Russia, Russia, Russia. Not since the darkest days of the Cold War has our gaze been so resolutely focused on the land of the Czars. And yet with all of that focus, it’s amazing how much we don’t understand about the country and its people.
Michael McFaul, US ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, is suddenly front and center in the latest Trump/Putin controversy. At their recent summit, Putin is said to have made Trump an offer: The US could pose questions to Russian military intelligence figures named in Mueller indictments as alleged participants in email hacking — if Putin’s people can do the same with McFaul and Bill Browder, two well-known critics of the Russian president.
We may never know precisely what Trump and Putin discussed on the issue. On July 19, White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders said, “It is a proposal that was made in sincerity by President Putin, but President Trump disagrees with it.” But this may change.
What we do know is that McFaul understands a great deal about Putin and Russia -- and he shares these insights with Jeff Schechtman in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast.
In this interview, recorded just before he became the latest mini-star in the ongoing Russiagate saga, McFaul reminds us that, though hard to imagine these days, Russia is more than just Putin. There is a far greater diversity of thought than US media give the Russians credit for: While many may be forced to go along to get along, there are many who don’t support Putin or his approach to the world.
McFaul emphasizes the fragility of Russian society today. He explains how Putin consolidated his power while the economy was working well. But with its recent slippage, he has come to rely more on jingoistic Russian nationalism, as exemplified by his military forays into Crimea and eastern Ukraine. According to McFaul, even that's now wearing thin with the Russian people.
McFaul talks to Schechtman about Putin’s ideology — what he really believes. About his conservative approach to governing, his genuine dislike for what he sees as the decadent liberal ideas of the West, and how he has given money to political organizations and NGOs around the world that support and embrace his ideology.
McFaul says that Putin expects his struggle against the West to go on for years. At the same time, the former ambassador believes we can still engage the Russian leader on topics like arms control and even trade, as long as we always understand his motives and develop specific strategies to push back.
Finally, McFaul reminds us how much Putin’s personal philosophy has in common with the nationalist, nativist, anti-globalist desire for ethnic purity that has driven the American alt-right.
At a time when it seems that all our news about Russia is accompanied by noise and confusion, this is a calmer, more nuanced look at Putin and Russia today.
Michael McFaul is the author of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, May 8, 2018).