're the same. OK? So that's where Putin decided to go.
Last two things I want to say. One, this was not inevitable in my opinion, right? For my argument to work, leaders have to have choices. They have to have options. And I would just remind you that President Medvedev, in response to the same demonstrations, had a different approach.
Here he is meeting with Boris Nemtsov-- that's the guy on the far right there who was killed recently-- and Mr. Udaltsov, who's now under house arrest. This meeting took place out at Medvedev's dacha. And it was his attempt to negotiate a kind of, you know, path for political reform moving forward.
By the way, you know, despite all of those things that I saw, the only time I ever met with the leaders of the political opposition together, I met with them, you know, at cocktail parties and at different events around town.
But the only time I ever sat down with them-- and we actually didn't sit down, we just encountered each other-- was in the cloakroom of Medvedev's dacha on this deck. I was coming in for a meeting with the president, with the delegation, and these guys were coming out, getting their coats.
They all freaked out when they saw me. Especially this guy Udaltsov, who's not a big fan of the United States. That was the only encounter. But I think it's important to remember that there was an alternative path. It was not inevitable that the leader of Russia would take the course that Putin chose.
And yet-- and this will be-- I'm going to conclude on this-- even up to the events that happened in Ukraine last year, I would say that Putin was still struggling with these dual impulses, right? On the one hand, he thought we were fomenting revolution.
On the other, he thought that the ExxonMobil Rosneft deal, allegedly for $500 billion if the joint venture goes forward, was the most important event in US-Russian relations. He told us one day that he deliberately chose the American company because he wanted to build this kind of bridge with the United States, and these other things I talked about. Sochi courtship of the world.
So I want to make Putin a little more complex for you, OK? It wasn't inevitable. It wasn't that this was bound to happen. It was just, he had this argument that he was developing. He had this suspicion about us. We stopped cooperating on a lot of things.
But even up until February, I would say these dual impulses were at play. In fact, I saw them in our interactions with him, including very famously when he and President Obama sat down in September 2013 and cut this deal to eliminate chemical weapons in Syria. But then the last straw that broke the camel's back, of course, was the fall of the government in Kiev in February of last year.
Now I want to make clear, because sometimes my government officials are not making this as clear as I think we should, we supported a pacted transition, to use an academic term. We supported a negotiation between Yanukovych and the opposition. We didn't like it. Yanukovych had just killed 100 people. We debated it.
But we decided at the end of the day that that was a better outcome, both for stability in Ukraine and for our interests with respect to our relationship with Ukraine and Russia than the alternatives. And we worked it. We worked it hard. I think the vice president called Yanukovych a dozen times during this period to try to get him to sit down and negotiate a deal with the opposition.
And I remember the day when they signed it. I was in Sochi. We all did our high fives, and we thought this was going to be a breakthrough in a very difficult situation. And a few hours later, Yanukovych fled. He left. Went to Kharkiv, then he went to Crimea, and he eventually ended up in Rostov of all places in southern Russia.
I to this day do not totally understand why he left the way he did. Maybe in questions we can talk about some theories about it. It was strange. It was shocking to us. He said his life was in danger. Putin's now said that in this TV thing that he just did recently. But his life was in danger in Kharkiv or Crimea. That was not our reading of the situation at all. So it's still mysterious why he decided to leave the way he did.
But it wasn't portrayed mysteriously for Putin. For Putin, this was the CIA again. We double-crossed him. This all was a giant smokescreen, this negotiating with him. This was another case of the United States fomenting regime change. This time, again, on his neighborhood.
And so he struck back. In fact, he just said this yesterday, and I believe him when he said he struck back the way he did, looking for a way to push back on the government in Kiev and push back on us. That's when he went into Crimea, and that's when he decided after that was successful to roll the die and to support these fighters, including some of his own in eastern Ukraine.
So I'll end with good news and bad news. I have more slides on this if you're interested in questions. So the good news, if you buy my argument, is that this is not some master design by Putin. He hasn't been sitting under a map, you know, since he was a kid, dreaming about resurrecting the Russian Empire. I don't believe that. He likes the Russian empire, by the way. He believes Russia was wrong and the Soviet Union was wrong.
But I don't see the evidence for some kind of grand design and big plan. And we're now just in chapter 26 of 52-chapter grand strategy. I think he's overrated as a grand strategist. This was tactical and emotional, not strategic. And therefore, I think it's a question as to where it goes. In fact, I think that matters more about what we do and less what he does.
And more generally, if you buy my agency kind of argument here, we are not destined forever because of culture or history or the balance of power in the international system to have conflict with Russia. I don't believe it, and I hope I presented an argument for why you shouldn't believe it either.
The bad news is I don't see a way for Putin to back down from his position now. He's fighting a messianic, ideological struggle against Nazis, NATO, and the decadent West, right? The decadent West is a big part of his message back home. We are evil. That's how we're being portrayed. We're ISIS, right? Barack Hussein Obama.
I think it's really hard to sit down and negotiate with evil. I think his own strategy makes it very hard for him to back away with this. I want to be wrong. I really want to be wrong, because I think this is a bad scenario for us and for Russia. But I don't see him changing. I think he's flipped to the other side, and that this dual impulse is now a single impulse, and he's playing to the bitter end.
Bad news also is that he can be in power till 2024. He can then probably change things to be in power longer than that if he wants to. And he works out three hours a day. Aside from this little 10-day disappearance, you know, he seems like he's in pretty good health to me.
The real question mark to me is not where Putin has decided to go. It's about our responsiveness. The real question is, do we frame it, do we understand what I've just said in the same ways? And will we have the willpower to deal with this new threat out of Russia for what I think will be years, if not more, to come? Thank you.
FRED LOGEVALL: So thank you, Ambassador, for that terrific lecture. We have some time for questions. Here's what I would say with respect to the questions, is that we have mics on either side, so please come down on either side if you wish to pose a question. I would ask, as I typically do, that you keep your questions short. This will allow more time for discussion.
And then let me also remind you that we will have a reception after we finish here. I urge you to stick around. You can have an opportunity then perhaps to speak with the ambassador further. But the floor is open. Let me pose a question. All right. The gentleman here. Yes?
AUDIENCE: Mr. Ambassador, I just wanted to [INAUDIBLE]. I am an ethnic Ukrainian. Lived there since I was three years old. So naturally, I have a lot of interest in what's going on in Ukraine. The question is, can Russia swallow Ukraine without getting really severe indigestion, and are they willing to pay that price?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: So I talked long, so I'm going to try to pretend like I'm on Twitter or Fox News Now. You know, snappy answers, right? And maybe in reception, we can talk with longer answers. My answer is no. They don't have that capacity.
And I cautiously believe that Putin himself understands that. It's just too big to occupy-- remember, it's one thing, as we've learned bitterly through some of our military interventions, it's one thing to march to the capital and to destroy the armed forces. It's another thing to hold territory. And I just don't believe that Russia-- I know Russia does not have the capacity to do that for any length of time in Ukraine, and I'm cautiously optimistic that Putin himself understands that.
FRED LOGEVALL: Let's go to this side. Justin?
AUDIENCE: Hello. I just want to say thank you so much for coming to Cornell. We're so happy to have you here.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks.
AUDIENCE: My question is, do you feel that the removal of Putin from power will result in better relationships between the United States and Russia.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: The removal of Putin from power. I'm not predicting that nor advocating that, OK? I know we're on the record here. And I'm saying that from my Twitter followers as much as for anybody in the audience.
But I do believe that a different leader can matter. I do believe that, right? And I witnessed it with Medvedev. I do believe that a more democratic set of institutions governing Russia will make them more likely to look for cooperation with the United States.
I don't pretend that it'll be easy and quick and automatic. And Russia is a big country with a lot of interests, with a lot of borders with a lot of countries. No matter what, you know, even if Boris Nemtsov had become president of Russia-- and there was actually some talk of that in the late '90s that he might be the successor to Yeltsin-- I believe that had that happened, Russia would be more democratic today than it is right now, and that they would be more cooperative.
But there would have been tension. There would have been conflict. But yeah. Fundamentally, I do believe that individuals and institutions and ideas matter. It's not just about some book of national interests that you pull down from the shelf.
I remember, by the way, when I went into the government and learning how to use the different computers and the secret and top secret, and I asked one of my new staffers-- it was January 21, the day after the inauguration. I said, where's the big book of the national interest, right? Now I'm going to finally get to see this book that we all have been reading about. And she said-- at first she didn't know I was joking.
And then she said very sheepishly, well, you know, Dr. McFaul-- they called me doctor back then-- Dr. McFaul, that book doesn't exist. We're actually going to try to make it up right now. And we tried.
FRED LOGEVALL: Just to follow up very quickly on this, because it relates. So if in your analysis, domestic politics is key in terms of explaining Putin's actions, could you say a little bit more about whether it worked?
And you know, the polling suggests that he's very popular. A cynic might say, well, those polls don't amount to very much, because we can't really trust them. But could one argue that in the short term, perhaps the medium term, it's shown a certain shrewdness on your part [INAUDIBLE]?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes. Without question. But the key words in your question are short term and medium term, right? So in the short term, did it work? Absolutely. I think those numbers are soft, by the way.
And I would just remind you that this is a country where there's not a lot of pluralism, right now. People are afraid. There's political assassinations. Mr. Snowden, as you may recall, came to Russia when I was ambassador, and he talked a lot about US capabilities with respect to things that the United States can do.
Without talking about things I shouldn't, let me just tell you, remind you, Russia has a lot of capabilities in those domains too. In fact, they're probably with us right now, because I have a cell phone with me. And in that context, when a total stranger calls you up, sitting out there in Nizhny Novgorod and says, you know, I'm Ivan Ivanovich, working for polling agency yada, yada, you know, do you like Putin or not? Guess how people are going to answer.
So always remember that. But my own, you know, looking at the numbers and other things, there has been this rallying around the flag. There's no doubt about it. And he played it right. But those things dissipate.
George W. Bush had 75% of the American people with him when he went into Iraq. 75%, including most democratic candidates for president at that time. Maybe he didn't here in Cornell. You probably were ahead of the curve. But--
FRED LOGEVALL: Somewhat lower numbers probably.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: OK. I'll just remind you that even something-- and he didn't control all the media. He didn't control both houses of Congress. You know, he didn't control all nongovernmental organizations. Moveon.org was still active. And yet, he had 75% in those conditions. So remember that that happens. I think that's something you could see.
The question is about the medium term, of course, right? The question is, as the economy begins to contract-- it's now contracting, mostly because of oil and gas prices, but in the margins because of sanctions as well. The question becomes, when do people get tired of supporting these, you know, rather unsavory characters in eastern Ukraine?
And the price for that for some is billions of dollars, actually, that they've lost already in the year. For others, it's not going to St. Bart's in December. You know, the yacht has been parked because they can't get visas.
And then those are the rich people, but then others are-- you know, inflation is serious. Inflation is affecting people that used to work for me at the house that I used to live in, my bodyguards. That's real. When 40% of your food is imported from Europe, big inflationary effect on that, that affects not just the billionaires, but everybody. I just don't know when that translates into a change in foreign policy.
AUDIENCE: Hi. I apologize. I asked you a question earlier in the day, but I decided to come back.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: That's a good sign.
AUDIENCE: Thank you, sir. So from what I got from the presentation, my interpretation was that Russia's security [INAUDIBLE] is not heavily dependent on something that came to a regime security [INAUDIBLE]. So my immediate question was that we in the United States have dealt with security [INAUDIBLE] that are controlled by the regime, particularly with a country like China. And the United States, I think, to a certain extent, respected the powers of certain countries more than others in the case that we recognized that we don't want to tread on country's toes as, I guess, eagerly as other countries.
But do you think in Putin's administration that there are people who recognize this? Or rather, they see the United States as being a bit more forceful with Russia in contrast to a country like China because the United States doesn't recognize Russia as a great power?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: So I see it-- there are people in Russia, including very close to Putin, who make that argument, right? But it's not true. And those are very important distinctions, right? I think it's hard to look at what we did when I was in government and say we somehow treated China differently because we thought they were a great power and Russia wasn't. I don't see the evidence to support that hypothesis.
When we first went to Moscow in July 2009 with the president, you know, unfortunately, it turned out to be the last summit. We planned a different one, but then it got canceled. He gave a speech at a college, at a university, by the way.
And he said rather boldly-- and I'm sitting next to the historian who's writing about John F. Kennedy, so I could be wrong about this. Parentheses, I haven't done the important historical research to know that this is true.
But I think he's the first president that I can remember that ever said to Russians on the record, we want a strong, prosperous Russia, right? I mean, go read the speech, by the way. It's a great one. I think it's a great speech. I had something to do with it.
It lays out an argument, you know, a pretty detailed argument, the kind of analytic argument for why we're trying to reset relations with Russia. And part of that was we think a strong Russia, a rich Russia is good for our national interests, not bad for our national interests. That was the argument at the time.
And to the best of my knowledge, I'm not sure he's used that same kind of language about China. But I'll tell you, I sat right across the hallway from the folks that were responsible for our China policy for three years at the White House. We basically had the same approach with different dimensions and different pieces of it. But I would not characterize that we had one policy for Russia and a very different one for China.
The biggest difference was that we had more of an economic relationship with China. That creates ballast for when you have difficulties on the security side. And we aspired on the Russia account to do the same. We thought that if we had $100 billion in trade every year with Russia, that would help to keep the extremists out of the debate.
And I firmly believe that, by the way, including in our own domestic politics. When there's no voters that support having a positive relationship with Russia, it matters. For China, in that relationship, there's a lot of voters that matter because of the economic relationship that we have with China. And that's what we aspired to do. Ultimately, we failed. At least so far.
AUDIENCE: Hi, Ambassador. My question's kind of similar to something you just brought up. But I wonder [INAUDIBLE] in Russia due to sanctions for oil prices, do you think that radicalizes Putin or maybe it makes him more cooperative?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: I think for-- and now I'm guessing, right? I've been out of the government. I just read what you do. I don't want to pretend to have any inside information. And if I did, I probably couldn't tell you anyway, so it doesn't matter, right? Or I shouldn't tell you anyway.
So you know, we were talking about this at lunch with some others. And by the way, I think I met more freshmen today fulfilling the mission statements of this lectureship than I think I've met in the last 10 years at Stanford. That's off the record.
So you guys doing your job well. And it was great, by the way. But we were talking--
FRED LOGEVALL: [INAUDIBLE].
MICHAEL MCFAUL: We were talking about this. We want to know what motivates his behavior. We want to know how he'll change. I think-- well, I'll just tell you my idea. I don't want to talk about the Obama administration.
My view is that it radicalizes. Yes, it does. That he does not-- the response, you put me in a corner and then I'm going to negotiate, no. He's of a different ilk. He's a different way.
You can read his biography. You know, he grew up in this tough town, the tough part of Leningrad, and was a scrapper and a little kid and a fighter. And you know, I think all that does influence the way he thinks about these things.
But I would say two things in defense of what the administration has done. First, you know, I believed it was the right thing to punish bad behavior that undermines the rules and norms of the international system. You have to respond to that, even if you know that the response may not get the desired reaction from Putin in the coming months or even years. I think it's important for the long term to make those kind of responses.
And second, Putin's the chief decision maker. There's no doubt about it. And it's become more centralized, and he's become more isolated over time. That's also a very bad thing.
But there are other players. There are other actors. I know them. I know them personally. And I know they have a different view. What I don't know is when there's a political moment or conditions under which those different kinds of preferences get adjudicated and get debated.
My guess is the more economic hardship there is, the more likely that those different preferences, you know, represented by Putin and others will begin to be a discussion, a policy process that's not just a single decision maker sitting out at his dacha, making these decisions alone.
FRED LOGEVALL: Yes, sir?
AUDIENCE: Hello, Ambassador. My name is [INAUDIBLE]. I'm Ukrainian [INAUDIBLE]. So my question is going to be about the war. So you know that a couple days ago, Russian media released a movie about the annexation of Crimea. And Putin had a quote. He basically said that if the operation was not successful, they would deploy--
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Nuclear weapons.
AUDIENCE: --their nuclear capability. So what do you think about that?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: That's really scary. That's where I began my remarks, right? This is a scary time. My first explanation of that is that's a sign of insecurity, not security, right? You don't threaten nuclear weapons if you're feeling secure about your operations in Crimea, and that you have confidence in your military.
But my second response to that is fear. It makes me nervous. It's not the first time he's invoked the nuclear threat in the last several months. That's a sign of a place becoming unhinged to me, a leader becoming unhinged. And it makes me nervous.
Somebody asked me earlier today in a session, is it more dangerous today or less dangerous than the Cold War? And you know, I didn't live through most of the Cold War. I just lived through the end of it. But it feels a little more uncertain and unstable. I don't remember Soviet leaders making those kind of comments. Maybe they did. I'm ignorant. I want to be careful. But it scares me, because it just feels like the system is kind of-- you know, one, he's isolated, and two, it's a little bit out of control.
So like the assassination of Nemtsov, right? Not the first person to be assassinated. Allegedly, he was killed by Chechens who were avenging what he said about what happened in France.
But what I fear-- I mean, first of all, the hatred, the slides that I showed, you put that on TV enough and, you know, crazy people begin to believe it. And it happened to me. I had lots of crazy people threaten my life when I was ambassador. So I know what it feels like. And it's real. Crazy people get animated.
But then there are paramilitary groups and, you know, neo-Nazi groups. And they have some relations with the state, and some are independent. They all have friendships, you know, that go back from when they were all part of the state. And you know, they start to do things on their own in the name of what they think is the national interest.
And it just feels like it's a little bit out of control. And those two things, both Putin's isolation and, you know, saying these kind of things that I think underscore insecurity and this sense of, things are a little bit out of control, that makes me nervous.
I mean, Sobchak. She just announced yesterday she's leaving the country. The government told her to leave the country. Think about how strange that is, right? Imagine the FBI showing up to an opposition figure leader or a journalist and saying, you know-- I don't know who would be the right one. I was going to say Jon Stewart. That's not a good example of that.
You know, it somewhat is because of his edginess. But we can't protect you. You need to leave the country, because we fear for your life. Sobchak, by the way, has an interesting relationship with Putin. Putin used to work for her father. They have a much closer relationship than you might imagine. That's a pretty damning statement about this powerful regime, this powerful state that she feels on their advice that she has to leave. And it just feels dangerous [INAUDIBLE].
FRED LOGEVALL: So we're just about out of time. So maybe what I'll ask the three of you to do-- oh, I see a fourth just coming in. Very brief questions. Maybe we'll take them all together.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: And I'll pick and choose?
FRED LOGEVALL: You can pick and choose. Please.
AUDIENCE: Hi, Ambassador. Earlier today you spoke about [INAUDIBLE] with the church. And so I was wondering if you could speak a bit more about foreign policy [INAUDIBLE] relationship.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: OK.
FRED LOGEVALL: Thank you for that brevity, by the way. Yes, sir?
AUDIENCE: I spent the summer of 2009 in Russia [INAUDIBLE] made some positive views on America. I was just wondering, if things are very different now, why is the [INAUDIBLE]?
FRED LOGEVALL: Right here.
AUDIENCE: Yes. My question is about the way [INAUDIBLE] in the context of Russian reparations. So is there really a need to revoke this whole [INAUDIBLE] lecture? Or for me, this is the most terrifying part, aside from what is happening in Russia right now, that [INAUDIBLE] propaganda relationship [INAUDIBLE].
FRED LOGEVALL: OK. And finally, you get the last word, sir.
AUDIENCE: Thank you. You mentioned that Putin's largely motivated by paranoia, and a lot of it directed toward military industrial complex, CIA. Would it be possible that greater transparency of the CIA would help the US [INAUDIBLE]?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: All right. Great questions, and we're out of time, so I can't answer any of them.
All right. Let me go through them quickly. And feel free to leave if you have. So on the church, yes, Putin's become closer to the church. I lost who asked the question, so I'll just talk to everybody. And he's become more socially conservative, especially in the last several years. And I think that has implications for how he thinks about the United States and the West as the decadent West, you know?
You've probably read about some of these new draconian laws about LGBT rights, and just everything related to kind of conservative values. He believes that he is the champion and the defender of conservative values in Russia and the world.
By the way, before this latest crisis, I was very impressed with the games that Putin and his people were making in courting relationship with right-wing political parties throughout Europe and churches, including Evangelical churches here in the United States. It was part of a very sophisticated, ideological play that, you know, turns out that there are people in Europe and the United States and maybe elsewhere-- I was just focused on those two places-- that also share Putin's views about the decadent liberal West, and how we need to do something about it. So that's happening.
Second, on propaganda, whoever asked that question, I do not have a good response to that. I think it's a great question. Great question to write a PhD about, by the way.
I'll just tell you from my point of view, I've been living in and out of the Soviet Union and Russia for a long time. First went there in 1983. I've added up-- I think I've lived seven years of my adult life in Russia at one point or another.
And I am very surprised at how the propaganda has worked so far, even with friends of mine, people I've known for 30 years. And I don't understand it, and I think we need to understand it as a country and as a community, or for people that are concerned about confrontation with Russia.
Third, the Cold War. So I skipped the slides where I explained why this is not a new Cold War, because I spoke too long. I'll send them to you, OK? Mcfaul@stanford.edu.
But I see this as coming mostly out of Russia. I don't remember where Barack Obama compared Vladimir Putin to Stalin. I don't remember where he compared Putin to the head of ISIS. I see the ideological framework being much more defined, and maybe just in a more analytic term, right?
I think you can measure that this has happened in Russia, and I would say we're not paying attention enough to it. Not that we're invoking it, but that we need to understand, this is not just another blip along the road, and we'll just get back-- you know, we'll have a new election. They'll do reset 2.0, and everything will be fine.
I don't see that. I want that. I want it desperately. I want to make clear about that, that I am the reset guy. I wanted this kind of different relationship. I'm the guy that wrote in the president's speech, I think it's in the US national interest for a strong, prosperous-- I wanted to get the word democratic in there, and I lost that debate-- Russia.
That's the way I see the world. But you know, it takes two to tango, and I think they've pivoted at least at the top in this different direction. And I think we need to come to grips with it in a much more serious way, comprehensive way than we have so far. So that's why maybe I invoke that to get your attention, and then I qualify it later in their remarks, but I'll send it to you. And the last one was--
FRED LOGEVALL: CIA transparency.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: CIA. CIA transparency. I'm all for it. Seriously, I do think it is-- I support it. I do. I'm hesitating, because there are things I'm not allowed to talk about that we tried to do to create more transparency and understanding between our intelligence agencies and their intelligence agencies. We did. That was part of the reset.
And we achieved some results, by the way. We had cooperation. Sochi, for instance. Just-- I'm trying to find things I can talk about that are at 30,000 feet and not in the weeds. But just imagine if your job is to make sure that the athletes and tourists from America are safe in Sochi. That was one of our assignments at the embassy, right?
Sochi's 800 miles south from the embassy. It's located near the Caucasus, near where all of this fighting is happening. And there's a real war happening in the Caucasus right now. More soldiers and police were killed my last year as ambassador in the Caucasus than Americans were killed in Afghanistan, just to give you a sense of how it felt.
We were scared to death of what might happen to our people in Sochi during the Olympics. And we cooperated closely with the Russians, including through the channels that were invoked.
And that took some work, by the way. These are people that don't often sit down with each other. These are people that do have suspicions. It was our theory, it was our strategy, it was our policy that even cooperation in that domain would serve American national interests, and kind of peeling back some of the stereotypes.
And by the way, American stereotypes about the Russians too in this domain are pretty pronounced and deep. And maybe you've watched the Americans, right? You know, they don't have as much capacity as sometimes Hollywood assigns them as well, and so that was part of the objective.
And I guess maybe this is a good place to end. And that's why for me when I think back on those years where even in the hardest domain, fighting terrorism, keeping the peace in third areas, we were achieving progress, why this current period feels so tragic to me. Thank you all.
FRED LOGEVALL: Three things before you-- two things before you join me in thanking our guest. First, please do stick around if you can for a reception, which will be just outside these doors. Second, have two things. So the first is a certificate that we want to present to you as this year's Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellow, and a little-- well, I should say a little-- a gift.
So thanks again.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thank you. Thank you.
It's fantastic. Thank you.
FRED LOGEVALL: And you're already doing this, but I'll have you do it one more time. Please join me in thanking Ambassador--
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Oh. One more time.
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Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia (2012-14), delivered the Henry E. and Nancy Horton Bartels World Affairs Fellowship lecture March 16. McFaul tackled the question haunting U.S.-Russia relations: "What happened … why are we in this mess?" He looked at recent history to decipher the current chill.