A special episode of AT THE BRINK
When the Cold War ended in 1992, there was great hope for the newly formed Russian Federation. They worked closely with the US to help control the thousands of loose nukes scattered around former Soviet states like Ukraine. But following a series of major economic problems, and missteps by the West, Russia turned in a new direction, when a previously obscure ex-KGB agent named Vladimir Putin took over as President in 2000. In this episode, former US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, and former US Secretary of Defense, William Perry talk about their up close and personal interactions with Russia through the 1990s and the 2000s, and try to make sense of how US-Russian relations have deteriorated to today’s dangerous hostility.
I'm Lisa Perry. And this is At The Brink, a podcast about the dangers of nuclear weapons and the stories of those fighting to protect us. Today, we're bringing you another special episode of our podcast centered around the war in Ukraine. For this episode, we're turning our focus to Russia and the Russian president Vladimir Putin, the man in charge of the largest nuclear arsenal in the world.
There has been some seriously scary nuclear saber-rattling happening in the last month. Like Putin warning of quote, such consequences like you have never experienced in history, if other nations were to interfere in Ukraine, and ordering Russian nuclear forces to be put on special alert. On top of that, in recent years, Russia has been expanding its arsenal of tactical nuclear weapons, which are lower-yield nuclear weapons intended to be used in warfighting situations.
Of course, the term lower yield is a bit of a misnomer as tactical nuclear weapons, while they may typically have smaller yields, are still hundreds of times more powerful than any conventional munition. Some even approach the size of the Hiroshima bomb.
Experts are also worried about the fact that Russian war games have repeatedly practiced “escalate to deescalate” scenarios, which is a strategy of using limited nuclear strikes that in theory will cause your adversary to stop all military operations, for fear of further escalation. This is similar to going all-in on a poker bet with the hope that you'll scare your opponent into folding. Obviously, any nuclear weapons strategy that can be compared to gambling is rather concerning
But what does all this mean for the risk of nuclear war? We can't predict with any certainty what will happen. But we can look back in history to understand how Russia's motivations have evolved to arrive at this place and how Vladimir Putin's origins could influence how we will handle this war.
To help provide some perspective for these issues, we’re revisiting a conversation we've recorded in late 2018 between my grandfather, former Secretary of Defense William Perry, and former U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, which was originally taped in advance of the release of his book “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin's Russia.”
In 2008, McFaul joined the Obama administration to help facilitate a Russian Reset program during Dmitri Medvedev’s presidential term. He would later go on to become a U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, where he witnessed firsthand how Vladimir Putin interrupted this era of cooperation and returned Russian-American relations to a level of hostility not seen since some of the darker days of the Cold War.
Michael McFaul has been actively engaging with Russians since 1983. In the early nineties, right after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new state of Russia was in turmoil, but many were still optimistic about the future of US-Russian relationship. That included McFaul and Bill Perry, who first met one another in Moscow, in those heady early days.
You had just been appointed Secretary of Defense and you showed up. And I remember you were coming over some for some big meetings with your counterpart. You had a big delegation, but you, you made a kind of a big speech to those of us that were there about the possibilities of that time. And I was, you know, full in, you know, I was completely convinced and I had decided that this is going to be you know, what I want to focus on. After all, in some ways, this was the last chapter of the 20th century and it felt like that. And I, it was. I think just to remind people, it was an exhilarating time because it felt like we were doing that.
With all the ups and downs in US-Soviet and US-Russian relations, I always had the feeling that we were moving in the right direction, that at the end of the day, Gorbachev, and then Yeltsin, wanted to have a closer relationship with the United States and the west. They accepted the basic idea that democracy was a good system of government. And that markets was a good way of organizing, even if they wanted to do it in their particular ways.
I felt like we had a common agenda, not this confrontational one that we have right now.
During that period, Mike, it seemed to me that the proof of that hypothesis, was the Russians agreeing to participate with us in the denuclearization. [Yes.] Very actively participating and their willingness to put a brigade of the troops in an American division in Bosnia. [Amazing.] I look back on it, it seemed almost impossible that we could have negotiated those then, but we did. [Yes.] And that was what fortified my view along the same line that you were, they really wanted to be a part of this
Unfortunately, we know that that hopeful future did not come to pass. And instead, the rise of Vladimir Putin became the beginning of the end of any close relationships between our two nations. But it's important to understand how he came to hold such power over Russia.
It seems to me, in retrospect, that things were going very positively until the Russian economy collapsed. I think that was the trigger for causing Russians to say, wait a minute, why is this something we want to do? We're worse off now than we were under communism.
Yes, I agree. And it's a complicated story because all command economies in that part of the world, all of them went through an economic depression. By the World Bank estimates three times as worse as our great depression. So Americans should remember that, that the birth of Russian democracy happened at the same time that people were enduring the worst depression that they'd been in since World War II.
I think there's a second tragedy, which is right as they were recovering, 98, 99, they were just ready to move out of the, that depression, catching up to where Poland and Hungary and the Czech Republic had. Then there was another exogenous shock, August 1998 financial crash and I think that was an especially difficult blow because it set the economy back and it wiped out the more Western-oriented government that was in place at the time, Kiriyenko, Boris Nemtsov who was the first Deputy Prime Minister at the time.
And there had to be a fall guy for this crash, even though it came from the world economy. And they got pushed out and in the wake, Yeltsin couldn't get Chernomyrdin reappointed. He was a former Prime Minister that you worked with Bill. And so they ended up with their plan C, which was a guy named Vladimir Putin. And we didn't know it at the time, but that moment in history had huge consequences for the trajectory of Russia afterward.
I just think it underscores the accidental nature of his presidency. This is a guy that had never run for office until he ran to be president of the largest country in the world.
And, you know, I think back of counterfactuals that the heir apparent back in 1998 until the crash was a guy named Boris Nemtsov. He was brought in from Niznhy Novgorod where he was a successful democratically elected governor. And I knew Boris well, he was tragically assassinated in 2015, but you know, back then he was the young charismatic guy, Ph.D. in physics, by the way, taught physics in Niznhy Novgorod, which back then was a closed city.
In the time of economic depression, was reelected in the midst of that, because he could talk to people to explain where they were going through. And I think had he become president in 2000, Russian history could have been a lot different.
Vladimir Putin has railed about NATO threatening his country for years, but in the early days of the Russian Federation, this conflict didn't seem so inevitable.
Putin also is a complicated figure, that he most certainly worked in the KGB, signed up to the KGB at a time when most people were not, end of the, the Soviet Union, deeply disappointed in the collapse of the Soviet Union. He called it the one of the greatest…he didn't say one of them, he said the greatest tragedy of the 20th century.
I personally think he was rather confused. Never about democracy. I think he was always suspicious of democracy, but with respect to markets and relations with the west. I think there's, there was an evolution of his views. He, after all, is a guy that said in February 2000 in a very famous interview in the BBC when asked about NATO, he said, you know, maybe Russia should join. And, he doesn't like to be reminded of that, there's revisionist history now about NATO, but back then he was playing with those ideas
It's also true that in 1996, my last year as Secretary of Defense and my last NATO meeting, we were talking seriously about the possibility of Russia joining NATO. There was no decision to do that. And there had we taken the vote, it certainly would not far from being unanimous. I'm not even sure we had gotten a majority, but it was an item for serious discussion, right. In 1996.
After the end of the Cold War, many in the west were quick to indulge in a smug triumphalism and were often dismissive of the new nations that emerged from the ashes of the Soviet Union
Besides the thing we might've done and didn't do, there was something hanging over all this and that period, I would just describe it a disrespect for Russia. [Yeah.] A feeling that they were become insignificant. [Yes.] And what they did, didn't matter, what they thought didn't matter.
And I think that disrespect more than anything was a wedge, which in time drove the United States and Russia apart.
I, I couldn't agree more, when I lecture about these things to my students here at Stanford, I always say and I show it visually with photos, who won the Cold War. Well, Russians helped to win the Cold War as did Ukrainians and Estonians. And the idea that Ronald Reagan won the Cold War, I think you know, forgets a lot of people like Andre Sakharov and Boris Yeltsin and hundreds of thousands of, of just everyday Russians that would go out and protest on behalf of being more democratic and being closer to the west. And we should have saw those people as our allies, in our common victory, as opposed to this, well, we won and, you didn't. That was a bad frame.
One of the most significant complaints from Russia in recent years has been the expansion of the NATO alliance to include countries next to the Russian border. Even though this expansion was not aimed at isolating Russia, it was still perceived that way. This act compounded the underlying sense of disrespect that many in Russia had already been feeling.
In ‘96, when we were considering the first wave of NATO expansion, I thought it was a very bad idea. [I remember. Yes.] I argued very strongly against it. And to the extent that I asked the President to schedule a meeting, the national security council so I could present my case. He did. I did. And I lost. [Interesting. I didn't know that.] What was interesting particularly was that nobody even spoke out against what I was saying or for it. In other words, it was a done deal before the meeting, is what I conclude.
As strong as I felt at the time, I still think we could have survived it. [Right.] But I think perhaps more importantly, and this is expressed in your book very well, I think, the various things that were happening, like NATO expansion, like the withdrawing from the ABM Treaty, and so on, when the question comes up that the Russians will not like this at all, the answer was who cares. [Right.] That was the statement that you made new book I thought was very insightful Overall this was the disrespect for Russia, the belief we had, which we manifested by our actions that they didn't matter, what could they do about it? And so when Putin reached a certain stage in his presidency he decided to say, I will show you what we can do about this. [That's right.]
To Vladimir Putin, the U.S. and Europe are the implacable foes of Russia. But that was not always the case.
The first moment that led to the possibility of more cooperative relations was tragically September 11th. And that was a moment when Putin and President Bush thought that we had a common enemy and we did, and we still do by the way. And there was a lot of optimism that we would cooperate to fight Al-Qaeda together. That happened. But then there were other events that happened, right? So then there's another round of NATO expansion and we kind of got through that, then there's the Iraq war.
And I think that was a much bigger blow to the relationship because Putin thought we were making a big mistake there. And I was with him when he explained that to Obama when we first met him in 2009. Then I really think things got tense over the color revolutions in Georgia, 2003, and Ukraine 2004.
And I think this is really the essence of our conflict with Putin now, which is those were popular uprisings against you know, corrupt semi-autocratic regimes. The Bush administration celebrated those things as an expression of democratic renewal in those countries. Putin saw those events as overthrowing regimes that were close to him and I've listened to Putin enough up close and personal now that, I know his theory of this. He believes that the United States uses overt and covert force to overthrow regimes that we don't like. And guess what? There's a lot of empirical data to support that hypothesis, right?
When we came in with the Obama administration, we said we were going to be different. And the president explained that to Putin in their first meeting in July 2009 out at Putin's house he said, I'm not going to be in the business of regime change. And he said, I don't know if you know this or not, but I was against the Iraq war long before was popular to be against that war.
And, you know, as we walked out to the cars, you know, I got the sense that Putin thought, well, maybe this guy is different and maybe it's going to be a departure from the Bush administration, but fast forward a year and a half later 2011 begins. And there are two events that I think really precipitate the confrontation we're in today.
They're related. One was the Arab Spring, where, again, from Putin's view, there were these popular uprisings throughout the middle east that he thought we were helping. And in certain instances we were, and then the end of that year is a parliamentary election in Russia in December 2011. Falsified under kind of normal rates five or 6%.
We didn't think it was a big deal. You know, in the government, I was still working at the White House at the time, but a bunch of Russians thought it was a big deal and they use their smartphones and Twitter and Facebook and Vkontakte to mobilize people first 500, then 5,000 and 50,000 and then 200,000 people on the streets protesting these anti-democratic ways of the Putin regime and Putin blamed us for that. He said that we were part of encouraging them, giving them money. And I think we could never come to terms over that.
In 2013, many in Ukraine were pushing for their country to become associated with the European Union. Late that year, Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych made the fateful decision to reject that association, and instead pursue closer ties with Russia. This move provoked months of often violent protests sometimes called the Maidan revolution or Revolution of Dignity.
Finally, in February 2014, Yanukovich fled the country, and an interim government was formed, which signed the so-called EU accession agreement. However, Russia did not recognize the new government, calling the result an illegal coup. Unrest and protests occurred in largely Russian-speaking areas in the south and east of Ukraine. Later that year, Russia invaded an annex to the Southern Ukrainian region of Crimea and the Eastern regions of Donbass and Luhansk declared themselves to be separate states.
I would've thought, looking at it at the time, that the overthrow of the regime in Ukraine would be instrumental in Putin's mind.
I don't understand why we're in such a hurry to get Yanukovych, to sign an accession agreement. So that, to me in real-time watching it, I'd never understood that. Let them sign it next year, like what was the urgency, but that's not the question you asked. When he didn't sign that, Ukrainians went out onto the streets of Kyiv to protest that. And we had nothing to do with that. They did that spontaneously and by the way, this is something Putin just can't understand very well. I've heard him talk about it many times. He doesn't believe in spontaneity of individual action.
Because he comes from the KGB, he's always assuming that there's a plan, there's a conspiracy behind it. So he sees a hidden hand when it's spontaneous small D Democrats, they then go out onto the streets. Tragically things become violent, a hundred people are killed. And in the middle of that, we were trying to help negotiate a deal between President Yanukovych and the protesters. Vice President Biden was the lead negotiator and actively engaging both sides, not just one side.
And the idea was to come to an agreement, get people off the streets, and have an election in December, a year down the road, as a way to diffuse the tensions. That was our official policy. I didn't want to create the impression that the opposition was somehow in cahoots with the US government.
Even though you rightly do not create the impression I expected Putin had that impression anyway, that he probably thought you were somehow deviously supporting these groups
He did. So most certainly instrumentally, the Kremlin and their media were using my previous relationships with some of these opposition leaders to make an argument on TV. And for a while, there was almost every day that Obama had sent me to foment revolution against Putin. [Right.] And, we would look at this and say, how absurd this is? You know, I was the guy that did the Reset and Barack Obama wanted to foment a revolution against his partner in the reset?
It made no sense to us, but it made sense in terms of electoral politics. And President Putin was running for re-election, then 2012. And some of his advisors said to me, very bluntly said, “Hey, Mike, don't take it personally. You know, we're just, we're trying to win an election. You, you guys know how it is, right. You know, your elections get nasty sometimes.”
The harassment that Michael McFaul experienced while serving as ambassador would only grow over time. To understand the mind of Vladimir Putin, it's critical to understand how he began his career.
One clue we could have had was that Putin's background in the KGB, that should have been some clue to us?
Yeah. Yes. Never a good thing. With Putin, I got to say, my mind changed on Putin. When I first arrived, I believed he was just using this instrumentally and that the election would end and we, we would get on to things. Over time, I changed my views on that because I saw a streak of paranoia in him that you couldn't explain in these rational terms. And I have a theory for why. I think it's because he has such a, you know, back to what we were talking about earlier, he has this conception of the CIA being just incredibly powerful Pentagon people like you, you know, you guys are the ones that run American foreign policy.
We now call it the deep state. Right? Well, he's got that theory in his head, presidents come and go, they're elected. They don't really do things, but they have a term it's called "siloviki". You, you used to be a "syloviki", Bill. So " siloviki " is the power ministries. That's the rough translation. But it symbolizes even more. It's like there's this notion that the head of the CIA and the FBI and the Pentagon, they all get together and formulate policy and then they walk into the situation room and it's all been settled.
Victor was from an intelligence organization. I was doing research at the Moscow Carnegie Center on Elections. And this Victor guy had read one of our reports. He called me up one day after I landed there and said, you know, he was very open about who he worked for. He worked for a guy named Porshakov at the time who was a senior person in the intelligence services and said, we're intrigued by your work.
And we want to know if you can help us. And we had one innocent meeting where we just talked abstractly. The next meeting was a little less innocent where he said, you know, we need to have a serious conversation, Mike because stakes are high and the stakes were high for that election.
So I went to the Kremlin met him at his car. We drove out to the dacha that at the time his boss controlled, which is called the Nir dacha, it's Stalin's former dacha, just to give you a sense of his standing in the system. And we had this long, several-hour conversation about elections and [with lots of vodka] with some vodka.
And at one point he turns to me and he said, "You know, if you guys and us, if we could just cooperate more closely, we could make US Russian relations work." And when he said you and us, he was implying that I was from an intelligence organization, he was implying that I was from the CIA and I just looked at him. I said, you know, I have no idea what you think, but you know, I'm just a untenured assistant professor at Stanford. I, I don't have anything to do with them and he didn't believe me, you know, he wouldn't believe me.
Finally, the dark cloud that is always present when we think about Russian aggression is the fact that both the US and Russia possess thousands of nuclear weapons. Putin's nuclear saber-rattling in the wake of the Ukrainian invasion is not the first time he's invoked that card in order to project a strong man image in the global arena.
State of the Federation speech about a year ago, which among other things had almost half of it said, devoted to establishing the new and miraculous nuclear weapon program they were developing. And that in itself strikes me as being. strange and maybe significant development. I mean, why would he do that?
You can postulate a reason for doing it for domestic politics to make himself look strong. And if that's the answer, so be it, but it also seems to me, he was probably sending the message to the United States. And the question is what was that message and what did he hope to accomplish by doing that?
I think it's having the opposite effect here. It's causing us to put more of an emphasis on nuclear weapons ourselves. [Yeah.] It seemed to me it was entirely counterproductive from his point of view. [Right.] And my question is, did he not understand that or was he buying into getting a new nuclear arms race started?
This is consistent with this going on the offense and having the will to take us on. And I think he's consistent with that. He had in the cyber world, in Syria, and now with this, he's daring us and he's saying, we're back. What are you going to do about it? And even a little subtle thing, like, with the nuclear tip torpedo, to say aha, and see how clever we were there, we got this in, and it's not controlled by the START treaty because we're clever at this stuff.
That leads us a point where there's no official dialogue between the United States and Russia on nuclear issues. So to my judgment, that greatly increases the danger because I've always believed that the real danger of a nuclear confrontation between the United States and Russia is not one country or the other deliberately starting a nuclear war, it’s that we blunder into the war.
We will have disagreements with the Russian government and no amount of dialogue will somehow solve those. But what we can't have is conflict, let alone nuclear conflict, the worst of all based on bad information, misunderstanding, mis-signaling.
And I can't remember, even during the Cold War era, the thinness of the interaction between both our governments and our societies. We're in a place we've never been before.
We need to get back to arms control. And when we can't agree on any of this other stuff, we most certainly share a common interest in not blowing up the planet.
That's all for today's special episode, make sure to subscribe to the show so that you'll get notified when we release our regular second season on the legacy of nuclear testing coming out later this spring. And if you've liked our special episodes and want to hear more on other topics, feel free to tweet your suggestions to me at Lisa at the brink on Twitter.
I'm Lisa Perry. Thanks for listening.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia 2012-2014. Special Assistant to the President 2009-2012. Ken Olivier and Angela Nomellini Professor in International Studies in Political Science and Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University. Author, most recently of From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia.
19th U.S. Secretary of Defense; Co-author, THE BUTTON: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump