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Former Ambassador To Russia: Putin Has No Master Plan For Ukraine

Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February 2014, says, "I've never seen [Putin] devote a speech to the necessity of reuniting Crimea with Russia. That came only recently."



May 15, 2014

Guest: Michael McFaul

TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When Russian President Vladimir Putin started vilifying the U.S. and state-controlled media took his cue, my guest, Michael McFaul, was portrayed as one of the American villains. McFaul was the American ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February of this year. He planned to leave just after the Sochi Olympics. That ended up also coinciding with the Ukrainian parliament voting to remove President Yanukovych from office, which led to Russia's annexation of Crimea.

McFaul is a Russian scholar who has returned to his teaching job at Stanford University. In contrast to how he was portrayed by Putin, McFaul was the architect of the Obama strategy known as reset, which meant moving beyond Cold War hostilities and finding areas for mutual cooperation, such as enforcing sanctions against Iran and bringing Russia into the World Trade Organization.

McFaul served as a foreign policy adviser during President Obama's first term. We invited him to talk about the crisis in Ukraine, Putin's increasingly authoritarian regime and McFaul's experiences as ambassador, including how he responded when Edward Snowden landed in Russia last summer.

Michael McFaul, welcome to FRESH AIR. One of your recent tweets said I admit it, I believed in reset. Current conflict with Russia is a tragedy for me, not good for U.S. or Russia. Why is...?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: You're following me on Twitter?


MCFAUL: That's very good.

GROSS: So why is this a tragedy for you?

MCFAUL: It's a tragedy in a couple of different levels, in terms of my past. Most immediately, I worked for five years in the Obama administration. My first day in government was January 21, 2009, the day after inauguration, and we, with the president and our team, had devised a policy, a new policy towards Russia, that became known as the reset, and we thought it would bring positive outcomes both for the American people and for Russia, the Russian people, and it did so for two to three years, maybe even three and a half years, big things that were important in terms of our security and prosperity.

That's now all lost because of recent events. But even more so, if I go back, you know, in some ways I've been engaged in trying to reset relations with Russia and even the Soviet Union for three decades, and so somebody who believes that we're both better off if our countries are cooperating, this is a tragic moment for me.

GROSS: Do you think that the agreements that the Obama administration reached with Russian President Vladimir Putin, that it's over now, that we're entering into a new era and an era in which there isn't going to be any cooperation, or cooperation is going to be severely limited compared to what it's been in the past couple of years?

MCFAUL: I do think it's a new era. I do think the reset is over, the reset ended long ago. Remember we negotiated with President Medvedev, not President Putin. Beginning, you know, I would say soon after the parliamentary elections in Russia in 2011, which were falsified like most elections in Russia have been over the last several elections, but this time through new technology and new monitors, that fraud was exposed.

And that helped to spark massive demonstrations in Russia, mostly in the capital, in Moscow, and other big cities, but we're talking about tens of thousands, every now and then hundreds of thousands of people were protesting against the regime. And Putin responded to that by first and foremost cracking down on political opposition and civil society, but as part of that he needed us to be an enemy.

He needed the United States to be an enemy again, to rally his electoral base and to accuse these demonstrators of being our puppets, acting on our behalf. And after that moment, you know, we tried various things. We kept trying to work with Putin and his government. But I would say after that, that was the beginning of the end, if you will, the end being punctuated, of course, by his decisions to annex and invade Crimea.

GROSS: You left your position as ambassador right after the Sochi Olympics. And in that brief interval of the Sochi Olympics and just before that, when he released two members of Pussy Riot from prison, it seemed like he was trying to impress the West that, you know, he was liberalizing a little bit, he could pull it together for the Olympics and do really impressive stuff.

Some of it wasn't so impressive, as it turns out, but now he doesn't seem to care what the West thinks. How do you explain that shift?

MCFAUL: Well, it's complicated, and I don't pretend that I understand fully President Putin and his thinking, even though I worked with him closely in government, and I actually met him the first time in the spring of 1991. So I've known him for a long time. Here's the way I describe it.

So Putin didn't like the collapse of the Soviet Union. He said that many times. He called it one of the greatest - not one of, I think he called it the greatest tragedy of the 20th century, and that was a pretty tragic century. But he also said another quip that I think doesn't get as much attention in the West. He said something - and now I'm paraphrasing, of course - but, you know, anyone who doesn't lament the collapse of the Soviet Union doesn't have a heart, and anybody who dreams about re-creating it doesn't have a brain.

And that I think are the two sides of Putin, which is he lamented the collapse of the Soviet Union, he didn't like it, but he also is pragmatic enough, rational enough, to understand that for Russia to succeed in the 21st century, they need to engage with the West, they need to have relations with countries like the United States. They need American investment. He understands that.

And so he's got both of those ideas are churning in his head, right. He's got this one preference where he doesn't really like the West. He was trained as a KGB officer to see us as a threat. He most certainly believes, by the way, that the United States uses our power, covert and overt power, to overthrow regimes that we don't like. And at the same time in parallel, he understands that he needs to work with us on issues.

And I think both of those impulses are part of who Putin was, and, you know, right up until the fall of the government in Kiev in February, both of those impulses were at work. So on the one hand he would tell President Obama and other senior officials in our government we believe that you are fomenting revolution in the Arab world, we believe you're fomenting revolution in Ukraine, and he also believed we were trying to foment revolution against him in Russia. By the way, he blamed me personally for that.

GROSS: I thought so. I was going to ask you about that. Yes, you were personally blamed for fomenting revolution.

MCFAUL: Yes, day two of my time in Moscow, a big feature on television talking about how, on Channel 1, you know, controlled by the state, one of the most watched television shows in Russia at the time, explained why President Obama had sent me to foment revolution in Russia.

GROSS: And why were you hand-picked to foment revolution?

MCFAUL: Well, from what was portrayed in the Russian media was the fact, and it is true, that I had written about revolutions and written about democratization as an academic here at Stanford. I would try to point out to people, you know, that I'm an expert on revolution doesn't mean I'm an advocate of revolution, but that didn't matter. You know, they had, as I said before, they had a reason, a motivation to re-create the United States as an enemy.

It was a very conscious decision taken by the Kremlin and the propagandists. They told me as much, by the way. You know, these are people I've known for years. And one of them, in fact, joked during the presidential election that Putin won, he said hey, (unintelligible), you know, thanks for coming in January. We think that, you know, we picked up probably 10 or 12 percentage points because of this anti-American campaign that we were - you know, these ads that were rolling in, and you were just manna from heaven. You really made them rock. So he personally thanked me for my role in that.

GROSS: You know, during the Cold War, when Russia was communist, and the United States was a democracy, there was this ideological tension, and Russian leaders were autocratic, but they could also say but we're answering to, you know, as I say, higher gods. God would be the wrong word here.


GROSS: We're answering to, you know, a higher ideology, and that's, like, communism. But there isn't like a higher ideology in this case. There is no communism anymore. There is no, like, underlying grand philosophy that you can pretend to be carrying out as an autocrat in Russia now.

MCFAUL: Yes, and that is a very important difference that is going to make this conflict, I think, shorter. There is an ideology. There is something, you know, Putinism, which is a mix of I would say Russian nationalism and conservative values. He's been working on this new ideology for the last several years. But it doesn't have much appeal beyond Russia's borders. Russia doesn't have many allies. That's another important difference, right.

During the Cold War days, the whole world was coded red and blue. That's not the case today. And those are good things. And the third really important difference I would also remind you of is that Soviet citizens were very isolated. They couldn't travel. There was no Internet. There was no Twitter, no Facebook. And so their ability to be engaged in the outside world was extremely limited.

That's not the case today. Now Putin controls all the national television, and unfortunately, you know, 90 percent of Russians get their news from those television stations, and you see the consequences of that now in the way that the conflict in Ukraine is being described in Russia. It's really quite extraordinary to me and a distortion of reality that really I don't remember even during the Soviet period.

But people have alternative ways to get information, and I think over time, after this rallying around the flag period ends, you will have more skeptical think about is this really in Russia's national interest to be in conflict with all of Europe and in some ways, you know, most of the world.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McFaul. He was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January of 2012 until the end of February of this year, and he is a professor of political science at Stanford University. Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk more about Russia and Ukraine. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about Russia and Ukraine. My guest is Michael McFaul. He was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January of 2012 until the end of February of this year, and before that, he was a foreign policy adviser to President Obama and helped create Obama's policy toward Russia. He's now a professor of political science at Stanford University. He was at Stanford University before becoming a diplomat.

So you referred to how the conflict in Ukraine is being described on Russian state-controlled television. How is it being described there? How is Russia trying to spin the story of what's happening?

MCFAUL: The story is that there was a legitimate President Yanukovych, elected by the Ukrainian people, and that's true. Then there was fighting, demonstrations and then shooting on the streets. In the Russian media, that is described as the opposition shooting government people and then overthrowing the democratically elected leader Yanukovych.

Reality is that there was fighting, shooting on both sides. And European leaders, together with Russia's support and our support, tried to put together a compromise package between the opposition and President Yanukovych, and it was only when that fell apart that Putin then really pivoted and decided OK, I'm done dealing with these Westerners, I'm done dealing with the Americans, I don't care what they think. That's when he decided to go into Crimea.

Ever since then, on Russian television, the government that had to - you know, somebody had to lead the country after Yanukovych fled. And so the elected parliament, the Rada it's called in Ukraine, elected a temporary government. In Russia they're described as an illegitimate government dominated by Nazis. Nazis and NATO, right, the two enemies from Soviet history, have been resurrected as the two principal protagonists in this conflict.

And literally the word Nazi is used, you know, every five minutes to describe anybody in Ukraine that doesn't support the Russian point of view.

GROSS: I'm glad you brought up the idea of resurrecting the fear of Nazis because that's come up in a couple of ways I wanted to ask you about. There's a recent Russian law that was signed last month mandating up to five years in jail and heavy fines for anyone who tries to rehabilitate Nazism or denigrate Russia's World War II record. And then someone named Will Hart(ph), who you probably know, who writes for Pravda, wrote Putin is not trying to rebuild the Soviet Union, that's a fallacy. What the Russian president and his people are deathly afraid of is the specter of fascism raising its ugly head in Germany and other parts of Europe via the 28-nation alliance, which is NATO.

Russia is afraid of getting squeezed to death in the American-backed NATO pincers. After all, the Western Ukrainians that launched the revolt and coup in Kiev had backed Hitler in World War II. So can you talk about how this emphasis on Nazism and on Hitler is coming into play now and what role - what kind of alliances were formed between Hitler and parts of the Ukraine during World War II.

MCFAUL: Well, it's part of the continuation of the enemy, you know, Russia being surrounded by NATO and Nazis. You know, this was a theme in Soviet times. I was a student in the Soviet Union. I remember it. And then this is - so it can play back to those memories of that, those kind of themes, and that's what it is.

GROSS: Because Germany is part of NATO?

MCFAUL: Yeah, and, well, it was the Nazis were the first major enemy, and they were the enemy. But World War II, you know, is the most important event in Soviet and Russian history, and what has been morphed, of course, is that there's some rebirth of fascism in Ukraine. And of course, you know, yes there were elements - you know, is it true that there were some Ukrainian fighters that saw the Nazis as liberators? That is true. If we go back 70 years, that is true.

It is not true that Nazis now run the government in Kiev. That's simply absurd. But that blending of, you know, elements of the past with this, you know, this fear of Nazis, that is the new propaganda, that is the new way that Russian television is framing therefore their struggle against fascism from their account inside Ukraine.

GROSS: So is this new law that makes it a crime to rehabilitate Nazism, is that an attempt to just have a bogeyman that you can associate, you can smear people with, like oh, that person is doing something wrong, they're trying to revive Nazism? Or is the revival of Nazism a serious issue now in Russia or the Ukraine?

MCFAUL: I think it's more the former, but it's elements of both. But it's first and foremost the former because that law is really designed not to go after neo-Nazi organizations in Russia. That law came about to go after Dozhd TV, which is one of the last independent television networks in Russia. And moreover, I think it's important thing to understand that as we are focused on the conflict in Ukraine and Russia's aggression in Ukraine and our responses to it, at the same time inside Russia, there's been a whole new set of laws designed to weaken the opposition, designed to weaken the institutions that have some ability to constrain the power of the presidency.

And that law, in my view, is part of that campaign.

GROSS: Let's talk about what's happening in Ukraine now. What does Putin wants from Ukraine?

MCFAUL: Well first of all, I don't know.


MCFAUL: Second, I don't believe anybody who thinks - who will tell you that they do know. But my best guess is that he himself doesn't know. And let me explain that. I think that this was not some master plan that Putin's been plotting for decades, you know, annex Crimea and go in to take Novorossiya. In fact, you know, I've been digging through old Putin speeches. I've never seen him devote a speech to the necessity of reuniting Crimea with Russia. That came only recently.

And this phrase Novorossiya, right, New Russia, which is to describe these Eastern Ukrainian regions, I think he used that for the first time just a couple of weeks ago. So that actually gives me hope because that means it's not some grand plan, master design that he feels he is now empowered to execute, but that this is more contingent. It's more he's making it up as he goes, and he's calculating about the cost of direct military intervention and then occupation in Ukraine.

And, you know, Putin's a - he's a smart person. He's not doing it in a vacuum. And he, I think, and I hope he knows how costly that would be. But at the same time, he likes to keep his options open. I mean, I saw this many times when I was in government, where he likes to keep as many options on the table as possible, and in the immediate run he wants to weaken the government in Kiev, make sure that that May 25 election is not carried out in Eastern Ukraine so that he can continue to say that whoever wins that election is an illegitimate leader in Kiev.

He also wants to weaken the Ukrainian economy to help undermine the government in Kiev. So he can continue to do all those things without actually invading militarily and keep his options open for perhaps annexation down the road, and he can play a long game, remember. He's going to - in his view, he plans to be around for a very long time.

GROSS: Michael McFaul will be back in the second half of the show. He was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February of this year. He's returned to his position as a political science professor at Stanford University. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Michael McFaul. He was President Obama's ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February of this year. And he served as a foreign policy adviser to Obama during his first term. McFaul has returned to his position as a professor of political science at Stanford University and has been closely following the crisis in Ukraine and Vladimir Putin's increasingly authoritarian regime.

When you are the ambassador to Russia from the United States, how many direct interactions did you have with Putin? And give us a sense of what those interactions were like.

MCFAUL: So as a U.S. Ambassador to a country like Russia, you would meet with the head of state when your head of state is there, or sometimes the vice presidents, secretary of state, and on one occasion then the National Security Advisor, Tom Donilon. Over the course of my time in government as ambassador and before when I worked at the White House, I probably was in half a dozen meetings with Putin in small intimate settings, right, two or three people on a side. Of course, as ambassador I also was at large events with President Putin often, including the Sochi Olympics, you know, but that's a different matter. So I got to see him up close, and they were always really interesting meetings. He's a person who has a lot of experience on the international stage, very strong views that have formed and have kind of consolidated views, right - that's the problem, I would say, that when you've been around for 14 or 15 years, as he has now, you think you've figured everything out and that's not a good thing. But I always found them to be always, you know, lively conversations.

The president first met him in July of 2009, President Obama. We went out to Putin's dacha, his residence. And the meeting was scheduled for an hour. I think it went for three and a half hours. And, you know, as we were driving back with the president, he said that was extremely enlightening in terms of figuring out how Putin thinks. He's a very direct guy. He doesn't go through diplomatic formalities. President Obama likes that, by the way. And so you come out of a meeting with Putin I think with a pretty clear understanding of what he thinks.

GROSS: So earlier this week I interviewed Glenn Greenwald, the person who broke some of the stories that Edward Snowden leaked. Snowden sought out Glenn Greenwald to be the first journalist to receive those documents from the NSA that Edward Snowden stole. And Glenn Greenwald has like tens of thousands - has access to tens of thousands of NSA secret documents that Snowden gave him access to. You're on the other side of that. You were in Russia when Snowden asked for temporary asylum there.

MCFAUL: Arrived. Yes.

GROSS: Yeah. And it was part of your job to convince the Russian government to extradite Snowden back to the United States. Obviously you failed to accomplish...


GROSS: ...that's goal. But having heard of out when Greenwald, I'm really interested in hearing how that story played out for you. I'm not sure how much you can tell us, but I'd be really interested in hearing what your job was supposed to be one Snowden got to Russia.

MCFAUL: Well, my job was to get him home. You're exactly right. I remember the day very vividly when we knew he was transiting through Moscow and then decided to stay. And we engaged the Russian government at my level and then at levels much higher than me, including the president, with Putin, to make the case that Mr. Snowden should be sent back and, you know, face a jury, and he would get all due process that the American Constitution guarantees for him. But that was our view and that was our policy. And you're right. We failed. We did not get him back. He's still in Russia.

GROSS: Did you have direct meetings with Putin about that?

MCFAUL: Not me personally. Actually, nobody did, now that I think about it. It came up, I think, in one or two phone calls that the president had. I did meet with his national security adviser, you know, the equivalent of Susan Rice in their system, several times - because it not only was about getting Snowden back, but remember, President Obama was planning was planning a trip - a major summit to come to Moscow for two days in September, and over the course of the spring, and then that summer that Snowden arrived, the number of disagreements between the United States and Russia kept accumulating and the number of what we call in the government deliverables for our summit, you know, those chits on the table were, it was a small pile. And ultimately their decision to grant Snowden asylum, I think, was the straw that broke the camel's back and that's when President Obama decided not to come for that September summit. And that was, you know, Putin was very disappointed by that, his government was very disappointed, and it's rather unprecedented, by the way, that a summit is planned and a lot of work goes into these things and then they're called off, but that was unfortunately the nature of our relationship at the time.

GROSS: Why do you think President Putin was willing to give Edward Snowden temporary sanctuary and to refuse to respond to President Obama's insistent request that Snowden be extradited back to the United States?

MCFAUL: Well, in the first instance, it was a giant publicity coup for Russia, right? I need to choose my words carefully here, but let's just say that it is common knowledge that one should be very careful with using your cell phones and other devices in Russia. And in fact, we have some pretty stark evidence of that, because every now and again those conversations are published, as was with assistant Secretary Newland over the summer and as was with me, by the way, when I was ambassador from time to time. So - and yet nobody has focused at all on how Russia treats these kinds of issues and having Snowden there was, I think, very useful in terms of Putin's propaganda purposes.

The second part that I don't know the answer to, but I have to wonder, is, you know, why, what is he doing there with them, with his hosts? What is he telling them? You know, what kind of information is he sharing with the Russians? He's said publicly, from time to time, he's not. You know, I wonder about that.

GROSS: Well, Glenn Greenwald is confident, and since Snowden doesn't have any files with him and all the secrets that he did steal from the NSA are safely encrypted someplace else, that there's no danger that the information will fall into the hands of our adversaries.

MCFAUL: Yeah. But Snowden knows a lot of things about how our intelligence works. It's not some document he's going to leak; it's what's in his brain that scares me.

GROSS: And if he is - if Snowden has no wish to share any of that, would you still be concerned?

MCFAUL: It's just an unknown, Terry. I don't, you know, I know how the Russian intelligence services work. I know they're, they have tremendous abilities. I'm just going to leave it at that. And so to assume that you can be their guest for as long as he's been and withstand the techniques that they use, I just don't know, you know, what - it's an unknown. But to assume that everything's fine and he's shared nothing, that to me is naive.

And I want to be clear, now that I'm a, you know, I'm a citizen of the United States and not a government official, I appreciate the debate we're having about the way that intelligence is gathered and the relationship it has to our Constitution and all that. I mean as somebody who believes strongly in democracy and teaches about democracy, I think that's a great debate. I just question the mechanism by which Mr. Snowden chose to start that debate. I think he had better options.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Michael McFaul. He's the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. He served in that position from January of 2012 to February of this year. He's a professor of political science at Stanford University.

Let's take a short break, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR and we're talking about Russia and Ukraine. My guest is Michael McFaul, who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January of 2012 to February of this year. He's now a professor of political science at Stanford University.

One of the big issues in Russia that you were there for is the anti-gay laws that Putin signed. And you had seen anti-gay issues become a big political rallying point in the United States. It was people on the right - especially the Christian right - were very vehemently opposed gay rights. And a lot of elections kind of pivoted on that issue. Things seemed to be turning around on that with the gay marriage laws that have been going into effect. But I'm wondering what it was like for you to be in Russia when this anti-gay movement became so legitimized and what if anything did you feel like you could do?

MCFAUL: Well, it was in the context of a broader theme of my tenure in Moscow - which is how to respond to a regime that is becoming more autocratic while you're living in that regime and representing the United States of America. And I chose to be vocal. I chose to support LGBT activists. I consciously would host them at my house. I hosted LGBT athletes when we would have events for visiting American athletes. And, of course, I was a member of the presidential delegations to the Sochi Olympics, both the opening and closing ceremonies, where the composition of our delegations made very clear our stance on these sets of issues. And, you know, that was not easy to do as ambassador. I'll tell you, there were not always people that thought that it was the right thing to do within our government because we had these other issues, remember? And this is always the tension about promoting and advocating for universal values versus, you know, doing a deal on Iran or chemical weapons removal in Syria. There's always a tension there. But it was my view that if we didn't, who would? And if we didn't lead - we, the United States, on these issues - you know, that would make it a lot harder for other governments to come out as publicly as we did. And so I'm very proud of what we did.

GROSS: And how do you meet with LGBT activists without making their lives even more dangerous?

MCFAUL: You know, it's a great question and it's always their choice.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

MCFAUL: It is - just with the same with democratic activism in Russia. For instance, by the way, you know, one of the leading political opposition leaders in Russia is a guy name Alexei Navalny, who, you know, thousands of times - in fact, you could, you know, Google Navalny and McFaul and you'll see the posters they made of us that, you know, that he's my puppet, he's my marionette, he's my creation, that was on Russian television. I never once met with him as U.S. ambassador at Moscow because he didn't want to meet with me and I respected that. And so with the LGBT activists it was the same thing. Some chose to be identified with us and thought it gave them safety, others did not and that was fine.

GROSS: I know I've heard it explained that one of the reasons for the anti-gay laws in Russia is that President Putin has formed an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, which is very anti-gay. Is that a good explanation as far as you're concerned?

MCFAUL: It's part of it. Yes. But it's part of what I would describe an evolution in Putin's own thinking in terms of just becoming more socially conservative over the last several years, and that means becoming more religious, and in his view, right? Not my view. I think you can be pro-human rights and very religious, but that is not his view. And over time, you know, I think he and his advisers fancied Putin and Russia as the conservative antidote to, you know, the liberal Europe and the decadent West. That's a theme you see a lot in Russia these days. And before this latest crisis, you know, a very concerted to effort to try to build alliances with social conservatives in Europe and the United States.

GROSS: When you were ambassador, you used Twitter a lot. And you still are doing a lot of tweeting in English and Russia - Russian - about what's going on in Russia and Ukraine. Mark Landler in The New York Times described you as being credited with pioneering the use of Twitter as a diplomatic tool when you were ambassador. How did you use Twitter as the Russian ambassador?

MCFAUL: First of all, I live in the Silicon Valley. I've been here for years.


MCFAUL: I had never seen a tweet until I landed in Moscow.

GROSS: No. Really?

MCFAUL: That's true. And I was a bit of a Neanderthal and, you know, I worked at the National Security Council. We didn't have Twitter accounts at the National Security Council when I was there in Washington. But on my way out I met with Secretary Clinton and she said this is part of what we're doing, Mike, and we want you to use this instrument as a way to get out our message and to, you know, use it as an instrument of public diplomacy.

So we did. And I think I had an advantage in that I'm used to engaging in societal debates. You know, as a professor I speak frequently, you know, on campuses. And by the way, we did that as well. It wasn't just a virtual engagement.

GROSS: Was it a good way of bypassing Russian state controlled media?

MCFAUL: Yes. Because over time there were, you know, I was on a blacklist on most state controlled television stations. This was a way that we could reach out directly, and sometimes, by the way, it was also a way to get our policy out right away and that had effect on other governments and other officials reacting to it.

So, for instance, when this guy Navalny, who I mentioned earlier, this opposition leader, was sentenced to a five year prison term, we tweeted out - I tweeted out immediately that we thought that the judicial process that led to this was illegitimate. That went viral and everybody retweeted that and, you know, I think that helped to shape the reaction eventually to what happened to Mr. Navalny.

GROSS: People could tweet at you in addition to you sending your tweets.

MCFAUL: Absolutely. Everything.

GROSS: Did you get really hostile tweets and did you get threatening tweets?

MCFAUL: Yes, I did. I had death threats. Many, in fact. And we investigated them. Those, obviously, we take very seriously against diplomats. You know, it would come and go. Initially there were some tough stuff in the presidential election period. When all this anti-American stuff was on television there was a lot of anti-McFaul tweets.

And remember, there's lots of people that are paid to do this. It's not just citizens. There's lots of people paid to do it by the government. But, you know, it would come and go. And I remember rather nostalgically my last weeks in Moscow as I was on my way out, just this outpouring of support for me and that I was - I was this new kind of very available ambassador, right? I mean people called me Mike on Twitter.

Lots of people had never even heard of who the U.S. ambassador was, let alone had some interaction with him. And that, I think, had a very positive feel and, you know, literally tens of thousands of tweets in that spirit. Of course it all ended with the crisis in Ukraine and things have become very antagonistic again. Because those that were feeling good about this interaction, they've disappeared from Twitter, right?

They're afraid to be reaching out to me right now.

GROSS: So you're probably worried about them.

MCFAUL: Yes. I'm worried about a lot of people in Russia right now. It's a scary time.

GROSS: Um-hum.

MCFAUL: It's really a scary time. This is something new. The, you know, going after people as traitors, the - arresting people, you know, because they somehow resurrect some debate about fascism. You know, this is an environment that you really have not had in that country since, you know, deep in the Soviet period. Most certainly not - the Gorbachev period, I think, was much more democratic and pluralistic than the current period we have in Russia today.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, we're talking about Russia and Ukraine. My guest is Michael McFaul. He was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February of this year. And before that he was a foreign policy adviser on Russia for President Obama. He's now a professor of political science at Stanford University, which is where he was before becoming a diplomat.

Let's take a short break and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, we're talking about Russia and Ukraine. My guest is Michael McFaul. He was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January of 2012 until February of this year. He left just after the Sochi Olympics. Before that he was an adviser to President Obama on Russian policy. He's now a professor of political science at Stanford University, which is where he was before he became a diplomat.

Have your experiences in Russia and what you're seeing now from a distance in Russia and Ukraine made you rethink your understanding of the Cold War or the end of the Cold War?

MCFAUL: Yes and no. I mean I've always thought that we could have done more - we being the United States, we being the West - to help make the transition to markets and democracy smoother. You know, we all celebrated the end of the Soviet Union and the end of Communism, but the Russians endured the worst economic depression they've had since, you know, going back to World War II probably.

And had we done more to make that easier, I think, you know, there would've been a better chance that pro - well, markets would have been, you know, more consolidated and not so easily corruptible. But democratic institutions, more importantly, I think would have had - gained a deeper hold. So I think that was a mistake.

GROSS: So I don't know if you'll be comfortable answering this or not but I often wonder why would anybody in the world want to become president of the United States because it's so much responsibility. How do you bear the weight of that kind of responsibility? How do you make the number of life endangering decisions that have to be made?

And similarly, like, if you're the ambassador to Russia, there's a lot of weight on your shoulders and a lot of really life and death decisions that have to be made. And every move can be, you know, a misstep. So now that you're back in academia, teaching at Stanford, is that a relief? Or do you really wish, you know, miss the kind of - the sense of being a part of history as it's being made?

MCFAUL: Two things. So, one, I most certainly miss being part of the Obama administration and being part of a team trying to execute foreign policy to the best of our abilities. You know, I worked for five years in the administration and really a couple of years even before that on the campaign and so I feel like I should be there for the president.

So that's a definite sense of responsibility, even guilt, that I have being back here at that glorious, by the way, fantastic paradise, Stanford University. I'm so thankful I have tenure here and this will always be my base, right? But there's a second piece I miss, which is about being ambassador.

It was the greatest job I'll probably ever have. I mean, what - it was, you know, we're focusing on some of the negative things but I was the representative of a country I love, the United States of America, in a very important country that I also love, by the way, Russia. And the honor to be able to represent, you know, President Obama, but all of the American people in the ways that I best tried to as ambassador, it was a tremendous experience.

And it's not just about Snowden and Syria and democracy. It's about engaging in cultural activities. I mean, one of the greatest things I got to do as ambassador is host incredibly talented American musicians in my house. You know? I got to invite - Herbie Hancock played in my house. And 500 Russians went nuts over him. And that's - you feel really proud to be an American and proud to be the U.S. ambassador on evenings like that.

And so I loved the job. I have no regrets whatsoever other than, you know, I wish I could've done it for longer.

GROSS: Michael McFaul, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you very much.

MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Michael McFaul was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February of this year. He's returned to his position as a political science professor at Stanford University.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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