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Podcast: The Ukraine war is destroying Putin’s reputation

A Russian tank in Moscow | GZERO World with Ian Bremmer podcast | The Ukraine war is destroying Putin’s reputation

TRANSCRIPT: The Ukraine war is destroying Putin’s reputation

Mike McFaul:

The objective of sanctions is to end the war in Ukraine, and not everybody agrees with that. Some think the intention should be to destroy Russia, to foment revolution. I disagree with that.

Ian Bremmer:

Hello and welcome to the GZERO World podcast. This is where you'll find extended versions of my interviews on public television. I'm Ian Bremmer, and today, as Russia's War with Ukraine approaches its third month, can Western nations check Russia's aggression without sparking global conflict? Putin made clear in his May 9th Victory Day speech that he has no plans of backing down. But with heavy troop casualties mounting on both sides, what would a diplomatic resolution even look like? I speak with former US Ambassador to Russia, Mike McFaul. Let's do this.

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Ian Bremmer:

Mike McFaul, welcome to GZERO World.

Mike McFaul:

Glad to be back.

Ian Bremmer:

So let me start. There's so much to talk to you about, and Russia is not only a little in the news these days. I want to start with the Victory Day speech earlier this week. What did and did not surprise you? How do you relate to the way Putin decided to present to his country and the world on this very important day?

Mike McFaul:

I had a bunch of different reactions to it. The first one was tragedy, Ian, this is a really important day in the history of Russia, history of Ukraine, history of all countries that fought that are now independent, that used to be part of the Soviet Union to defeat fascism. I attended that event as an ambassador a couple of times, and one of the best parts of my job as ambassador was meeting veterans that fought against fascism. And that he used such a sacred day to tie it to this horrible war in Ukraine and tie them all together, I just found to be really unbecoming. That's the first thing.

Second, it was nothing burger as a speech. That was my main. All this build, oh my goodness. Another big play on the chess board for Putin, mobilization, and it was nothing. It was just the same old stuff. Couple of lies, he always has to do that as a way to make his argument. But it was really underwhelming to me as a speech. Aesthetically, as a speech, it was not one of his best speeches. Again, aesthetically I said. I disagree with almost all of Putin's speeches, but some have been well constructed. This was not that. And it makes me think that maybe he's just run out of steam in ideas in terms of this war that he's conducting in Ukraine.

Ian Bremmer:

Does it make you think that he's trying to keep his options open? He is not actually sure which way the war is going to play out for himself at this point?

Mike McFaul:

Great point. I think that's exactly right. He couldn't declare victory on Victory Day because that would sound silly. Even to Russians it would sound silly, by the way. So he couldn't do that. He's changed the war objectives very clearly, right? So if we were talking two months ago, he had a really big agenda. Ukrainians are just Russians with accents, according to Putin. They were supposed to be swallowed back in. That didn't work. He was supposed to de-Nazify Ukraine, that failed. Demilitarized Ukraine, that failed. He didn't seize the major cities including Kiev. He lost the battle of Kiev.

I think that'll be a historic event in Ukrainian nationhood, and when you read history books 50 years from now, that's going to be a big moment. He lost that. So now he had to change it to special military operation Zashchita Donbas, right? In the defense of Donbas. That is not the phraseology that he used two months ago. And even there, to your point, I don't think he knows if he can prevail in Donbas, and that's why I think he had to hedges hi bets in this speech this week.

Ian Bremmer:

Now, he did say that in the Donbas, that the Russians are defending their territory. Belongs to them. So do you get the sense that kind of baseline table stakes, irrespective of what else he may want, is that he intends to take/annex/not give up all that land, which is a lot more than where he was before February 24th, before the tank started rolling?

Mike McFaul:

Yes. That actually was the most important phraseology of that speech because that was the first time, to my mind, where he very deliberately talked about parts of Ukraine that formally we thought were either contested parts or not contested parts, as being part of Russian territory. That suggests that that is his strategy, that he is going to annex those territories, and then try to hold them. And that is new. That is something qualitatively different than the way he's been speaking about the war so far.

Ian Bremmer:

Now beyond Donbas itself, where we now have this special military operation is focused, we're still seeing significant amount of Russian shelling, artillery, long range precision missiles against all sorts of cities in Ukraine. Against Odessa stepping up over the past week. We've seen it against Lviv, against other cities. We're also seeing these explosions in the contested territory of Transnistria, this Russian breakaway province of Moldova. What's your read on what all of that means as connected to what Putin is trying to accomplish?

Mike McFaul:

Well, I think it's part of just the terrorism that has been part of his military strategy throughout this war. And it's deliberate. He's terrorizing these populations, killing civilians as a way to try to compel Zelensky to negotiate. And I've talked to Zelensky a couple times during this war, and I think it's important for people to understand that when you're the leader of a country, the democratic leader of a country and you can't defend your people, and you have to sit there and watch because you don't have defenses against that, it does weigh on him.

I think it's a hard thing, and it is part of his strategy to keep the pressure on Zelensky for one day when, I think he will try to say, "I've seized this territory and now we need to negotiate." He wants to keep that pressure on Zelensky and his armed forces. The other part, by the way, is he wants to keep trapped some of the forces that are there, so forces that are in, around Kharkiv in particular, but also, we don't exactly know what's going to happen to Odessa, but he wants to keep them there so that the Ukrainians don't move them to the main fight in Donbas right now.

Ian Bremmer:

Now, when you talk to Zelensky, I'm interested in how he thinks about the future of the war. Do you get a sense that he would welcome a restart of negotiations at this point? Or given that he's done so well, given that the morale of the Ukrainian troops is higher, a lot more support they're getting from the West, do you get the sense of, "No, I want to actually have the opportunity to retake this territory first."

Mike McFaul:

It's a great question, and I don't want to pretend that I've talked to Zelensky about that very question. But I have talked to many people around him and their objectives have changed, Ian, you're exactly right. A month ago, talking to him and others around him, they were talking very soberly about a peace settlement that would trade Ukrainian neutrality for some security guarantee from the West, that would agree to disagree about where the borders are, but agree to not take them through military force. And they were even negotiating about the size of the Ukrainian military in the negotiations, right?

That was a month ago. All of those issues, I think, are now frozen. I think their objectives have changed. They feel like the time is on their side, and whether they're right or wrong about that, I'm not a military expert enough to know in terms of which artillery are going to prevail in Donbas. But I think Putin may have missed an opportunity to get an agreement a month ago that I do not think is, well, I know is not on the table today, and may not be on the table four to six or eight weeks from now.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah. So in other words, the Russians would have to do a hell of a lot more damage to the Ukrainians for that to be remotely plausible going forward.

Mike McFaul:

I think so. Tragically, I think so. And I could easily imagine a scenario where the lines of the battle are not going to change that much in Donbas for weeks and maybe months, but tragically, a whole lot of Russian soldiers and Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are going to die.

Ian Bremmer:

Now, I want to turn a little bit to US policy. You've been very outspoken from the beginning, to be fair, that the West needs to do a lot more in terms of the sanctions against Russia, in terms of the military support that they're providing Ukraine. But we've now seen, over the course of almost three months, that the trajectory of the West has been in that direction that you have been arguing for. Is the West, broadly speaking now, where you think they should be in terms of Russia and Ukraine policy?

Mike McFaul:

On bolstering NATO? I think yes. I'm very impressed with what they've done there. On weapons? Almost yes. And you're right, their policy changed. I think Publix were ahead of the governments, by the way, on not only in the United States, but talking to colleagues of mine throughout Europe, I think they've moved pretty far on arms, not quite as far as I would've liked, not as fast, but they've moved pretty far. I think on sanctions, they're behind still. I think there's a lot more that could be done and should be done. But I applaud, as I say, when I talk to my government friends here in the United States, you get an A for the midterm because I'm a professor, but now there's another test next week and you got to keep ratcheting up.

And particularly on sanctions, I think conceptually, there's some changes that need to be done. Number one, I think about it like parking tickets, Ian. If you park in the wrong place here at Stanford, you get a parking ticket for the day you parked your car in the wrong place. But if you leave it there, you get another parking ticket the next day. And you pile them up, I think I got six-

Ian Bremmer:

And then they boot your car. Then you can't drive anymore, man.

Mike McFaul:

... I think I got up to four or five one time when I forgot where I'd parked. And I think that ratcheting is a conceptual change that needs to take place with sanctions, right? As long as Putin's army is parked, to stretch the metaphor in Ukraine, there's got to be a ratcheting. I also think, conceptually, on individual sanctions, they need to rethink some things. I have a working group, I'm a member of that we're putting together a bunch of ideas on this, and one of the ideas is sanction the position, not the individual. So sanction everybody who's a deputy minister and above in the government. Sanction everybody who's on the board of Rosneft. And then that gives-

Ian Bremmer:

Everyone who's a girlfriend of the Russian president, for example.

Mike McFaul:

Well, that's a little harder because then you-

Ian Bremmer:

I mean, that's a position. That's not an individual.

Mike McFaul:

... That's an interesting concept, yes. But the idea there is, two things. One, then you give some agency to those people because right now, once you're on the list, you're stuck and you're going to be there forever. There's no way to get off the list. But then, two, you can sanction not just several hundred people, but thousands of people. So those are just two examples of where things can change. And of course, as you know better than I, there are, I think, some creative ideas about energy sanctions. I applaud what is being discussed, and I think there there's a lot more that can be done there as well.

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah, on oil, for example, that's already moving in Europe. Okay, so. But I wanted to go back to the sanctions issue more broadly. If the West, if we're going to keep ratcheting up and the Russians refuse to move, I mean, they're still in Ukraine, they're still fighting, they're not actually doing what the West wants, and they're showing absolutely no inclination of responding to these sanctions. How far should the West be prepared to go? I mean, if the West had the capacity to literally destroy the Russian economy, should that be the intention?

Mike McFaul:

Well, I strongly believe that the intention, the objective of sanctions is to end the war in Ukraine. Not everybody agrees with that. Some think the intention should be to destroy Russia, to foment revolution. I disagree with that. I think the sanction should be tied to a very concrete foreign policy objective, which is to end the war in Ukraine. Now, sanctions are sticky, as you know as well as I do. It's easy to say that, it's harder to lift them. But I think conceptually, that's what one should do.

It doesn't mean as that you'll achieve that objective, and sanctions take a long time to produce results, and oftentimes they don't. But I think framing it that way has the purpose to, when we talk to people inside Russia. By the way, that's the one I left off my list. That's where I think the Biden administration and the West more generally, that's where I would give them low marks. I don't think they have a very good strategy for communication inside Russia. I don't think they're explaining the policy as well as they should. And with respect to-

Ian Bremmer:

And no one, by the way, no one really is, in terms of NATO right now.

Mike McFaul:

... I agree. I agree. I think it's a huge weak spot. And we kind of got out of this business, we thought our ideas were the only ones that mattered 30 years ago, and it turns out there are other ideas in the world, and we've got to think much more creatively than we're doing now. Both on the content side, what are we seeking to communicate? Way too much talk about disinformation, right? Especially where I live. I want to talk about information. But in addition to information, I would call that reporting, I also think we got to think about the content of the ideas involved here, and that needs a lot more work. And then the technology about how to communicate them, that requires a lot of more work as well.

Ian Bremmer:

Now, you said the Russians need to understand what the goals are. You need to have effective communication. You said that the goals are to get the Russians to end the war in Ukraine. Now, I mean, I've heard from leaders around NATO, including of course, some statements made by the US administration. I'm thinking by the Secretary of Defense in particular, that imply that those aren't the only goals, that there are goals to degrade or destroy Russia's military capabilities so they wouldn't be able to engage in such an attack again. It's hard to communicate effectively when the goals are not necessarily identical or well shared by the various components of the NATO alliance.

Mike McFaul:

Yeah, great point. And there is noise, and there's a range of views within the alliance. I'm mostly impressed by how well the alliances kept together. I think the Biden administration should get a lot of credit for a lot of things that we weren't witnessing in the run-up to this war. By the way, Putin gave us a big advantage by being so slow and the buildup, gave them the time to do the diplomacy to get everybody in place. But having said that, there's noise, and I think they need to be disciplined about the messaging. I actually think Secretary Austin's comment, I disagreed with that. I don't think that should be the goal of what we're doing right now, but that's just my personal view. I would've rather him say, "We want to strengthen Ukraine and Ukrainians military so that they'll have the ability to deter Russia's military no matter what it's strength."

Ian Bremmer:

Yeah. Very different from the disarmament as well. The demilitarization that, again, originally might have been on the table between Ukraine and Russia. You see how far this pendulum has shifted over the course of just 10, 11 weeks now. There's of course been a really big flurry of stories around this New York Times piece that said that members of the administration speaking to the New York Times journalists, that the United States was providing intelligence that helped the Ukrainians target Russian generals and also target the Moskva, the flagship of the Black Sea Fleet, walked back by the Pentagon itself. But in your view, should the United States be in the business of doing that?

Mike McFaul:

First of all, I don't know that it's true. Ukrainian government officials I talked to say is not true. So they're contending the very validity of these leagues. Number two, I believe that we should share intelligence with the Ukrainians. I'm not against that as a policy matter, but I'm militantly against talking about it. I think it's just stupid. Ian, I used to read secret materials every day for five years in the Obama administration. I'm sure it would've been fun for us to meet and have a drink and talk about that. But that's not, A, I think it's illegal. Two, it doesn't serve our national security interests, because think about what's happened here as a result of that.

One, it feeds Putin's narrative that he's fighting NATO in the United States and Ukraine, not the Ukrainians. That's exactly what he wants his people to believe. So we're helping him with that. Number two, think how it feels for the Ukrainians. It makes them look weak, like they can't do this on their own? That's not their view. Their intelligence is actually quite, they believe, I haven't seen it, but they believe that they're doing pretty well in terms of intelligence here, and maybe they're providing us with intelligence.

So this mystique that because of what we have and our budgets that we're the, and we are, by the way, we have great intelligence. Let's be clear about this. But we learn a lot from them and it makes them look weak, and that didn't serve anybody's, I don't think that serves our security objectives in terms of our partnership with Ukrainians.

Ian Bremmer:

So before we go, I want to ask you just a little bit about Russia itself, because of course, I mean, you talked about your discussions with Zelensky and with many in the Ukrainian government. You were on the ground in Russia, not only as Ambassador, but for many years before that as a Political Scientist. I wonder, the conversations you're having now with people on the ground in Russia, with your friends, with your colleagues, what do they see? What are they like? What surprises you from what you're hearing from Russia today?

Mike McFaul:

That's a great question. So I do talk to Russians every single day. Just minutes ago, in fact, somebody in Moscow. I talked to Russians that have left the country, and political people as well as economic people, and I would say a couple of things. One, and I'm just reporting what one of my long-term colleagues said. Not an opposition figure, somebody who worked in the government for many, many years. He said to me, "Mike, this is a war that there's no winners from inside Russia. Literally not a single person." So he started with Putin. Does Putin look, is he stronger or weaker as a result of this war? Domestically, he's weaker. Reputationally, around the world, he's much weaker. So he's a loser. The Sulavakiva, the military guys, the generals, obviously this is a disaster for them. And there's a lot of finger pointing going on with the intelligence services that they believe that the intelligence people dragged them into this war with bad information.

And then the intelligence folks, so the people close to Putin, he's a former intelligence officer, KGB guy. They look bad because they miscalculated on how do Ukrainians were going to fight. They miscalculated on who was going to support them inside Ukraine. They grossly miscalculated their assessments of the Biden administration and the West. They look bad. Oligarchs. This is horrible. There's not a single economic actor in Russia that thinks this is good. This is a complete disaster for them. The middle class in the major cities, this is horrible for them. So maybe the babushkas in Siberia that are believing Putin's propaganda, they're getting a bit of a charge about this that we're back in the fight. But I think along, and I don't talk to the KGB guys directly like I used to as Ambassador, but my sense is that this is a pretty catastrophic failure that most people think in those terms. And the question is, how long will it remain this catastrophic event?

And then there's, all among them all, there's the debate about Putinism, not Putin. People I know don't think that Putin's going to be overthrown. Those scenarios I think are unlikely. But Putinism, in his way of governing Russia, there's widespread agreement among people I know that this is the beginning of the end. Well, this is like Brezhnev's Afghanistan, right?

Ian Bremmer:

Right.

Mike McFaul:

Remember, Brezhnev went on that fantastic run in the '70s where Marxism-Leninism was taking over, and Indo-China and Southern Africa and Nicaragua. And then he overreached, he went into Afghanistan. By the way, and at a time when we were kind of weak and divided and amongst ourselves, and this feels a little, for a lot of my Russian colleagues, it feels like overreach and the beginning of the end of this kind of regime. Without predicting when, but it's just the beginning of the end.

Ian Bremmer:

So last question, Mike. As long as Putin is there, is there, in your view, any way out of this for the Russians?

Mike McFaul:

Yeah, I think Putin can sue for peace. He gets to define victory whatever way he wants, and I could see he could agree to some kind of partition of Ukraine. Whether the Ukrainians will agree to it anymore as we talked earlier, I'm not so sure. I think he can do that. But then he's just kind of a lame duck. I mean, I really think... I have no... I've known Putin for a long time, we met in 1991. I wrote my first piece Warning the West about his autocratic ways in March of 2000. So my views on Putin are pretty clear. They have been for decades. But I think you have to say fairly, that before this war, he might have been remembered as the Russian leader that restored Russia as a great power. Russians before this war were richer than maybe any time in their history, by the way.

And he kind of restored that stability inside the country, and I really think he threw it away in this war. I just don't think he will be remembered that way ever again, and I don't think he'll ever get back that kind of support he had domestically. And, I could be wrong about this part, it's a conversation for another time, Ian, about what it means for his reputation internationally. But I speak to Chinese and Indians and people from Africa and Middle East pretty regular basis like you do. I haven't found many people that think, "Oh my gosh, doesn't Putin look like some great... He's really great, strong leader. Look at what he's done in Ukraine. He's a guy I want to stand next to. He's a guy I want to be aligned with."

I don't feel that. I see a lot of neutral space, right? We don't want to be part of this war. Indians, people from the Middle East, Africa. But not many people thinking, "Oh my goodness, Putin, he's a great, strategic genius. I want to be closer to him." That's not a sentiment I encounter very often.

Ian Bremmer:

Mike Mcfaul, we will come back to that. Always good to have you on the show. Good to see you, man.

Mike McFaul:

Thanks for having me, Ian. Bye-bye.

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That's it for today's edition of the GZERO World Podcast. Like what you've heard? Come check us out at gzeromedia.com and sign up for our newsletter Signal.

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The GZERO World Podcast is brought to you by our founding sponsor, First Republic. First Republic, a private bank and wealth management company understands the value of service, safety, and stability in today's uncertain world. Visit firstrepublic.com to learn more.

GZERO World would also like to share a message from our friends at Foreign Policy. Challenge yourself to change the world. On season three of Course Correction, a podcast from Doha Debates in partnership with the UNHCR refugee agency, host Nelufar Hedayat yet takes listeners on the journey of a refugee. From the moment of displacement to mental health risks, to integration and assimilation, learn about the issues affecting displaced persons around the world and what you can do to solve them. Follow and listen to Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.


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