Michael McFaul, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia
Michael A. McFaul served as Ambassador of the United States of America to the Russian Federation from January 2012 to February 2014. Prior to becoming Ambassador, he served for three years as the special assistant to the President and senior director for Russia and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council.
McFaul is a professor of political science and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University. He is also director and senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).
He is a writer and author, including most recently From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (2018), a best-selling inside account of U.S.-Russia relations from 1989 to the present.
In this episode, Ambassador McFaul explains how Putin has changed since first coming to power, what he’s like in person, and the latest from leadership in Kyiv. We also discuss how to run an embassy, the value and limitations of historical analogues, and why his boss told him to get on Twitter.
Listen to full episode:
More from this episode:
- @McFaul on Twitter
- “Indifferent to Democracy.” The Washington Post, March 3, 2000
- From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (2018)
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Hello, welcome to It's Not Magic, a podcast from Sixth Street about business building that strips away the pretense and gets right to the useful stuff. I'm your host, David Stiepleman. We use this show to talk to founders and industry leaders and get them to explain in plain English what they set out to do and specifically how they do it.
The skeptic is going to think we're already stretching the scope of the podcast on just our second episode, but we're going to convert the skeptics, because our guest has such an interesting and varied background and is uniquely positioned to talk about not only how to run successful organizations, but to give us inside baseball on some of the most pressing issues facing the world.
That’s not an exaggeration, because our guest today is Ambassador Michael McFaul. He is the director of the Freeman's Spogli Institute for International Studies, he's a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and is Professor of Political Science, all at Stanford University. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1995, and from 2009 to 2014, he served the United States: first as Special Assistant to President Obama and Senior Director for Russian and Eurasian Affairs at the National Security Council, and then from 2012 to 2014 as US Ambassador to the Russian Federation.
You've probably seen Ambassador McFaul lately as an analyst on NBC News or read his columns in The Washington Post. He's written a lot of books, including The New York Times bestseller, From Cold War to Hot Peace, An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia and the forthcoming Autocrats vs. Democrats. He's one of the few Americans, and maybe one of the few people on the planet, who has spent real time with and knows both Vladimir Putin and President Zelensky of Ukraine.
Ambassador McFaul visited with the entire Sixth Street team at our annual offsite this week in Austin, Texas. We had an awesome, important conversation, obviously about Ukraine and what's coming for global stability, but also his career, going from being a solo act as an academic to shaping global policy with big teams, to running an embassy and how that was like being the mayor of a small town. I think you'll enjoy it. We'll go right into it.
Ambassador Michael McFaul, on behalf of the Sixth Street team, thank you so much for being here. We're very excited to have you with us.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks David for having me.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Let's start with Putin. I think if you read the amateur analysis around, “Is this NATO's fault? Did we push him to it? Is he going to use nuclear weapons? What's his end game?” It kind of depends on the writer's predilection about whether he's a genius, a great tactician, very rational, or if he's lost his marbles. Could we start there, and maybe you can talk about your 2009 meeting that you had with him in Moscow?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, we're starting with a hard question right away, huh David? I thought we were going to talk about Barack Obama's jump shot.
So, Putin and I go way back. We first met in 1991. I first wrote my article warning about his autocratic ways in 2000, so 22 years ago. I saw him up close usually meeting with President Obama, sometimes Vice President Biden, secretaries of state, national security advisors for the five years that I worked in the government. I'm now on the Russia sanctions list. I was one of the first Americans to get on that list, so I haven't seen him in the last eight years, and needless to say, we're not Facebook friends, we're not chatting, but I follow him closely and listen to him.
I would say a couple of things. First of all, he's changed over time. The Putin that became president in 2000 does not have the same worldview that he has today. That comes, I think, with being too long in power. He doesn't listen to anybody anymore. He doesn't think about his advisors, particularly his economic advisors, by the way. They've really lost their cache, their access to him over these years.
He’s become more paranoid over time. I think early in his career, he thought he was in control of his country, and he thought that the risks and threats from the West were not that great. I mean, back 20 years ago, by the way, he said openly that Russia should join NATO. But over time, as he's become more autocratic, democratic ideas, individuals and countries have become more threatening to him, and he's become more paranoid about that.
So, in the debate about NATO expansion, I don't think that's what caused this war at all. It was democratic expansion and particularly Ukrainians having the audacity to think that they could practice democracy in their own country. That's what threatens him, because if they can do it and they have the same history and culture, according to Putin, as Russians, that means that Russians can do it as well. So I think that's what's going on here. He's trying to roll back what the Ukrainians call “the revolution of dignity” from 2014, he calls it a neo-Nazi coup supported by us.
You're absolutely right that the first time that President Obama met Putin, he was then Prime Minister Putin. It was the summer of 2009. I was there with him. We spent about three and a half hours with Putin. So, the President got a great chance to listen to his views of the world, and you heard this paranoia – by the way, with some facts, with some truth.
I think we need to be careful about not creating black and white things here, but he went on and on about America overthrowing regimes we didn't like, and he's talking principally about Iraq. He talked about all the mistakes that the Bush administration made in eight years in power. By the way, never about President Bush. I know I'm speaking to people in Texas, at least some of you live there. He really went out of his way to talk about President Bush being a good guy and a friend, but it was the deep state, right? The CIA, the Pentagon, Dick Cheney, that whole crowd that did these bad things around the world.
At the end of his long soliloquy about Iraq – he went on for like 10, 15 minutes, I would say, just on Iraq – President Obama actually agreed with him. He said “you're right.” By the way, I don't think Putin had ever heard an American say that, that you were right about Iraq, he'd only been talking to President Bush and his team. And Obama said to him, “We're not going to do that anymore. We're different.” He said, “You probably don't know, but I ran as President against the war, and it's one of the reasons I am President.” I remember watching Putin looking at Obama, thinking, maybe there is going to be change, but 18 months later there was the Arab Spring in 2011.
I want to be crystal clear. We had nothing to do with that. We didn't spark it. We didn't try to overthrow our own partners in the Middle East, but from Putin's paranoid view of the world, that was a continuum from him. Here it is, regime change again, then exploded in his own country that same year, then two years later, as I just said, that's when Ukraine happened – and that to me is where his paranoia is. It's about democracy.
To the question about nuclear weapons, however, I would say a couple of things. Putin's paranoid. He's really upset. You can hear it in his voice when he talks. This war is…
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: I should tell the viewers, you speak Russian, so you hear him in Russian. You can figure out that tone, not just through translation?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Exactly. I do speak Russian and in all those meetings I was in, with Obama, I was always there so that I could hear the Russian and the English. He always wanted me there. You hear the anger in his voice, you hear the unhingedness and just telling lies as he just did in the May ninth speech that he just gave, which should have been a day to celebrate the veterans who helped to defeat fascism in World War II, and instead he turned it into this explanation for his war. But, he is not, I would say, suicidal. If you look at his meetings with his aids, David, he doesn't want to get COVID. He makes them sit 50 feet apart. That's not a guy that I think is defying and wants to die. I don't think he does. Therefore, I think the threat of a strategic nuclear war against us actually is quite low.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Compare him to Zelensky. There's a lot in what you just said, and I want to tease out a couple of themes. Compare him to Zelensky, who you also know, and you spent real time with.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: I did. I hosted Zelensky at Stanford last fall. I've spoken to him a couple times during the war. I was actually just speaking to his chief of staff. That was my call right before yours. Andriy Yermak is his name, and he's considered the number two guy in Ukraine. I tell you that, David, because we were talking with Yermak about how the world needs heroes.
Zelensky, I think, has risen to the occasion. He is a badass. The Russians, Putin, thought he would just leave, he would flee, he would go to Poland and play a kind of [Charles] de Galle role from Poland. You know what he did? He got out of his bunker, it's eight stories down in the bunker he lives in, and he went out on national television on Telegraph, the platform that he uses, and he said, “We're here, we’re not going anywhere.” I think without question he's inspired Ukrainian warriors, but I think he's inspired the world to say, “We want to stand with him.”
And that drives Putin nuts, because that image of this hero fighting for his homeland is exactly the opposite of the image that Putin is dealing with. I think Putin threw a lot away in this war. I disagreed with him, obviously. I think he was taking Russia in a wrong direction for a long time. I think a democratic Russia today could have been a rich and respectable great power in the international system. A democratic Russia today could be one of the most important countries in Europe, right? He chose a different direction.
Yet, I have to admit that before this war, he had restored Russia as a great power, as a respected…respected is too strong a word, but, a power that you had to deal with. Russians were richer before this war than at any time in their history. And I think tragically, for Russians, and for Ukrainians, of course, but even for Russians, he threw it all away by overreaching. He was on a roll. He had won four wars in a row, and he thought this was going to be a cake walk and it's turned into a complete disaster. So, the contrast between the paranoid leader of Russia who literally has to lie, he has to invent reality to try to rally his support at home, versus Zelensky, could not be more striking to me.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: I've heard you draw the comparison between Putin now, making this miscalculation, hubris, maybe being on a roll, being isolated and Brezhnev in the seventies, in Afghanistan. You want to explain that?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yeah, I do think it's an important analogy. Remember, Putin's been in power for 22 years. I don’t know how it is in your world, but in the political world, people can stay on too long, right? They can lose touch with reality. He does not have good feedback loops. He doesn't listen to…he's not on Twitter, right? There’s no independent media. He gets all of his information through secret sources and those people providing those packets, they’re these red folders that come to him that say “top secret” on it. They have a vested interest in telling him that everything's great, and he's great, and this is going to be a cakewalk. It does remind me of Brezhnev, because Brezhnev also was in power for a couple of decades. And initially, if you remember the seventies, it felt like history was on the Soviet side, right?
So, in the seventies, Marxist Leninist regimes were taking over. Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Angola, Mozambique, even Nicaragua, right, and it felt like history was on their side. Conversely, here in the United States, I was too young to remember it, but I've read about it, the late sixties, early seventies, those were not good times for America. We were divided over civil rights fights and then the war. We were not doing well abroad, punctuated by Richard Nixon's departure. It looked like we were weak and divided. Not unlike how it sometimes feels today, right?
And with that background, Brezhnev just decided, okay, I'm on a roll. Let's just go into Afghanistan. This is going to be easy. And he got bad information about that. I think we now write retrospectively that the war in Afghanistan was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union, where he overreached, stayed too long, a big drain on the economy.
It didn't happen right away. There was a long period between the invasion of Afghanistan and the collapse of the Soviet Union. The first leaders after Brezhnev, this is an important part of the analogy, were not reformers. It was Andropov and then Chernenko, but the third one was this guy Gorbachev, who said this was a giant mistake in Afghanistan and eventually got them out of that war. I see the possibility for a similar scenario with Putin and Putin's Russia. He’d been on a roll too. He'd won four wars in a row, right? Chechnya, 1999, Georgia, 2008, Ukraine, 2014, Syria, 2015. He thought this fifth war was going to be a cakewalk, and I think he overplayed his hand.
By the way, this kind of invasion at the scale he is doing is not the same kind of opponents that he faced before, kind of similar to Brezhnev too. I think eventually – I don't think it'll happen under Putin's rule; I think he's got a strong enough dictatorship that he'll hold on to power for as long as he's physically and mentally able – but I would be shocked if five or six years, let alone 10 or 15 years, after Putin that somebody like him would be governing the same way as he is today.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: So, I have a complicated question that comes on the heels of that. And I say complicated because I hope my COVID brain's able to pull it off. We’ve been talking in analogies and frameworks, in historical precedents. If you think about World War II, if that's the right analogy, you go down certain roads: this is Sudetenland or this is Poland, or if you talk about the Finnish Winter War, it's that, if you talk about the Russo-Japanese wars, you were talking about Afghanistan. My question isn't so much what's the right analogy here. My question is how do you sift among the analogies? You seem pretty good at figuring out the vectors. You referenced your 2000 Washington Post article, which I have here actually, and it’s pretty prescient talking about the likelihood of autocracy and what Putin is really interested in - that's 22 years ago. How do you select among the reliability of analogies and frameworks? And I think it has parallels to investing in thinking about things that we think about.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: David, that's a fantastic question. And I don't have a great answer. I would say a couple of things though. I'm an academic, I'm a political scientist. We have our models about how to make comparisons to different wars or different revolutions. I would say we're pretty bad at predicting the future.
By the way, I worked five years in the government, I would say the same thing about the CIA. They were not very good at it either. But what I did notice in the government, we have lots of methods, right? Quantitative methods, game theory, experiments that we use in the social sciences – what I was struck by in the government is that nobody uses any of those methods. They all use historic analogy, to your point. That's the currency of the realm. And you wonder why, well, that's because that's what they know. They weren't trained in those other methods.
But a danger of that, and I saw it during the Arab Spring up close and very clear during the Arab Spring in 2011, is our top foreign policymakers only know certain historical cases. So back in 2011, the Arab Spring is happening: first Tunisia, then Egypt, then Syria, then Libya. The analogy that when I sat down in The White House situation room and listened to Secretary Gates and Secretary Clinton, analogize. They were comparing this moment to the Iranian revolution in 1978, 1979. I thought that was really bizarre because I could think of a lot of different kinds of analogies that were closer, to your point, right? I actually told my boss about them, the national security advisor, and later I started writing up these analogies for the President. One pagers, by the way – academia we get 30 pages, with the President, you get one page. Summarize the Polish transition from communism in one page.
I did about 50 of those with help from experts. But it's a really important point you're making because the danger of the wrong analogy can lead you down different paths. For this particular moment, I think 1939 and the Finnish war that you just described, I think those are apt comparisons, with the big difference of course, is that Putin may have had the same intentions as Stalin back in 1939, 1940, 1941.
I think it's pretty clear now that he does not have those same capabilities – with one giant scary exception, and that's nuclear weapons. Very thankfully, Hitler and Stalin did not have nuclear weapons during World War II, and that's the one wild card that is, I would say “sui generis” in the way that we analogize about the situation here. Tith, of course, the one exception is that we did use nuclear weapons at the end of World War II. And I actually see some false analogies that some of my colleagues are using in and outside of the government with that use of nuclear weapons for the situation in Ukraine today.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Can you explain that? I want to make sure I understand that.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yeah, so there is a school of thought. Most certainly, the Biden administration is rightfully worried about it. I want to underscore that. Whenever you talk about nuclear weapons, people should be concerned. No matter what the probability is about their use, the catastrophic consequences are so great that even if you think it's a 1% probability, you want to get that down to 0.5, 0.3, 0.2, 0.1. And that’s the separation by the way, in the U.S. government, between the intelligence community, the DNI, Avril Haines friend of mine and, and Bill Burns, the director of the CIA, their job is to present those probabilities.
The policymakers’ job, beginning with the President, is to shape those probabilities. There's a lot of debate about “will Putin use nuclear weapons or not?” I'd say two things about that with respect to strategic nuclear weapons. I think that probability is very, very low for two reasons: one, that's suicide again, and I don't think Putin is suicidal. There’s no winners in a strategic nuclear exchange between the United States and Russia. I was part of the team that negotiated the last arms control agreement, by the way, and we got rid of 30% of the nuclear weapons in the world. That was a great day, that was a great achievement for President Obama. But we still left in place 1,550 on both sides, and you can blow up the world multiple times with that nuclear arsenal. So, I don't think Putin’s suicidal.
But I also think, to reassure our audience, he has deliberately had some people speak on the record in his government to say the same thing. They have said, and this is his press spokesperson, this is the former president, President Medvedev, they have said on the record that we will only use nuclear weapons if there is an existential threat to Russia, and thankfully, there isn't. Nobody's talking about attacking Russia. That’s on the strategic side.
The tactical side is more ambiguous, and some argue - very prominent people inside the government and outside - that Putin might be tempted to use a tactical nuclear weapon inside Ukraine if he feels like he's losing the war. That may be the case. Obviously, I don't have access to secret information anymore that they're contemplating that, but I think there's a false analogy to our use of nuclear weapons in 1945 in the following sense. Remember, by 1945, the Japanese army had been fighting for many, many years. Well before we started fighting them in 1941. Number two, by that time, by 1945, they were exhausted as a military force, and everybody knew it was just a matter of time until they lost that war. So, President Truman made the decision to accelerate the end of the war by the use of nuclear weapons.
I think that's a false analogy compared to Ukraine today. First, Ukrainians don't feel like they're losing this war. Not at all. Number two, they feel like the world is on their side. Japan was isolated by 1945. The entire world, except for a few countries, is on Ukraine’s side. And number three, therefore, my sense talking to Ukrainians on a pretty regular basis is if Putin used a tactical nuclear weapon against a Ukrainian city, their response would not be to just capitulate. Their response would be to escalate and to take the war to Russia.
I'm just guessing here, right, I have no way to predict that, but I think people have underestimated the potential capabilities of Ukrainians to do pretty nasty things to Russian cities, if they were in an escalatory mode. Terrorist attacks in Moscow, for instance, those are things that they rightly in my view have not done, because they're seeking to keep the war relatively within the boundaries of Ukraine. Every now and then they go in and attack supply lines. But the use of a nuclear weapon I think would change their calculus in terms of the way they think about the war inside Russia.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: It’s hard to know from the outside certainly for someone like me, and even for you, because you're not in those conversations anymore, but we started off being very ginger, the United States, about not seeming to be too directly supplying Ukraine. All bets are off on that now it would seem, and the Secretary of Defense and I think the President said the idea is to try and neutralize the Russian army on a go-forward basis. Does that start to creep towards that existential threat, that the Russians have told us as long as you don't do that, we're not going to use a strategic nuclear weapon?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: It does. Creeps is the right word, and I think we need to be very careful about defining what our objectives are in supplying the Ukrainians with weapons and sanctions and fortifying NATO. In my view, we were way too slow in the beginning. I said that a hundred times, including to the President of the United States, when I had the chance to brief him about it.
In my view, David, we were years too slow. We should have been providing these arms back in 2014, 2015 - I'm criticizing the government I served in - as a way to deter where we're at today. But, that was then, this is now. So, I applaud the Biden administration for now increasing both the speed, the quantity and the quality of weapons to the Ukrainians.
I think they could go further by the way, but I applaud that. I do not think it should be our strategic objective to weaken Russia, their military or their economy. I think that is the wrong objective right now. I think the objective should be: do what we can to end this war. In my view, the only way you're going to end this war is if Putin believes that he no longer can advance his military objectives. So that means you give the Ukrainians the weapons to fight to stop Putin. I do not think at this time we should extend our objectives to fundamentally weaken the Russian army or fundamentally destroy the Russian economy. I think we should limit our objectives to ending the war.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Help me understand those things between what you just said – and you've been very vocal about sanctions. You chair our international working group on sanctions. I think you put a piece in The Washington Post maybe earlier this week on how we take sanctions to the next level. So, what's the goal there?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, with sanctions, the goal is also to end the war. But that's controversial. I want to be clear, my views on that are not shared by everybody in the Ukrainian government and most certainly not throughout even here in the United States.
I always kind of philosophically believe sanctions should be to achieve a purpose. I think we get into a slippery slope. Cuba is a good example where we kind of lose the thread on what the objective was and they just stay in place forever. I worked on the sanctions regime vis-a-vie Iran, and it was a very successful regime in my view. It put enough pressure on the Iranians to sign the Iran nuclear deal, and I think that's a good example of how to use sanctions. That's my personal view.
But I would say two things: my view is also, if you share that view, then you’ve got to be all in. This incrementalism does not achieve that objective. It has to be shock and awe with sanctions, and I think dribbling them out undermines that objective. It doesn't help that objective. And then there’s one caveat in my views that I would say needs to be added to it, which is: when the war ends, there's going to be a massive rebuilding. Economists smarter than I measure it to be about $1 trillion to rebuild Ukraine. Well, the Russians have to help pay for that. And that's a place where some of the sanctions that have been put in place, particularly the freezing of the central bank, the dollar deposits that we’ve frozen – we froze, depending on how you count it, it's 300 or 400 billion dollars – I think there's an argument to be made that those are assets, because those are from the Russian government, that could be used for the reconstruction of Ukraine.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Could you talk about Twitter? You’re on Twitter. You're pretty good at Twitter as far as I can tell. You seem pretty good at Twitter. So, on the one hand, there's a lot of information out there and people are able to talk very directly and there's a lot of noise, but there's a lot of ways to talk to people. On other hand, it's hard to understand what Russian public opinion is. Information's being controlled very tightly. I've heard you say gee, compared to the Cold War, we have fewer bilateral kind of connections with people you need to be talking to. A theme of your career is you’ve got to talk to each other. How do I think about this?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: First of all, I want to tell everybody, and I'll write about it in my book: I did not choose to be on Twitter.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Who told you to do it?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: My boss at the time, remember, I'd worked at The White House for three years, worked on the campaign even before then, and then President Obama nominated me to become ambassador, and that meant that I was switching over to the State Department where, at the time, the Secretary of State was Hillary Clinton. You just need to remember, by the time I became ambassador, of course, we were all on the same team, but we weren't all on the same team in 2008. So for me to migrate over - remember the President's always the boss for everybody, but I was acquiring a new boss, Secretary Clinton - and in my last briefing with her before I went out to Moscow, I went over to see her and she gave me some marching orders.
She’s my new boss. I was writing notes. I was taking notes. She had three things she wanted me to do. And one of 'em, she said, “Mike, we gotta talk to the Russian people. And it's the 21st century. And so, you need to get on social media.” She mentioned Twitter in particular as a tool to communicate directly to people. I'm from Montana but lived the last 30 years of my life here in California and been around these companies, but I'd never seen Twitter, David, until she told me that. I literally had never seen the platform. I got a briefing from her social media advisor, and then I got on Twitter.
It was an incredibly useful tool for us to communicate directly to the Russian people so that we didn't have to wait for an invitation from Russian media, most of which was controlled by the government. And two, it's a two-way street, right? So, it's not just broadcasting. Imagine how shocked high school kids in Vladivostok were when – they didn't believe it was me, first of all – when I would then tweet back, and I could prove it was me by all the mistakes I made trying to tweet in Russian, it was a great tool to communicate. And by the way, it was a great tool to communicate about things not just about policy, because one of the things that Clinton's advisor told me, he said, “Mike, if you just tweet out State Department press releases, you're going to have 50 followers. You’ve gotta embrace this platform as if you're a public figure. That's going to be uncomfortable for you.”
I've been on TV for a long time. I've talked, but I've always talked as an analyst, and he was saying, no, now you are going to have to talk as ambassador. You're going to have to write about your kids a little bit. You're going to have to write about, you know, Stanford and Montana. He was looking for hooks that would be popular in Russia. And by the way, he was absolutely right about that stuff. You’ve got to mix in the spinach with the fun stuff. So, I began tweeting about, “I coached my son's third grade basketball team when I was in Moscow.” And that was shocking for Russians to think that an ambassador would A) do that, but yet tweet about it. Remember, we don't know anything about Putin's kids, right? It’s totally mysterious. I became at one point one of the top 10 bloggers in all of Russia when I was ambassador.
So, I think it's a very useful tool to communicate, and to the second part of your question, I just don't think we're doing enough. I think we’ve kind of gotten out of the habits of communicating abroad. Yes, it's more difficult in places like China and Russia, but I think we’ve got to get in this game in a much more proactive way as a government. And then individuals like me do the same.
Right before this call, David, I was just on a call on YouTube – YouTube hasn't been banned yet in Russia – with Russian journalists and they’re, kind of, opposition Russian journalists. And their followings are growing. I mean, they measure their audiences in the tens of millions, and that is approaching what Putin has on his old-fashioned television station. So, I just think there's a lot more work that can be done in this world in this space. It's hard because the autocrats have a lot of tools, but I think there's a giant demand for good content, and I think we have to think more creatively about how to do that.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Is that increase in the opposition channels, is that a last 75 days’ phenomenon?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes. Well, two things happen. One, the war happened, and people wanted to learn more about the war. So, if you're living in Putin's bubble – and we know the demographics, we've done enough studying about who they are – Putin's bubble is, to oversimplify a bit, the older you are, the less educated you are, the more rural place you live and the less wealthy you are, the more likely you are to live in that information bubble that Putin creates. But conversely, the younger you are, the more urban you are, the more educated you are, the wealthier you are, you're not likely to listen to him. That's most of Moscow, that's most of St. Petersburg. There's tens of millions of people that don't tune in to Putin's propaganda stations. And there, I think there's work to be done to be interacting with those people.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: So, the things that we hear in the U.S. press or the Western press about how majorities are fine with this because they're getting bad information or because as long as their materials are not effective, they're fine. I'm talking about the Russian population. You don't believe that?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: I don’t, and let me explain why. So, I used to do public opinion work in Russia earlier in my academic career. First, I know all the opinion poll companies really well, I’ve known them for 30 years, and I don't believe their data, for this really simple reason: if you're sitting out there in Vladivostok and some stranger from Moscow calls you, David, and says, “David, my name's Misha, I work for a polling firm here in Moscow. I want you to tell me what you think, David, about Putin.” And, people need to understand this, when somebody calls from Moscow and this has been true for decades, that's the boss, that's the power, that's the Kremlin calling, right? The idea that you're separate from them does not exist in the minds of most Russians.
So, there's only one rational answer to that, David. Yeah, you support Vladimir Putin. Why would you say anything else? There's no rational reason for you to say anything else. So that's fact number one. Fact number two: sanctions are having an effect, not just on the oligarchs, but on the middle classes. I just saw the data for auto sales year to year in April. They're down 70%. That's affecting millions of Russians, and there's lots of data like that coming out. I don't believe those opinion polls. I think there's a lot of what we call preference falsification going on inside Russia, because that's the rational thing to do.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: I want to spend the last couple minutes – but I'm not calling that yet – on where this is going. But before we do that, you talked about working on teams, and you're all on the same team in the government. You came from academics, and this is like a tension in your career or a balance in your career between being an academic and an actor in the arena, and you wanted to be both. I think you felt both reinforced the other, that one reinforced the other.
But when you got to government, you went from, I think, being someone who's in their office, I imagine, academic, having a very wonderful, easy lifestyle, reading books and writing things. I'm obviously being facetious, but where it's a solo enterprise. How did you adjust? How did you bring things together? We talk a lot about that at our events, including this offsite, about how to work well together. How did you do that? Was that important?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: It was extremely important, both when I worked at The White House, and then especially when I led an embassy when, added all together, it was 1700 people throughout the country and our consulates. It was a very big management job and a leadership job in a social sense, David. That is, as one of my previous ambassadors explained to me, you're not just the ambassador, you're the mayor of a little town because on the main compound in the Moscow embassy, we had a bowling alley, we had plumbers, we had a bar, we had a gym and all kinds of people working there. We had people living on the campus – 500 people or so living there, and it was a town.
And by the way, we had conflicts. We had fights over, whether we're going to have hot food for lunch or cold food. The Americans all wanted sandwiches and the Russians all wanted borscht. I would say just two lessons. One, I love being on the team. You're absolutely right in the kind of work that I do. I write books by myself, and I sit in front of a computer, like I'm doing now trying to write. By the way, that is a lot harder than being ambassador. Writing is really, maybe just for me, but it is really hard. But it's a solo enterprise. I love being on the team. I love being part of a larger enterprise, with no footnotes, that we are all together.
I think for me, as an outsider, remember I was a political appointee coming into Moscow, and so there's rightfully from the state department - and remember an embassy in Moscow had two dozen different pieces of the U.S. government there. It wasn't just the State Department, it's the Pentagon, it's the Department of Commerce, it’s NASA. You might not be surprised that we might have members of the intelligence community there, too.
So, it was a big enterprise with people with lots of different equities. For me, it was always probably pretty obvious things, but because I came from academia I was not afraid of decentralization. I think some mistake, and I don't want to analogize to things I don't know, I'm being very careful here, but I do think a mistake that we make in the government, most certainly it's a mistake Putin's making that he does not have that feedback loop.
We call it “principal agent problems” in academia, but embassies have it, too. The State Department's a very hierarchical place. As the ambassador, everybody stops when you walk by. I couldn't get used to this, people would stop and open the door for me for God's sakes. I was like, “You don't have to do that, man. I can open my own door.” But that is the culture. I tried to break that down. I tried to learn from the people that know the best. And sometimes those are your first tour officers. And to try to get that feedback loop broken down so that we could not have to go through eight lines of communication to get to me, I found that to be very useful.
And then two, when we were assaulted, I was there at a pretty difficult time where they were doing the nasty things – I write about it in my book – to me and my family, but they were also doing those tough things to members of my community: slicing their tires, breaking into their apartments, trying to scare us. I think signaling that we're all in this together and that we are proudly here to represent not just Barack Obama, but the American people in the United States of America that had an effect that rallied literally the soldiers, because I had some soldiers that worked for me, but everybody else as well.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Thank you for that. That's inspiring. Let me ask you this, the cohesion of the West, the democracies, whatever the right word is, right now seems pretty high, seems to be a miscalculation of Putin.
We have a lot of instability coming. It’s planting season in Ukraine, in Russia. We're not going to see those kinds of shipments of grain or wheat. Places like Egypt import I think 70% of their wheat from that region. We're going to start to see some real pain, hunger, real things happening throughout the world in various regions. Should we assume that the allies are somehow planning for that? Are we against the clock to get things done before things start to devolve?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: You know, I'm really worried about that – your question. Because I agree. It's been incredible, I would say, the unity in the democratic world, free world, liberal world. But I worry about two things. One, I think many Americans have not noticed how many other countries are sitting on the sidelines, right? Africa, Middle East, India, tragically really on the sidelines. China, I get. The rest of them, I think we need to remember that a lot of the rest of the world is sitting on the sidelines. And two, as things get harder and the war drifts out of the news, I worry about solidarity over the long haul. The Director of National Intelligence, Avril Haines is her name, I used to work with her at The White House, she just gave a briefing yesterday to members of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee.
Their assessment is that Putin is not suing for peace anytime soon. He plans to be in it for the long haul. I think that's going to create a challenge about the things you just described, keeping people together because every country in the democratic world has their politics, including our own country. As we get closer to elections, there's going to be more and more argument about why we are doing so much for the Ukrainians when we're not doing enough to help our own people. A big giant package of aid just got out of Congress today. You're going to have people talk about why that’s not going to American people at the same time that people are blaming inflation on being involved in this war.
Now, it's Putin's war. I think it's important for the President of our country and for leaders around the rest of the free world to explain that they're the ones driving up prices, including food prices, by the way. It's just horrible that's happening. I wish that story would get more attention. Starvation is going to happen because Putin is starving Egyptians, but electoral politics are going to make it harder to sustain this effort over the months and, tragically dare I say, years.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Let me finish with this. There are a million things to talk about. There's China vs. the UN, there’s will Putin do sham referendum in the Donbas and what does that look like. Maybe help us help ourselves. Who are you reading? Who are you paying attention to? Who do you think is reliable and thoughtful, beside yourself?
MICHAEL MCFAUL: That’s a hard question. Follow Zelensky, he's the first guy. I talked to him about it. Remember, he was an accidental president. There's democratic politics in Ukraine. You know, he was fighting with different parties before this war, but I think he's really risen to the occasion, and I find his messaging very clear, and it's about life or death for his country, but it's about life or death for the rest of us.
I think he rightly says that if they win in Ukraine, that helps our allies in Europe and makes nervous our enemies around the world. But the opposite is true, too. If he loses, that makes our allies in Europe very nervous and helps our enemies around the world, and I think that clarity is very important.
Other people that I read closely, I find Timothy Garton Ash to be somebody worth reading. I find Anne Applebaum as well. She writes for The Atlantic. I find Anne to be very smart. I'm not supposed to advertise other professors because Stanford is where all the great professors are. Let me advertise one other Stanford professor, because he has a new book coming out. I think it just came out today, in fact. Frank Fukiyama: don't believe all the twisted stuff that you've read about Frank in The End of History, I find his writing about the world incredibly powerful and his new book about liberalism is a real message to both Republicans and Democrats in America. I think to the world, I highly recommend Frank about everything, but he writes about Ukraine as well. The one guy I was going to mention, he's a professor, Tim Snyder at Yale. Yale's a very fine institution. I think Stanford's a better one, but on this issue, I think Tim Snyder, I try to read closely everything that he writes.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: That's awesome. I highly recommend your book. We'll get it for people if they want it. I would follow ambassador McFaul on Twitter, and I will leave it at saying thank you – it sounds corny – for your service because, thank God you were there and for your continued observations, and thank you so much for spending time with us. We really appreciate it. And good luck. Thanks.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: All right. Bye-bye.
DAVID STIEPLEMAN: Ambassador Michael McFaul joined the Sixth Street annual offsite in Austin, Texas on May 11th, 2022. It was a real honor and pleasure to spend time with him. I don't think it's a stretch at all to take away some business building lessons from the conversation. In particular, that metaphors or analogies or frameworks are useful tools for trying to see where the puck is going, but you can't let them supersede data and common sense.
In everything: diplomacy, business, life, people have to talk to each other to have the trust to be able to get things done. You should follow Ambassador McFaul on Twitter, if you do that kind of thing. He's @McFaul, for good info and analysis on what's happening in Ukraine and beyond.
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