Ambassador McFaul served in the Obama administration for two years, is now a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and had a very candid assessment of the growing threat Russia poses.
HH: Last week when I was at the Hoover Institution, I had hoped to sit down with Ambassador Michael McFaul. That didn’t happen, but I’m sort of glad I didn’t connect last week with the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at Hoover, because today, he joins me. Mr. Ambassador, welcome, it’s great to have you here.
MM: Yeah, thanks for having me.
HH: Well, it’s great to have the former Ambassador to Russia on today, because CNN is running a story at this hour about Admiral William Gortney’s testimony today at the Senate Armed Services Committee, that Russia’s continuing to work on its program to deploy long range, conventionally-armed cruise missiles that can be launched from bomber aircraft, submarines and warships, and that the trends over time, NORAD is going to face an increased risk in our ability to defend North America against Russian air, maritime and cruise missile threats, and that this is, according to the Admiral, the most assertive Russia has been in any year since the Cold War. Is this a surprise to you, Mr. Ambassador?
MM: Well, I haven’t had time today to hear his testimony, but it’s not surprising what you just said. No, I mean, these are trends that have been in place for years now of modernization of both convention and nuclear weapons systems in Russia under Vladimir Putin. And I think it’s time we all come to grips with it. Unfortunately, it’s a tragic turn. I’m not, you know, there’s no other way to describe it but that, but it is just the truth that Russia is becoming more aggressive. Russia is become more assertive militarily. And this notion of 20 years ago, right, Russia’s weak, Russia’s poor, the Cold War’s over, we don’t have to think about them anymore, that needs to be set aside. That’s not the Russia that we have today.
HH: Now Ambassador McFaul, when you were the ambassador from January of ’12 to February of ’14, two years, how many times did you actually talk with Putin?
MM: So the way diplomacy works is ambassadors to countries like Russia don’t meet with the heads of state, Putin or otherwise, right? By the way, American presidents don’t, either, except in extraordinary circumstances. So I saw him when he met with President Obama, when he met with Secretary Kerry, Secretary Clinton, Tom Donilon, who is the national security advisor. I would guess probably half a dozen times in my time in the government.
HH: And so, but your assessment of him, has he changed, or are we changing in our understanding of him? I asked George W. Bush that a couple of years ago, and former President Bush said he changed, the President did, not President Putin. Putin was the same, but he’d head faked Bush at the beginning. What do you think?
MM: I think both are true. I think Putin has gotten, has become more suspicious of the West. He’s always been suspicious, right? Let’s be clear about that. He’s a former KGB colonel, so he’s always had that mindset. But over the last several years, it’s gotten worse. He assigns powers to the United States that we don’t have. He can’t believe that individuals would actually do something, you know, to make their lives better. So when people demonstrate, for instance, he always assigns that to the CIA in some conspiratorial plot. And with time, with age, he’s gotten worse with that. And second, he’s become more withdrawn. You know, 15 years ago, he had a group of advisors. Some were, we would call them conservative economists. In Russia, they call them neo-liberal economists. But they were friends of his, they were colleagues of this. They worked in the government with him. They got a flat tax done, by the way, a Hoover Institution idea that we’ve never done in our country, and he reduced the corporate tax by 11%. And he was talking to those people. Today, he doesn’t talk to them. Today, you know, he’s been in power for 14 years, 15 years. He thinks he knows everything. And so his circle of friends and circle of advisors has gotten smaller. And I think that makes him more dangerous.
HH: Now in terms of that level of danger, how does he assess President Obama? What’s your opinion of his opinion of President Obama?
MM: He thinks President Obama double-crossed him. He thinks President Obama lied to him. In particular, he had a view of Obama, Obama first met Putin, I was there when he was still prime minister. It was in July, 2009, and you know, Putin went on at great length in that meeting about all the bad things that the Bush administration had done in terms of U.S.-Russian relations. By the way, he has a very positive assessment of President George W. Bush, the person. He likes him a lot. He thought the team around him was bad for U.S.-Russian relations. And at the end of the meeting, he kind of said well, you know, maybe you’re different, we’ll see what works out. But I’m not dealing with you Americans. Deal with President Medvedev. Remember, Medvedev was the president then. I think today, Putin looks at Obama and says he’s the same kind of regime changer, revolution promoter that George W. Bush was, and other presidents, and so he has a rather negative adversarial attitude towards the current president.
HH: Now in the context of the issue of the moment, whether or not Iran concludes a deal with the United States on nuclear weapons and capacity, does Putin have an attitude on that? Does he want Iran to go nuclear? Could that possibly be in Russia’s interest?
MM: So it’s a great question, because in all of this conflict we are in, and I think this is a conflict for years and decades to come, by the way, with Russia over what’s happening in Ukraine and the threats to Europe. At the same time, we’re still cooperating on a couple of key things, and Iran is one of them. I’m kind of surprised by it, frankly, but I’m glad they are. The Russians have not peeled away from the P5+1 process that is the negotiations with Iran. And my guess is, my educated guess, it’s not just a wild-ass guess, it’s based on watching them rather closely when I was in the government, is they want to see whether the Obama administration gets a deal. And if they do, they’ll support it. They’re not going out of their way to make it happen, but they’re not going out of their way to torpedo it. However, if it doesn’t go through, then I think you’re going to see the Russians push to break the sanctions, start trading with the Iranians more, and basically the international consortium that has been in place to put pressure on Iran, you know, I think will probably fall apart pretty quickly.
HH: And do you think about that deal in Iran, what do you think about that deal and its outline that we’re on the brink of? Yesterday, I had people on from the Tom Cotton wing saying that this is a terrible deal, and Ted Cruz saying it’s Munich all over again. What do you think, Ambassador McFaul?
MM: Well, I don’t know the contours of the deal. I’m always surprised, when I was in the government, we were doing deals and I would hear people talk about the deal as if they knew it. And I would hope that they didn’t, because these things are usually, you know, the best negotiations are usually done quietly. My main argument about it is if you don’t like the process on the deal that’s being negotiated, you have to have an alternative. You have to say this is what we’re going to get instead. You can’t just say well, I want a better deal. You know, it’s like buying a house. Yeah, I’d like to pay $2 million instead of $3 million, but if the other side’s not going to take it, then you have to have, you have to be, have an alternative strategy. Otherwise, walking away is not, you know, of course you’d like a better deal, but you have to get the deal you can get. And the alternative, I fear, is war. I mean, I don’t see an alternative beside war, and war with Iran, bombing Iran, that’s a pretty costly alternative.
End of interview.