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Ex-Ambassador Michael McFaul Traces U.S.-Russia Ties 'From Cold War To Hot Peace'

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul leaves the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on May 15, 2013.
Misha Japaridze
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul leaves the Foreign Ministry in Moscow on May 15, 2013.

When Michael McFaul arrived in Moscow in 2012 as U.S. ambassador to Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin already considered him an adversary, he says — and attacks against him got personal and ugly.

McFaul was painted as someone trying to unseat the political system and bring American-style democracy to Russia. Just before he arrived to take up his posting, there had been street protests against Putin, then serving as prime minister and running for president.

"Putin's reaction to that was to blame us for fomenting revolution against his regime — and when I showed up, to blame me personally," McFaul tells NPR.

His new book, From Cold War to Hot Peace, is part memoir, part history text — but he also suggests another genre.

"It's a tragedy," he says, "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."

Those years began with his work as a pro-democracy activist in Moscow, watching the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s — and continued into a troubled two years as Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia.

Interview Highlights

On the pressures he faced in Russia

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 [search for] my name and [the word] "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. It's a story about distortion and using technology to frame debates in different ways. And I gotta 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.

On how President Trump is perceived in Russia

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 [Hillary] 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 [Putin] has been able to achieve 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.

On whether Putin has benefited from the Trump presidency

I think on the concrete policy objectives, [the Russians are] disappointed. 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.

On his advice for current U.S. Ambassador Jon M. Huntsman Jr.

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. ... And then, No. 2, do more of what he's doing, engage with Russian society. ... That people-to-people engagement can help to lessen the blows when the government engagement is not going well.

Ashley Brown and Taylor Haney edited and produced this story for broadcast. Heidi Glenn adapted it for the Web.

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Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.