Toward a “Grander Strategy of Containing Putin’s Russia”: Ambassador Michael McFaul on Engagement and Containment in a New Era of Great Power Competition

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U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul leaves the Foreign Ministry in Moscow, Russia on May 15, 2013. (AP Photo/Misha Japaridze, File)

Michael McFaul served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. He now works at Stanford University, where he is the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, the Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science, and the Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is on Twitter @McFaul.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

I want to begin by briefly discussing the recent protests and domestic crackdown in Russia after the arrest of opposition leader Alexey Navalny. What do you think drove the protests in support of Navalny? Was it genuine desire for political change, discontent at the economic situation and falling incomes, or simply that people have had enough of living under Vladimir Putin?

Michael McFaul: That’s a hard question to answer, because it is difficult to study Russian society these days. The level of repression has grown in Russia, so it is more costly for people to express what they really feel. Having said that, though, this feels like a qualitatively more repressive year — the 21st year of the Putin era, if you will — than previous years. Starting with Mr. Navalny’s arrest, of course, but you see it in lots of different places, as the authorities are arresting and harassing media and opposition leaders. This suggests to me that Putin is more worried about his standing in Russia than he was before — otherwise, why would he do these very costly things that are getting a lot of attention?

I think it does suggest that there is an exhaustion with Putin and his rule. Twenty-one years — that’s a long time. Things are not going as well as they did in the first years of Putinism. Russia is more isolated than ever before, and that is beginning to be felt within Russian society. Even some of the people that are affiliated with Putin himself are beginning to wonder: “Have we gone too far?” Maybe enough is enough.

Having said that, I don’t predict it will change, because I think Putin is locked in, and it would be very difficult for him to change course now. But both in terms of the data I see and just anecdotally in my interactions with Russians, it seems like it has entered a new, qualitatively worse state of repression than ever before.

How do you think the U.S. relationship with Russia changed over the course of the Trump administration? How well do you think the Biden administration has been rising to meet the new challenges and opportunities that may have emerged?

Michael McFaul: In rhetorical terms and broad strokes, in terms of ambition, I think the Biden administration has a fundamentally different approach to Putin than Trump did. I’m using my words very precisely — the Trump administration had a policy towards Russia, but Trump himself had a much more friendly relationship with Putin. There is little gap between President Biden and the Biden administration on that front. They have been pretty clear that they want to try to engage in places where they think our interests might overlap, but they recognize that that agenda is not very wide and then in parallel try to raise the cost of Putin’s belligerent behavior. They are also trying to talk much more directly and systematically about supporting democratic ideas around the world, including inside Russia, inside Belarus, and inside Ukraine. I think that’s the general grand strategy.

It’s too early to tell whether it has had any impact. There are tensions with that strategy, and we most certainly experienced that when I was in the government working for President Obama. To engage and contain at the same time creates natural tensions, and you see a bit of that today. On the one hand, the Biden administration implemented new sanctions in response to what Putin’s regime did in our 2020 election, in terms of violating our sovereignty and trying to help President Trump win reelection. They also responded to the SolarWinds cyberattack. I supported both of those responses. Then President Biden said “I’m trying to be proportionate” and decided not to up the ante. Well, Putin did up the ante. We’re reading about new accounts of a big cyberattack within USAID and their partners, many of which support democracy and human rights advocates around the world. That now suggests that the ball is in Biden’s court. And on the engagement side, President Biden was the one who asked Putin if he would meet in Geneva. I support them holding a summit; I think presidents should meet with everyone. But it created some expectations about what the deliverables of that meeting should be, and the Biden team had to wrestle with that. I support in broad strokes, without question, their strategy — I think it’s a great strategy. It’s just a very difficult strategy to implement successfully.

You mentioned raising the cost to Russia of actions that have undermined the U.S. democratic system and violated U.S. sovereignty. Do you think that sanctions are still an effective tool to accomplish that? Is there a way that sanctions could better target the people behind the decisions that have harmed the U.S., given that they have not necessarily deterred Russian aggression thus far?

Michael McFaul: That’s a very hard question. There is a big academic literature on under what conditions sanctions work and don’t work, on when they can change the behavior of targeted countries. And most times, they don’t work. That’s what the literature says.

I have a somewhat different view about sanctions. Number one, sometimes you have to sanction countries — in this case Putin and Putin’s Russia — because they did belligerent, egregious things. To not have a response would be even worse. When Russia annexes Crimea and supports separatists in eastern Ukraine, you have to do something — you have to respond in some way. I think, therefore, the morally right thing to do is to sanction that behavior, even if they are not optimistic that it is going to change Putin’s behavior.

Number two, I do think there is evidence that sanctions have been costly for the Russian economy, and most certainly costly for certain Russian individuals that are close to Putin. You see it in the margins — it’s very dangerous to criticize Putin openly, but if you read closely, you can see that there are certainly lead actors in Russia who disagree with Putin’s strategy of confrontation with the West. These are folks who in previous eras have supported greater integration of Russia into the West and into the global economy, so I think there is real debate there.

Number three, I think that sanctions are just one of many prongs of what I would hope would be a grander strategy of containing Putin’s Russia. Yes, you sanction Putin and his entourage when they do bad things. I would go farther than the Biden administration has, but at least that’s one of the components. But there need to be multiple components of that containment strategy. We need to strengthen the deterrent capabilities of NATO. We need to do all that we can to help democracy in Ukraine, in those parts of Ukraine that are not occupied right now by separatist forces and soldiers. That may be a decades-long struggle; I compare it to West Germany versus East Germany. We want to make Western Ukraine — the rest of Ukraine that is not occupied — so successful that eventually those who are in the occupied territories will want to join it, just as they did in 1989 in Germany. We need to have a much more robust strategy for supporting independent reporting about Putin and corruption in Russia. This includes strengthening U.S. government-owned media like Radio Liberty, which is about to be kicked out of Russia, but also supporting all kinds of media outlets in much more creative ways than we’re doing today. I think we are behind in the information-disinformation game. 

I would add that we need a much stronger agenda for supporting the ideas of democracy, which I think we have been timid in doing, especially in the Trump years. It is also important to work on stopping transnational repression through the use of multilateral organizations like Interpol, which Russia has used to chase human rights activists and critics like Bill Browder. We should be affirming our leadership in Interpol in a much more aggressive way than we have in the past. In other words, sanctions are one of many different instruments of what needs to be a multi-faceted grand strategy for containing Putin’s Russia and, on occasion, engaging Putin’s Russia.

In the post-Cold War era, many people consider ideological conflict far less central to the U.S.-Russia relationship. Do you agree with that perspective, or would you say that great power competition still revolves around an ideological axis?

Michael McFaul: That’s a very important question. My own view is that when we talk about great power competition — and I have China and Russia at the top of my list, but I might add Iran in the Middle East — I think it starts with power. I want to be clear about that. If China had the GDP of — I don’t want to offend any countries — Sierra Leone, we would not be worried about China. The same goes for military power and all of the conventional dimensions of power. There is a reason that China and Russia are considered greater powers compared to others, but that is just the foundational piece.

If both China and Russia were liberal democracies, I don’t think we would be having conversations about great power competition. So I believe that regime type does matter, and the ideological dimension that comes with that regime type also plays a role in great power competition. The ideological pieces are different for China than for Russia, but I think that Putin does believe that liberalism and democracy are a threat to his autocratic regime. And he’s right to believe that; I think that is a correct assessment. Sometimes Western and American leaders want to pretend that it doesn’t matter, in a realpolitik view, but they are not thinking about the world from Putin’s point of view. He is threatened by those ideas and, therefore, he is propagating his illiberal, conservative, orthodox, nationalist ideas around the world. And he is spending lots of money, by the way, to do so — through Russia Today, Sputnik, cyber actors, NGOs, the Russian Orthodox Church, and even bank loans to Le Pen in France, as well as through direct diplomacy with people like Viktor Orban in Hungary and Nigel Farage in the U.K. To me, there is a lot of evidence of his game plan for supporting his ideas. And therefore I think we need to have a response to that.

How would you characterize the relationship between Russia and China? Are they reluctant partners, true ideological allies, or potentially competitors in certain areas, like in Central Asia?

Michael McFaul: First, before getting to China, I want to make one more point — what I was just talking about in terms of Putinism and the propagation of these ideas is not a constant, and neither are Russia’s relations with the West. I think of it as variable. There have been times when there have been more pro-Western leaders in Russia; there have been times when there have been genuine democratic leaders in Russia. We are just in this particular phase with Putin; it doesn’t mean it is going to be this way forever. That is one of the debates about Russia among academics, but I want to make clear that that’s where I come down on the debate. I say that as a predicate before talking about Russia-Chinese relations because I don’t think they’re locked into place. It matters in part what happens domestically in Russia and what happens domestically in China.

Today, however, Russia and China are united as autocracies. They do have this ideological connection. Both countries have tense relations with the United States and the liberal democratic world, and that brings them together. But I think Putin needs Xi Jinping a lot more than Xi Jinping needs Putin. Putin is a lot more revisionist in his attacks on the liberal international order than Xi Jinping. Putin wants to see the destruction of NATO, the European Union, and the other institutions that are what we call the liberal international order, whereas Xi Jinping has one foot in that system and then is developing his own multilateral institutions outside of it. That’s a very different strategy than what Putin is doing, and I think in the long run, that can create tensions between their two countries.

Second, as you rightly noted, there are places where their interests do clash. In Central Asia, China has a pretty active strategy with the Belt and Road Initiative that Russian strategists think is at odds with their national interests. And then third, in the very long term, I think there will be tensions between China and Russia, as has happened in the past, on their borders. I expect them to come back in the future for the simple fact that there is demographic pressure from China into Siberia. Tragically, as a result of climate change, that land will become more valuable inside Russia, and I think we will see more conflicts over that border in the decades to come.

Keeping this broader clash between autocracy and democracy in mind, what steps do you think the U.S. should take to prepare for the new era of great power competition?

Michael McFaul: Number one, I think we should learn some of the lessons from the Cold War, both to emulate the things that worked and to avoid the things that didn’t work. There are some very important lessons — we should help advance ideas and support the free flow of information, as we did during the Cold War, but avoid global containment of either China or Russia. Thinking that every national liberation movement is communism, or that anybody who has socialist ideas is a communist, is something that got us in trouble during the Cold War. I have in mind McCarthyism in America in the 50s and most tragically the Vietnam War — we didn’t have to fight the Vietnam War in order to prevail in the Cold War.

A second very important lesson from the Cold War is that it wasn’t our military, it wasn’t our allies, it wasn’t even our missile defense system and Star Wars in the Reagan years that won the Cold War. At the end of the day, it was Russians and Ukrainians and Estonians and Georgians — they were the ones that won the Cold War. They were the ones that demanded the end of communism and the end of the Soviet Union, and they were our ideological allies. What worries me today about debates about China, Russia, and the United States is forgetting that very important lesson of the end of the Cold War: It was small-d democrats who came together around a set of ideas that ended the Cold War, not our superior tanks or superior missile defense systems.

The last thing I would say is to remind people that there are some things that are very different in this era compared to the Cold War. We should just take them as being different and not shoehorn them into some Cold War battle. I think this is particularly true with China, because we are so much more integrated with the Chinese economy, with Chinese society, even with Chinese students — I assume you have as many Chinese students at Yale as we do here at Stanford. Those are dimensions of great power engagement that we didn’t have during the Cold War. Rather than thinking of them always as threats and feeling the need to disengage and untangle our partnerships, I hope that smart leaders — and it’s your generation that will have to do this, not mine — will think of those as potential assets for American power and American society. I think there are ways to avoid going back to the red map versus the blue map. But it will take people to think about these things in very sophisticated terms, and not in the simplistic ways that I see sometimes in the debates about Russia and China today.

For more from Ambassador McFaul, his book From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia is available on Amazon.