RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul is out with a new book this coming week, revealing personal details about his role in fostering Washington's still-troubled relationship with Russia. "From Cold War To Hot Peace" is part memoir, part history, but McFaul also suggests another genre.
MICHAEL MCFAUL: It's a tragedy about what we tried to do in the Obama administration. And on a personal level, it's a tragedy about what I tried to do with Russia for the last 30 years.
MARTIN: Those years began with work as a pro-democracy activist in Moscow, watching the fall of the Soviet Union, and eventually became a troubled two years as former President Obama's ambassador to Russia. McFaul told me as soon as he arrived in Moscow in 2012, Vladimir Putin considered him an adversary.
MCFAUL: By the time I got there, things had changed rather radically. Putin was now running for president. And just weeks before I showed up as ambassador, there were massive demonstrations on the street against Putin's regime - against falsification that had happened in the parliamentary elections in December 2011. And Putin's reaction to that was to blame us for fomenting revolution against his regime and, when I showed up, to blame me personally.
MARTIN: So let's talk about what that ended up looking like because you are almost immediately painted as someone trying to unseat the current political system and to bring some kind of American-style democracy to Russia. Explain what kind of pressure you and your family were under.
MCFAUL: Yeah, it was unpleasant. I don't want to sugarcoat it in any way. I loved being ambassador for so many different reasons. It was the honor of a lifetime, but Putin had a story he wanted to tell the Russians - that we were out to get them, that we were giving money to the opposition and that we were the enemy. And that was a way to mobilize his electoral base. Remember, he's running for president in the spring of 2012. And I, therefore, became a poster child of some of these attacks on the opposition. The night that a video went viral accusing me of being a pedophile - that was probably a low point in my time as ambassador. And to this day - if you Google my name and pedophile on a Russian search engine - Yandex - 4 million hits still come up. And I tell you that story because it's a story about disinformation, right? It's a story about distortion and using technology to frame debates in different ways. And I've got to say, honestly, we struggled with how to respond with it. We did not have a game plan for how to combat those kinds of very personal, horrible, ugly stories.
MARTIN: So setting aside the smear campaign against you, which I understand was a difficult thing to live through, but the substance of the critique that you were there as a representative of the American government which would prefer there to be some kind of democratic government in Russia - I mean, that's not crazy...
MARTIN: ...For Putin and Russian officials to think that you would prefer that, especially in light...
MARTIN: ...Of your activism in your younger years.
MCFAUL: I think that's true, and I think that's a fair point. My activism from the past - of course Putin knew about it. And many of the people I knew from the early '90s were now in the opposition when I became ambassador, and that haunted me. And I did not - just to be clear - hand out money to the opposition or, you know, in any way act any differently than previous ambassadors in that domain, nor did I act any different than President Obama. When we traveled to Russia together in July of 2009, he sat down with civil society leaders. He sat down with opposition leaders. But back then, because the context was different - because the bilateral relationship was moving in a positive direction - it wasn't even news.
MARTIN: How is President Trump perceived in Russia?
MCFAUL: Well, during the campaign, as we now know well, the Russians preferred Trump for very rational reasons, by the way. As a candidate, he said he would look into Crimea as being part of Russia. He wanted to lift sanctions. He was critical of NATO and about democracy and human rights. He didn't say one word with respect to Russia during the campaign, whereas Secretary Clinton had the opposite view on all of those dimensions. And so they preferred Trump, and they helped Trump to get elected. I think the evidence for that is overwhelming. Whether it had a causal impact on the outcome is a different question. I think to fast forward to today, there's been a lot of disappointment in what he has been able to achieve.
MARTIN: In Russia.
MCFAUL: Yeah. Disappointment with Trump's ability to deliver on the promise of some kind of new relationship with Russia, but they still keep open the possibility that President Trump might be able to overcome the so called deep state and push U.S.-Russian relations in a positive direction.
MARTIN: How do you think Putin in particular has capitalized on this moment in American history? Has Donald Trump created opportunities for Vladimir Putin?
MCFAUL: So I think on the concrete policy objectives, they're disappointed, right? So sanctions haven't been lifted. They've been expanded. The Trump administration has sent new weapons to Ukraine. They did not expect that. But on a bigger level, the disarray inside the United States - that's a giant victory for Vladimir Putin. We're fighting among ourselves. We do not look like a leader in the world. We're in an isolationist period, and that creates more opportunities for Vladimir Putin to look like a global leader. There was some very scary opinion data out there. You know, in nine allies of the United States, citizens of those countries trust Vladimir Putin to do the right thing more than they do Donald Trump.
MARTIN: The current U.S. ambassador to Russia is the one-time Republican presidential candidate Jon Huntsman. If you could sit down with him now, what guidance would you give him today?
MCFAUL: I would say two things. One is continue to engage with the Russian government to look for opportunities for cooperation even if they're small things. You want to be a trustworthy voice that has relationships with the state. I actually had that kind of relationship with a lot of very senior Russian government officials in large measure because I got to know those people when I was at the White House in a more cooperative time. And then number two, do more of what he's doing. Engage with Russian society. Talk about the idea that we want a relationship not just with the state but with civil society leaders, with business leaders, with all dimensions of Russian society because that people-to-people engagement can help to lessen the blows when the government engagement is not going well.
MARTIN: Michael McFaul. He is the former U.S. ambassador to Russia. His new book is called "From Cold War To Hot Peace." Ambassador McFaul, thank you so much.
MCFAUL: Thank you so much for having me.
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