As Ukrainian forces continue to battle Russian troops in the east and south of the country, Europe and the United States are considering additional pressure to convince Russia’s Vladimir Putin to end its invasion.
VOA’s Misha Komadovsky sat down with former U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul to discuss his proposals for new sanctions against Russian oligarchs, the consequences of labeling Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, and the possible collapse of the Russian Federation as a result of its war against Ukraine.
Former ambassador Michael McFaul is a diplomat and academic who was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
VOA: You’ve been working with the office of the President of Ukraine on imposing sanctions against Russian proxies and those who support the Kremlin in its invasion of Ukraine. Currently your primary target is Russian propagandists and opinion leaders. What is the final goal here?
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul: Well, so, first let me clarify what we do and what we informally do, right? So, the group that I coordinate is an international working group that tries to come up with new ideas to suggest ideas for governments for new sanctions. We coordinate with Russia – with the Ukrainian government, Mr. Yermak, but I want to, I want to emphasize that our group is independent from the government of Ukraine, independent from the United States government. Again, we talk to everybody but we’re – our ideas ultimately are just independent analysts. None of us work for any government. Ultimately, we come up with ideas that … can only be implemented by governments, right?
Sanctions, and or by companies, by the way. We – sometimes the target of our activities – are aimed at trying to get companies to rethink what they’re doing. The latest paper that we just put out, it’s an appendix to working paper number three that you just noted, is to give greater attention to what we call the propagandists for Putin’s war. These are not just people on TV supporting the war, but these … can be a variety of kinds of people – soft power as we call it in English, right? – that are indirectly supporting Putin’s regime and Putin’s war. And we believe that there needs to be more attention to these people. That they are not innocents, that that if they are performing concerts in support of the Russian military, especially if they do so in annexed territory that the Russians are illegally occupying, they should pay some consequences for those activities.
VOA: Correct me if I’m wrong, but you are trying to convince the U.S. government to recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, President Biden said that he would not go ahead with this, and my sources at the White House explained to me that this label could be compared to, you know, a huge blanket that you can put on Russia but it’s difficult to take it off, and it would make, for instance, the Green Deal impossible. So is it a done deal for you, or is there still a chance that the U.S. will recognize Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism at some point?
McFaul: I don’t know the answer to your question. We did publish a paper about that. We believe that the actions that the Russian government is taking inside Ukraine are terrorist acts. They are terrorizing non-combatants. And I’m not a lawyer, but I looked at the language of that law very, very closely. And it’s difficult to say in a normative way that what Russia is doing, somehow, in Ukraine is not terrorism.
And I just remind your viewers, Cuba is on the list. So, tell me is Cuba terrorizing people in a different country to a greater extent than Russia is inside Ukraine? My answer to that is “no.” So I think that’s a very difficult argument for people to make that Russia somehow is a better international actor with regard to terrorism than Cuba is today. Cuba is still on the list.
Now, I know those arguments from the White House. I have colleagues who work in the White House. I understand their concerns, that they think sanctions will be sticky and that you can’t do certain cooperation with Russia if they’re a state sponsor of terrorism, but actually the law gives the President the right to do certain things within the law to grant exemptions. So, it’s not true that we can’t work with them.
I would remind your viewers that Iran is on that list, and yet we negotiated with Iranian diplomats the JCPOA. It didn’t prevent us from sitting down and talking to them about that. That was a large major agreement. So, I think there are ways to move forward if they wanted to. And I want to be clear, I appreciate why the Biden administration is nervous about this step, I just think the outrageous behavior of Russians inside Ukraine, you know, these are terrorist acts from my, by the way I look at them, demands that that we do something different.
And I would say in general I don’t like the dynamics of sanctions where it’s always incrementalism. It’s always just a little bit more, a few more people here, a few more people there. When I don’t see what Putin is doing inside Ukraine as being incremental. You know, he just annexed on paper, not in reality, territory the size of Portugal. That’s outrageous behavior. And so, we need to have a commensurate response to that outrageous behavior, not an incremental response.
VOA: What would this comprehensive response look like? What would it look like? What is your solution here?
McFaul: Well, read our papers. We’ve been very explicit. You know, the paper about state sponsor of terrorism talks very explicitly about if you wanted to go further what you could do. And that’s the blanket part that the administration doesn’t like is exactly the part that I like, that it means you have to do all these things, that your hands are tied that you’re not, you know, choosing which oligarch is good and which oligarch is bad, that you’re actually, you know, you’re doing blanket things, that tie your hands. Like our paper on individual sanctions that we published as well.
We want thousands of Russians that are enabling Putin’s war machine inside Ukraine to be sanctioned. But we also give them a choice by the way, which I think is another innovative thing, rather than, you know, once you’re on the sanctions list it’s very difficult to get off. It’s almost impossible to get off of the list. We frame it in a different way. We sanction, first of all, we say all, all Russian oligarchs. You know, we don’t like this picking and choosing. You know why? Why some are on the list and some are not I think is very difficult to justify. And it leads to a lot of speculation about, you know, why are some getting special deals and others are not.
So, we just say, put them all on the list, all 200 on the Forbes list, and then have them take pro – actions to say I renounce the war, I want to support Ukrainian reconstruction, and then that gives them a chance to get off the list. Same with government officials. We say all of these – if you are in these jobs, you should be on the sanctions list. We’re not going to discriminate between, you know, the governor of this region versus the governor of that region. Just put them all on the list. And then if you want to get off the list, resign from your post. So, that gives you agency about your status.
Same with people that serve on boards of companies, Russian companies including non-Russians. If you’re on the list, we want to sanction everybody on those boards, but then you can choose to resign to get your name off the sanctions list. Then, by the way, somehow – some Americans have, some Russians have, and I applaud their decision to do that. In return then they should be released from those sanctions list.
VOA: So far, the United States has allocated more than $60 billion to support Kyiv. So, talk to me about the U.S. national interest in helping Ukraine.
McFaul: Well, I think there’s two categories of interests. I do believe that the United States is a democracy, that we have made certain mistakes in our past. I’m happy to talk about them especially with the use of military force. But we don’t support imperialism. We don’t support colonization. We don’t support annexation. We don’t support terrorism in terms of our moral stance in the world, and therefore I think we have a moral interest, and I say this is an American myself, I’m against imperialism, I’m for democracy I’m against terrorism.
And so I want my elected leaders to be for those moral positions as well. And in this case, in this war, it’s a dictatorship that has invaded a democracy. It is an imperial power that is trying to recolonize a former colony. And it is a country using indiscriminate force, terrorist acts against noncombatants. And I think for moral reasons therefore we must support the Ukrainians in their fight for their sovereignty, their fight for their democracy and their fight against these barbaric actions against innocent civilians inside Ukraine.
I also think there are concrete American national security interests at stake here as well. So those are two different things. If Ukraine wins this war, it will be reassuring for our NATO allies. It will be comforting for the rest of the world that worries about Russian aggression in Ukraine … is not the only country in the world that worries about that. And I believe that it would be a good signal for other countries thinking of using force. I have in mind China in particular.
I was just in Taiwan a few weeks ago and nobody is cheering for the Ukrainians to win more than the Taiwanese as a signal to China to not take that kind of military action. And that’s, these are all things that are in America’s national security interests.
VOA: Ambassador, sooner or later this war will be over. And I’ve heard a myriad of opinions on what’s going to happen to Russia after this, and some say that it may lead to Russia’s collapse, as it happened to the USSR. Does this scenario look realistic to you and how will the U.S. react to this should it happen?
McFaul: Well again, political scientists aren’t very good about predicting the future. By the way, neither is the CIA. I worked in the government for five years and they missed a lot of things, too, when I was there, so I’m hesitant to answer your question. With that caveat in mind, I would say a couple of things:
One – I do not believe that this war will lead to the collapse of the Russian Federation in the same way that the invasion of Afghanistan by Leonid Brezhnev was one of the precipitants that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. I say that because the balance of power between the ethnic republics and Russia is diff – the rest of Russia is different than the Soviet Union.
I say that because a lot of the leaders in the ethnic republics are some of the most loyal people that support Moscow and support Putin. So, I just, I’m not in the category that thinks this will lead to the dissolution of the Russian Federation. I am in the category of people, however, that believe that this is the beginning of the end of Putinism as a political regime and as a political ideology. I don’t think it will happen while Putin’s alive and in power. I think he’ll be in power for a long time. I don’t see that happening.
But at the end of Putin’s reign, whenever that happens, and I’m not a doctor – that’s more a question for a doctor than a political analyst – but whenever he is no longer able to rule Russia, I think that will be the moment of questioning about whether this was a wise thing to do and where we go in the future for Russians.
And right now, you know, I don’t know of a single economic elite that thinks this war was in Russia’s national interest. They have to be quiet. They can’t say that publicly, but this has been a disaster for any major economic elite inside Russia. Russian generals: Is this a good thing for them? Absolutely not. This has been a disaster for them. And I think there will be a big blame game between them and this, you know, the intelligence officers, the FSB people that dragged them into this war with bad intelligence. I think there’ll be real tension between those groups.
Third, Russian society: yes, there are, there are adamant, fervent supporters of Putin’s war. But, if you look at the opinion poll data, the group that is least supportive of Putin’s war are the young, the educated, the urban and the rich. It’s very clear cut. And those numbers are as big as the fervent supporters of the war. Then there’s the [unintelligible] in the middle, right? Then there’s the 60 percent that don’t – that kind of support the war, but they don’t really think about politics, who are now mobilized because of mobilization. The war has finally come to them.
But the support – the anti-war group are just going to grow over time, right? Because the younger people are going to get older, and the older people, the over 65, over 55 that support Putin, over time, that group is going to become smaller. And then I would just remind people that, you know, there are people doing incredibly brave acts. Some are in jail. Some have had to flee their country because they are so fervently against the war. And I don’t think those people are going away. They’re not going to quit. They’re going to keep fighting for a different kind of Russia. And again, I don’t want to pretend to predict the future. We’re talking about years in the future, maybe decades. But the idea that Russia will be permanently against the West, will be permanently acting as an imperial country, I just think that’s a premature prediction.”
VOA: And the last question. I’ve seen your multiple tweets where you were trying to address the Russian people even in Russian, trying to say something like, “Reporter speaks in Russian.” At this point, if you had a chance to talk to those who support Putinism and Putin’s war against Ukraine, what would you tell them?”
McFaul: Well, I would say first, this war, a war of choice by Putin, a senseless war not provoked by any threat to Russia. You know, the absurdity that Ukraine was somehow threatening mighty Russia or that NATO was threatening mighty Russia, is complete nonsense. It is a senseless war, a tragic war that all Ukrainians first and foremost are suffering, but Russians are in the second category of people that are suffering as a result of this horrific war.
And, you know, I hope someday that they understand that there’s no, there’s no advantage to Russia over imperial conquest. Russia is a big country. Why do they need Kherson? They have the largest country in the world. They should devote their energies and resources to developing the territories that they have, rather than conquering new territories, and the sooner that they understand that the better it will be, you know, for all of Russians.
You know, I have two sons. I can’t imagine sending my sons to a war with no purpose, to die for no purpose. I admire greatly (that) Russians – and by the way Ukrainians and the Estonians and Latvians and Georgians – did to fight a truly imperial, fascistic regime that saved the free world in 1945. And when you’re attacked, you must fight. That was a war of purpose.
This is a war with no purpose. And, you know, I would hate to be the mother of the last son that dies in this senseless war. Better to end it now than years down the road when those sons will just keep dying and dying in Ukraine. We know, as you implied, this war is going to end. It’ll end in some kind of negotiation. It will not end in the unification of Ukraine and Russia. So why not just end it sooner rather than later?