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Democracy versus autocracy: A new ideological war. Aired 2-2:30p ET
Aired May 7, 2018 - 14:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN HOST, AMANPOUR: Tonight, Churchill once called Russia a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma and that is just as
true today as it was then. Perhaps even more so. Former US ambassador Michael McFaul was there as Washington and Moscow hit the rocks. And we
get his insider take on Putin and where it all went wrong.
Good evening, everyone, and welcome to the program. I'm Christiane Amanpour in London.
It may not be the Cold War all over again, but a new kind of ideological war is afoot. This time, instead of communism versus capitalism, it's
autocracy versus democracy.
And it's playing out all over the globe with increasingly authoritarian governments gaining power in places like Poland and Hungary, the
Philippines and Turkey, all key US allies. But Russia and the West are again the main pillars locked in this struggle.
As America's man in Moscow under President Obama, Michael McFaul had a ringside seat to all this action. He was the architect of the famous reset
policy, but by the time he got to Russia as ambassador, that idea was all going up in smoke.
McFaul's new book about being in the room where it happened often with Putin is just out and it's called "From Cold War to Hot Peace" and he joins
me now from Stanford University in California for his first in-depth television interview.
Ambassador McFaul, welcome to the program.
MICHAEL MCFAUL, FORMER US AMBASSADOR TO RUSSIA: Thanks for having me.
AMANPOUR: So hot peace, describe what you mean by that. And I ask you because others are even saying perhaps we're on the brink of some kind of
MCFAUL: Well, I don't think we're on the brink of a hot war. Thankfully, both Vladimir Putin and President Trump want to avoid that and I think what
we saw in Syria showed real de-escalation and trying to avoid that.
But as you just said in your introduction, it is a very confrontational moment. I call it the hot peace to echo that there are elements like the
cold war, but there are some new elements in this confrontation that is even more sinister, I would argue, than the Cold War.
During the last decades of the Cold War, for instance, we didn't have annexation. Tragically, we've now had that when Vladimir Putin invaded and
annexed Crimea in Ukraine in 2014.
We have new weapons, cyber weapons, that we didn't have in the Cold War. And even the way that we talk about international norms, I think, have
changed fundamentally where Vladimir Putin seems much more ready to defy the West in our international norms, much more so than the late Cold War
leaders in the Soviet Union.
AMANPOUR: You write that your mission to Russia "should have been a crowning achievement of my career, an opportunity of a lifetime to further
my ideas about American-Russian relations. It was not." What went wrong in your mission there?
MCFAUL: As a kid at Stanford here during the Cold War, I was worried about confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States. I took my
first trip abroad to Leningrad, Soviet Union, a kid who grew up in Montana, had never been abroad and two years after coming to California for school,
I went there because I wanted to improve relations.
And I had a theory, perhaps somewhat idealistic, that if we could just understand each other, we could reduce tensions. And for the next 30
years, in one way or another, I was involved in that project.
So, going to Moscow in January 2012, the president asked me to continue that project, the reset project. That's why he sent me to Moscow in the
But when I got there, things had changed rather radically from the time that we first began dealing with Russia in 2009 in the Obama
And two big things had changed. One Vladimir Putin was running for president again and planned to return to the Kremlin. And he was not
interested in a cooperative relationship with the United States. That became very clear to me in the early months of my time as ambassador.
But, two, and almost as important, at the time that I landed in Moscow, literally, just weeks before I landed in Moscow, there were massive
demonstrations in Russia protesting a falsified parliamentary election in December 2011.
[14:05:02] And it grew from 50 to 500 and eventually hundreds of thousands of people protesting against the Putin regime. The last time that had
happened in that country was 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.
And so, Putin needed an argument against these protesters and he chose the United States, Obama and me to say that we were fomenting revolution
against him as a way to mobilize his electoral base and to marginalize the democratic forces.
AMANPOUR: But you also say in your book that one of the major issues for him around 2011 was the Arab Spring. And he has seen all these regimes
sort of collapse in the face of very similar internal demonstrations that you're mentioning in Russia.
Was he afraid - forget the United States. Was he afraid that that was going to happen to him in Russia?
MCFAUL: Yes, he was. And I'm glad you mentioned that because people forget that 2011 was a very volatile time where lots of strong men,
autocratic leaders throughout the Middle East were being challenged by big demonstrations.
First in Tunisia, then in Egypt, then Libya, then Syria and, at the end of the year, the same year, that's the year that you had these massive
demonstrations inside Russia against Vladimir Putin and his regime.
His initial reaction, by the way, to those people was he was upset with them. He believed that he had made them rich, that he had brought Russia
off its knees and this middle class - they actually called it the creative class inside Russia - was of his making, he thought.
But his second reaction was fear. And again, the last time that had happened in his country was in 1991, the year the Soviet Union had
collapsed, an event, by the way, that he called the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.
He was not going to allow it to happen again and that's why he decided to crack down on those protesters and to use us as part of the propaganda to
say that they were puppets of the West and literally puppets of me. They used to run videos of me allegedly handing out money to the opposition,
videos saying that I was sent purposely by Barack Obama to overthrow the regime inside Russia.
AMANPOUR: Let me go back to another thing that you've written. When you went to Russia in 1991 after the fall of the Soviet Union and to try to
help them in their move towards democracy - and don't forget, I remember because I was there, Russians were very upset with Americans because they
thought that you had sort of driven them to this shock therapy, the incredibly difficult economic belt tightening that they had to do and
they've never forgotten it. It was one of the worst experiences, they say, of their memories.
But in any event, at about that time, you met Putin in St. Petersburg and he was, in your words, an undistinguished bureaucrat. You wrote, "at the
time, if you had asked me to list 5,000 Russians that might be the next president of Russia, he would not have made the list."
So, reflect on what your initial view of him was, given that you spent a lot of time in the room with him as ambassador. Why did he not make the
list? Did he ever measure up to making the list, in your view?
MCFAUL: So, first of all, just to remind you and your viewers, I was there meeting with him in 1991 before the collapse of the Soviet Union because
his boss Anatoly Sobchak, the mayor of St. Petersburg, wanted to collaborate with Americans to deepen democracy inside St. Petersburg and
the Soviet Union as a whole.
And in that period, people often forget, people wanted to interact with Americans because we thought we had a common purpose to build democracy.
But even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, when I returned and worked for an American NGO dedicated to building democracy, we were welcomed
guests of the regime. We were not overthrowing the regime. We were trying to help them. Boris Yeltsin and many, many other politicians that wanted
us to be there.
You're quite right that shock therapy, the economic piece happened at the same time and really undermined support for democracy. That happened
throughout the entire post-communist world, by the way. That's nothing special to Russia.
But it did frame, in a negative way, the way that many Russians thought about democracy. And as a result of that, throughout the 90s and, in
particular, August 1998 when there was another financial collapse, Russia was hit hard.
That's when Boris Yeltsin decided he needed a new face, a new leader to succeed him. That' when he chose, from obscurity, Vladimir Putin. He
became his prime minister first and then was his anointed president.
[14:10:03] And at the time, 1998, by the way, there was another heir apparent. His name was Boris Nemtsov. He was a charismatic leader, former
governor in Nizhny Novgorod, first deputy prime minister, had been elected many times before and Yeltsin made very clear he wanted Nemstov to be the
next president of Russia.
But that financial collapse meant that that government had to resign and that's when Putin came into the void and that's how he became president.
AMANPOUR: I just also want to ask you because, again, it's really important to try to figure out where this all went wrong. We all remember
that in - after 9/11, Putin stood firm with the rest, stood firm with the United States, allowed the United States, President Bush, to use former
Soviet territories to stage military into Afghanistan, et cetera.
Something then went wrong. Is it accurate to say that he felt betrayed by President Bush when he went to war in Iraq and further betrayed by
President Obama when he went to action in Libya and, in Putin's view, took it way too far to regime change?
MCFAUL: Yes. In fact, Vladimir Putin described in detail how he felt betrayed by the Bush administration when we first met with him in July 2009
out at his dacha. We spent about three hours at a breakfast.
And the first hour of that breakfast was Putin explaining to the new president, President Obama, all the mistakes that the Bush administration
At the top of his list was Iraq. And they had an exchange about that and he said, look, you Americans, you don't understand the Middle East, you use
your covert and overt change to overthrow regimes you don't like.
And by the way, there's some empirical data that support that hypothesis that Mr. Putin was explaining that day.
And Obama pushed back, and he said, you're right. By the way, that really surprised Putin. He was like, you're right; you're the Americans, what do
you mean I'm right.
He said I was against that war from the very beginning and I'm not going to do that. We're not going to be in the business of regime change. And at
the end of that conversation, I heard Putin, as they were walking out to the car, he's like, well, maybe this guy is different, maybe Obama is
different, maybe we've entered a new era.
But fast forward to 2011 and how to respond to what we thought was the verge of genocide inside Libya. What's interesting about that moment in
US-Russian relations is that President Medvedev supported our military intervention.
I was in the room when he gave us the green light for it and he abstained on the UN Security Council Resolution 1973 that allowed military
intervention inside Libya. That has never happened in the history of the UN Security Council with respect to the Soviet Union or Russia.
Putin thought he made a big mistake. In fact, he said it live on television two days later that his own president had made a mistake. And I
think that was the moment when Putin decided, all right, this young guy, President Medvedev, he has been hoodwinked by the Americans. He doesn't
understand their true intentions. Obama actually is no different than George W. Bush. He said he wasn't going to do regime change and here he
is now and that I think was the beginning of the end of the reset.
AMANPOUR: So, now, where are we? Because now we're more than the beginning of the end. We're at the end of the beginning or the end of the
end. I mean, it's truly at a terrible, terrible nadir right now.
Of course, potentially, President Putin might have thought he could engage with President Trump, but instead we're in this massive investigation as to
whether he had any influence on the US election.
You know, of course, that Hillary Clinton believes that the Russians actually sabotaged her election.
Where does it go from here?
MCFAUL: Well, you're absolutely right that President Putin and his government wanted Donald Trump to win the election. And there's no doubt
in my mind that, in the margins, they did things to try to help him win that election.
Whether or not it had a direct - an independent causal influence, as we would say in political science, on the outcome of the election, that's
difficult to figure out, given that there were so many other variables involved in President Trump's victory.
But did they try to do that? There's no doubt about it because candidate Trump said some very Kremlin-friendly things. He said he would lift
sanctions on Russia. He said he would look into recognizing Crimea as being part of Russia. He beat up on NATO and he never said a word about
issues like democracy or human rights in Russia or, for that matter, anywhere else in the world.
[14:15:00] Whereas candidate Clinton had the exact opposite view on all those issues. So, it's pretty rational, from my point of view, that Putin
would prefer Trump.
Now, they're disappointed in what President Trump has delivered so far. By and large, the Trump administration has actually continued a lot of the
policies of the Obama administration and, at times, even become more confrontational. For instance, sending lethal weapons to Ukraine,
something that the Obama administration didn't do.
The way I read Putin and the way I read the Russian news, they're still holding out the possibility that the good tsar, Trump, will overcome the
bad boyars - that's a metaphor from the imperial Russia days. The czar was always good. The princes were always bad.
And they talk about it that way. They talk about Trump having the right instincts on Russia, but the deep state, as they call it, having the wrong
instincts. And they keep open the possibility that Trump will someday prevail and will get this relationship back in a new direction.
AMANPOUR: Let's just play a piece of an interview that was done on NBC where President Putin denied any interference in the election.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
VLADIMIR PUTIN, PRESIDENT OF RUSSIA (through translator): There has never been any interference in the domestic political processes in the United
States, not in the past, not now.
You mentioned a number of names, some individuals, and you're telling me that they're Russians. So what? Maybe being Russians, they are actually
working for some kind of American company. Perhaps one of them used to work for one of the candidates. I have no idea. These are not my
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, I play that - we've already discussed this issue, but I play it because I want to now play a bit of an interview that I did with Timothy
Snyder, the Yale professor whose book, "The Road to Unfreedom", is all about President Putin's current war strategy, his current campaign, which
is about, as you mentioned, cyber and hacking and all that, but it's really about truth and lies. This is what he told me.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TIMOTHY SNYDER, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, YALE UNIVERSITY: The tactic, the way you convey is that you get into the minds of your adversaries, whether
they're European or they're American. You find the existing fault lines, whether those are social or whether those are racial and you play on them.
And you try to convince people that the only thing that's really going on in the world are the momentary psychological enmities. There's no point
thinking about the real world, about facts, about how to make things better.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
AMANPOUR: So, what do you make of all of that. I mean, it just looks now that Russia is involved in a completely new, different campaign from what
might have been a hot war.
MCFAUL: I think they are. I think they have been for years, by the way. Most of the world just noticed recently. And I know this because I
personally experience it.
When I was ambassador, I had videos put out that said I was fomenting revolution and handing money out. I had them splice my head and paste it
on to somebody that made it look like I was allegedly campaigning for opposition leader, Navalny.
And the worst of it, the absolute worst, when I remember back in 2012, they put out a video suggesting that I was a pedophile.
And I say that you, Christiane, right now because it's jarring, it's shocking. And even saying it, it then kind of supports the notion, well,
maybe there's some truth to that. And how do you deal with that kind of disinformation. We were struggling at the embassy, how do you respond to
And the other thing that's true about the 21st century with the way the Internet - the world is so interconnected, it's very difficult to get rid
of that. So, if you go and search my name on Yandex, the Russian search engine, 4 million hits will come up with pedophile and McFaul.
And that was on a daily basis, almost daily basis, that disinformation campaign against me, the president where they compared the president to the
leader of ISIS and said you may think they're separate, but if you look more closely at their ideology, Barack Hussein Obama actually has the same
worldview as the ISIS leader.
And they're not trying to win the argument. I think that's the most important thing that people have to understand. This is not like the Cold
War when the communists and the Soviet leadership was trying to present an alternative progressive idea in opposition to capitalism or democracy.
They're just trying to say there's no truth anywhere. And that is what they're doing. And regrettably, I don't think we in the West have figured
out a right way to respond to this worldwide disinformation campaign.
AMANPOUR: Did you all think that if you pushed Putin too far, there could be some kind of nuclear response or something?
I ask you this because, obviously, part of President Obama's legacy is going to be the failure in Syria and abandoning the field in Syria to
Russia, to President Putin and also to Iran.
[14:20:04] And at the very end of his administration, he said something in a closing press conference, describing Russia as "a military superpower"
prepared to do whatever it takes to keep its client state involved.
Was President Obama - were you all really actually kind of worried about pushing Putin too far?
MCFAUL: Yes. Both in Syria and Ukraine. In my book, the longest chapter in the book is actually about Syria. It's called "Chasing Russians,
Failing Syrians". I think we made several mistakes there and I write about it candidly.
Our theory was always if we could get the Russians to cooperate with us, we could help to pressure the regime - they would pressure the regime and Mr.
Assad, we would pressure the opposition and we get some kind of political transition.
I always thought that was a mistake to think that Putin would do that and you just quoted the presidents. I think eventually he came around as well
because he was not going to in any way, shape or form undermine his partner or his clients in Syria, Mr. Assad.
But we were constrained because the president, in my view, rightly, President Obama, did not want to start World War III, a shooting war with
the Russians either in Syria or in Ukraine.
AMANPOUR: But did you really think that's what's going to happen? Did you really think that? I mean, I'm asking you whether you were intimidated by
the master, and that is Vladimir Putin?
MCFAUL: I personally did not think that because I personally think that when you stand up to Vladimir Putin, he backs off. And I think what we did
in 2014, for instance, after Putin had invaded Eastern Ukraine by putting in massive sanctions, by fortifying Ukraine and by strengthening NATO, he
I think that was a successful strategy of containment, of deterrence. And we probably should've done it earlier, immediately after Crimea, but I
think it demonstrates that he can be deterred.
But were others fearful of that? And in particular, others were fearful about the unintended consequences, right, where through an accident, one of
our airplanes kills Russian soldiers in Syria and then there's an escalation and a tit-for-tat that spins out of control.
Again, I myself was not worried about it, but others were. And as a result, we had a constrained policy in Syria that continues today. The
Trump administration is doing exactly the same thing. Fighting Isis, but not wanting to fight Russia or inadvertently fight Russia or its allies in
Syria, including Hezbollah and the Iranians.
AMANPOUR: What would you say is the way now to deal with Russia? How do you stand up or stand alongside or try to rectify a relationship? Is it
MCFAUL: I think we have to go back to a strategy of neo-containment, sort of push back on the most outrageous behavior of Vladimir Putin externally
and combine that, however, with looking for moments of opportunity to engage when our interests overlap.
That's what we did during the Cold War. And I think we have to return, as a basic strategy, to that with respect to Russia at least as long as
Vladimir Putin is in power, and I think Vladimir Putin is going to be in power in Russia for a long, long time.
AMANPOUR: So, you talk about him, you talk about the tragedies, the missed opportunities. Give me a sense what he was like when you were in the room
with him. And, I guess, were you naive? There's been some criticism that your administration, you yourself, like a lovesick teenager trying to court
this brutish, thuggish authoritarian? Were you naive and what was he like to deal with?
MCFAUL: Well, first, remember that the guy that was in the room for the first four years of the Obama ministration was not Putin, but Medvedev.
They're very different people.
Medvedev is a decade younger. He didn't join the KGB. He went to law school. He looks to the West. And in terms of worldview, he was much
closer to Barack Obama than Vladimir Putin was.
And during that period, we got a lot of big things done. We eliminated 30 percent of the nuclear weapons allowed in the world between the United
States and Russia in 2010.
We got the most comprehensive set of sanctions on Iran ever in 2010, working with Dmitry Medvedev. We got a new supply route to Afghanistan
opened up through Russia, flying American soldiers through Russia - the first time, I think, since World War II that had happened - that allowed us
to not be dependent on Pakistan as we were at the time that we joined the government. Over 90 percent of our supplies back in 2009 went through
Pakistan. And that allowed us to bring the war against terrorists inside Pakistan, including most directly and dramatically in 2011 when we killed
Osama bin Laden.
[14:25:08] When Vladimir Putin came back, there was no disagreement in the White House - I was still at the White House - that things were going to
get difficult. I'd written for years about Putin and his autocratic ways, decades before I joined the White House. So, I don't think anybody would
accuse me of being naive about Vladimir Putin.
In fact, he so doesn't like my views about him that he has banned me from traveling to Russia. I'm the first ambassador since George Kennan to not
be allowed to travel to Russia.
The question was, you have to deal with who is in place. You don't get to choose their leaders. We tried. We tried to engage with Mr. Putin.
And when things went south, we then put together a new strategy, a much more confrontational strategy, including sanctions against many of his
senior officials. That had never happened before in US-Russian relations. And we did that in tragedy. We didn't do it in delight that, oh, the Cold
War is back, isn't this great.
No, we were all disappointed with it. But at the end, it takes two to tango and we lost a cooperative partner in 2012 in Russia. So, we had to
pivot our strategy as well.
AMANPOUR: It's really fascinating. Thank you so much for this account and, of course, from your book from "Cold War to Hot Peace: An American
Ambassador in Putin's Russia".
Michael McFaul, thanks for joining us.
And that is it for our program tonight. Remember, you can always listen to our podcast and see us online at Amanpour.com and you can follow me on
Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for watching. And goodbye from London.