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tv   Amanpour on PBS  PBS  August 28, 2018 12:00am-12:30am PDT

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welcome to amanpour on pbs. we're looking back at some of our favorite interviews this year. tonight church hill once called russia a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. that just as true today as it was then, perhaps even more so. former u.s. ambassador michael mcfaul was there when russia and moscow hit the rocks and we got his insider take on putin and where it all went wrong. ♪ ♪ ♪ >> welcome to the program, everyone. i'm christiane amanpour in london. it may not be the cold war all
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over again, but a new kind of ideological war is afoot, this time instead of communism versus capitalism, it is autocracy versus democracy. it is playing out all over the globe increasingly with authoritarian governments gaining places like poland, hungary, the philippines, turkey, all key u.s. allies. some even say donald trump himself remits the strong man syndrome. russia and america are again the main players locked in this struggle. as america's man in moscow under president obama, michael mcfaul had a ringside seat to all this action. he was the architect of the famous reset policy. but by the time he got to russia as ambassador, that idea was going up in smoke. mcfaul's new book about being in the room where it happened, often with putin is called, from cold war to hot peace. he joined me from stanford university in california to discuss this.
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ambassador mcfaul, welcome to the program. >> thanks for having me. >> so, hot peace, describe what you mean by that. i ask you because other than saying perhaps we're on the brink of some kind of hot war. >> i don't think we're on the brink of a hot war. thankfully both vladimir putin and president trump want to avoid that and i think what we saw in syria showed real de-escalation and trying to avoid that. but as you just said in your introduction, it is a very confrontational moment. i call it the hot peace to echo that there are elements like the cold war, but there are some new elements in this confrontation that are even more sin tister, would argue than the cold war. during the last decades of the cold war we didn't have annexation. tragically we now have that when vladimir putin and annexed crimea in ukraine in 2014. we have new weapons, cyber weapons that we didn't have in the cold war.
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and even the way that we talk about international norms i think has changed fundamentally where vladimir putin seems much more ready to defy the west in our international norms much more so than the late cold war leaders in the soviet union. >> you write that your mission to russia, quote, should have been a crowning achievement of my career, an opportunity of a lifetime to further my ideas about american/russian relations. it was not. what went wrong in your mission there? >> as a kid at stanford here, during the cold war, i was worried about confrontation between the soviet union and the united states. i took my first trip abroad to linen grad, soviet union, kid grew nup montana, never been abroad. two years after coming to california for school, i went there because i wanted to improve relations. and i had a theory, perhaps some what idealistic, if we could just understand each other, we
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could reduce tensions. and for the next 30 years in one way or another, i was involved in that project. so going to moscow in january 2012, the president asked me to continue that project, the reset project. that's why he sent me to moscow in the first place. but when i got there, things had changed rather radically from the time that we first began dealing with russia in 2009 in the obama administration. and two big things had changed. one, vladimir putin was running for president again and planned to return to the kremlin. and he was not interested in a cooperative relationship with the united states. that became very clear to me in the early months of my time as ambassador. but two, and almost as important, at the time that i landed in moscow, literally just weeks before i landed in moscow, there were massive demonstrations in russia protesting a falsified parliamentary election in december 2011. and it grew from 50 to 500 and eventually hundreds of thousands
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of people protesting against the putin regime. the last time that had happened in that country was 1991, the year the soviet union collapsed. and so putin needed an argument against these protesters, and he chose the united states, obama and me to say that we were fomenting revolution against him as a way to mobilize his electoral base and to marginal eyes democratic forces. >> you also say in your book that one of the major issues for him around 2011 was the arab spring. and you see in all these regimes sort of collapse in the face of very similar internal demonstrations that you're mentioning in russia. was he afraid -- forget the united states. was he afraid that that was going to happen to him in russia? >> yes, he was. and i'm glad you mention that because people forget that 2011 was a very volatile time where
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lots of strong men, autocratic leaders throughout the middle east, were being challenged by big demonstrations. first in tunisia, then egypt, then libya, then syria. and at the end of the year, the same year, that's the year that you had these massive demonstrations inside russia against vladimir putin and his regime. his initial reaction, by the way, to those people was he was upset with them. he believed that he had made them rich, that he had brought russia off its knees. and this middle class -- they actually called it the creative class inside russia, was of his making, he thought. but his second reaction was fear. and again, the last time that had happened in his country was 1991, the year the soviet union had collapsed an event, by the way, he called the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. he was not going to allow it to happen again. that's why he decided to crackdown on those protesters
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and to use us as part of the propaganda to say they were literally pup et cetera of me. they used to have video of me allegedly handing out money to the opposition. saying i was sent purposely by barack obama to overthrow the regime inside russia. >> let me go back to another thing that you've written. when you went to russia in 1991 after the fall of the soviet union and to try to help them in their move towards democracy -- and don't forget, i remember because i was there, russians were very upset with americans because they thought that you had sort of driven them to this shock therapy, the incredibly difficult economic belt tightening that they had to do, and they've never forgot up it. it was one of the worst experiences, they say, of their memories. but in any event, at about that time, you met putin in st. petersburg and he was, in your words, an undistinguished bureaucrat. you wrote, at the time if you
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had asked me to list 5,000 russians that might be the next president of russia, he would not have made the list. so, reflect on what your initial view of him was given that you spent a lot of time in the room with him as ambassador, why did he not make the list? did he ever measure up to making the list in your view? >> first to remind you and your viewers, i was there meeting with him in 1991 before the collapse of the soviet union because his boss, the mayor of saint pyatte st. petersburg wanted to collaborate with americans inside st. petersburg. in that period, people often forget people wanted to interact with americans because we thought we had a common purpose to build democracy. even after the collapse of the
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soviet union when i returned and worked for an american n.g.o. dedicate today building ests of the regime.welcomed we were not overthrowing the regime, we were trying to help them. boris yeltsin and many other politicians that wanted to be there. you're quite right that shock therapy, the economic piece happened at the same time and really undermined support for democracy. that happened throughout the entire post communist world, by the way. that's nothing special to russia but it did frame in many ways the way russians thought about democracy. and as a result of that throughout the '90s and in particular august 1998, when there was another financial collapse, russia was hit hard, that's when boris yeltsin decided he needed a new face, a new leader to succeed him. that's when he chose from obscurity vladimir putin. he was anointed president.
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by 1998, by the way, there was another haeir apparent. he was a former governor in nisninovgrad, had been elected many times before. yeltsin made clear he wanted himself to be the next president of russia. that financial collapse meant that that government had to resign and that's when putin came into the void and that's how he became president. >> i just also want to ask you because, again, it's really important to try to figure out where this all went wrong. we all remember that in -- after 9/11 putin stood firm with the rest, stood firm with the united states, allowed the united states, president bush, to use former soviet territories to stage, you know, military into afghanistan, et cetera. something then went wrong. is it accurate to say that he felt betrayed by president bush when he went to war in iraq and further betrayed by president
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obama when he went to action in libya and in putin's view, took it way too far to regime change? >> yes. in fact, vladimir putin described in detail how he felt betrayed by the bush administration when we first met with him in july 2009. we spent about three hours at breakfast. the first hour of that breakfast was putin explaining to the new president, president obama, all the mistakes that the bush administration had made. at the top of his list was iraq and they had him exchange about that. he said, look, you americans, you don't understand the middle east. you use your covert and overt ways to overthrow what you don't like. obama pushed back. he said, you're right. by the way, that really
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surprised putin. he said, you're right, you're the americans, what do you mean i'm right? he said i was against that war from the very beginning. i'm not going to do that. we're not going to be in the business of regime change. at the end of that conversation, i heard putin, as we were walking out to the car, he said maybe this guy is different. maybe obama is different, we've entered a new era. fast forward to 2011 and how to respond to what we thought was the verge of genocide inside libya. what's interesting about that moment in u.s./russian relations is president medvedev supported our military intervention. i was in the room when he gave us the green light for it. he abstained on the u.n. security council resolution 1973 that allowed military intervention inside libya. that has never happened in the history of the u.n. security council with respect to the soviet union or russia.
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putin thought he made a big mistake. he said it live on television, his own president had made a mistake. i think that was the moment when putin decided, all right, this young guy, mr. -- president medvedev, he's been hood winked by the americans. he doesn't understand their true intentions. obama actually is no different than george w. bush. he said he wasn't going to do regime change and here he is now. and that i think was the beginning of the end of the reset. >> so now where are we? we're more than the beginning of the end. we're at the end of the beginning or the end of the end. it's truly at a terrible, terrible -- right now. potentially putin thought he could engage with president trump. instead we're in this massive investigation as to whether he had any influence on the u.s. election. you know, of course, hillary clinton believes that the russians actually sabotaged her election. where does it go from here?
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>> well, you're absolutely right that president putin and his government wanted donald trump to win the election, and there's no doubt in my mind that in the margins, they did things to try to help him win that election. whether or not it had a direct independent causal influence as we would say in political science, on the out come of the election, that's difficult to figure out given there were so many on president trump'svictory. but did they try to do that? there's no doubt about it because candidate said some kremlin friendly things e. said he would lift sanctions on russia. he would look into recognizing crimea as being part of russia. he beat up on nato and he never said a word about issues like democracy or human rights in russia or for that matter anywhere else in the world. whereas candidate clinton had the exact opposite view on all those issues. it's pretty rational from my
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point of few that putin would want trump. they're disappointed in what trump has delivered so far. by and large, trump has continued the policies of the obama administration, and at times even become more confrontational. for instance, sending lethal weapons to ukraine, something that the obama administration didn't do. the way i read putin and the way i read the russian news, they're still holding out the possibility that the good czar, trump, will overcome the bad boyars, that's a metaphor from the imperial russia days. the czar was always good, the princes were always bad. they talk about it that way. they talk about trump having the right instincts on russia, but the deep state having the wrong instincts. they keep hoping the possibility that trump will prevail and get this back in a new direction.
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>> let's play a part where putin denied interference in the election. >> translator: there has never been interference in the domestic political process in the united states, not ever, not now. you mentioned some names, some individuals. you're telling me they're russians. so what? being russians, they are working for some kind of american company. perhaps one of them used to work for one of the candidates. i have no idea. these are not my problems. >> so, i play that, we've already discussed this issue, but i play it because i want to now play a bit of an interview that i did with timothy snyder, the yale professor whose book, the road to freedom, about president putin's current war strategy, current campaign is about cyber hacking and all that, but it's about truth and lies. this is what he told me. >> the tactic, the way you convey this, is that you get
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into the minds of your adversaries, whether they're european or they're american. you find your existing fault lines, whether those are social or whether those are racial and you are play on them and you convince people the only thing that's going on in the world are the momentary psychological enmities. there's no point thinking about the real world, facts, thinking about how to make things better. >> so, what do you make of all that? it just looks now that russia is involved in a completely new different campaign from what might have been a hot war. >> i think they are. i think they have been for years, by the way. most of the world has just noticed recently. i know this because i personally experience it when i was ambassador, i had videos put out that said i was fomenting revolution and handing money out. i had my head spliced out and pasted on somebody that looked like i was allegedly campaigning for opposition leader novalni.
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the worst of it, the absolute worst what i remember back in 2012, they put out a video suggesting that i was a pedophile. and i say that to you, christiane, right now, because it's jarring, it's shock being. and even saying it, it then kind of supports the notion. well, maybe there's some truth to that. and how do you deal with that kind of disinformation? we were struggling at the embassy, how do you respond to that? and the other thing that's true about the 21st century, the world is so interconnected, it's very difficult to get rid of that. if you search my name on yandex, the russian search engine, 4 million hits will come up with pedestrian fall and mcfaul. and that was on a daily basis, almost daily basis, that disinformation campaign against me, the president where they compared the president to the leader of isis and said, you may think they're separate, but if you look more closely at their
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ideology, barack hussein obama has the same world view as the isis leader. and they're not trying to win the argument. i think that's the most important thing people have to understand. this is not like the cold war when the communists and the soviet leadership was trying to prevent an alternative progressive idea in opposition to capitalism or democracy. there is saying there's no truth anywhere. that is what they're doing. regrettably, i don't think we in the west have figured out a right way to respond to this worldwide disinformation campaign. >> did you all think if you pushed putin too far, you know, there could be some kind of nuclear response or something? i ask you this because obviously part of president obama's legacy is going to be the failure in syria and abandoning the field in syria to russia, to president putin and also to iran. at the very end of his administration, he said
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something in a closing press conference describing russia as, quote, a military super power prepared to do whatever it takes to keep its client's stake involved. was president obama, were you all actually kind of worried about pushing putin too far? >> yes, both in syria and ukraine. in my book, the longest chapter in the book is about syria. it's called "chasing russians, failing syrians." i think we made several mistakes there and i write about it candidly. our theory was always if we could get the russians to cooperate with us, we could help to pressure the regime -- they would pressure the regime and mr. assad, we would pressure the opposition, and we would get some kind of political transition. i always thought that was a mistake to think that putin would do that. and you just quoted the president. i think eventually he came around as well because he was not going to in any way, shape
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or form undermine his partner or his client in syria, mr. assad. but we were constrained because the president in my view rightly, president obama, did not want to start world war 3, a shooting war with the russians either in syria or in ukraine. >> but did you really think that was going to happen? did you really think that? i mean, i'm asking you whether you were intimidated by the master, and that is vladimir putin. >> i personally did not think that because i personally think that when you stand up to vladimir putin, he backs off. and i think what we did in 2014, for instance, after putin had invaded eastern ukraine, by putting in massive sanctions, by fortifying ukraine and by strengthening nato, he backed off. i think that was a successful strategy of containment, of deterrence. we probably should have done it earlier, immediately after crimea, but i think it demonstrates that he can be deterred.
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but were others fearful of that, and in particular others were fearful about the unintended consequence, right? where through an accident, one of our airplanes kills russian soldiers in syria and then there is an escalation and a tit for tat that spins out of control. again, i myself was not worried about it, but others were. and as a result, we had a constrained policy in syria. that continues today. the trump administration is doing exactly the same thing, fighting isis, but not wanting to fight russia or inadvertently fight russia or its allies in syria, including hezbollah and the iranians. >> what would you say is the way now to deal with russia? how do you stand up or stand alongside or try to rectify a relationship? is it actually salvageable? >> i think we have to go back to a strategy of neo containment, push back on the most outrageous
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behavior of vladimir putin externally, and combine that, however, with looking for moments of opportunity to engage when our interests overlap. that's what we did during the cold war and i think we have to return as a basic strategy to that with respect to rush at least as long as vladimir putin is in power. i think vladimir putin is going to be in power in russia for a long, long time. >> you talk about him, you talk about the tragedies, the missed opportunities. give me a sense of what he was like when you were in the room with him. and i guess, were you naive? there's been some criticism that your administration, you yourself -- like a love-sick teenager trying to court this brute ishika bruteish, thugish authoritarian. what was it like? >> the first four years of the obama administration was not putin, it was medvedev.
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medvedev was a decade younger. he didn't join the kgb. he went to law school. he looks to the west. in terms of world view, he was much closer to barack obama than vladimir putin was. and during that period we got a lot of big things done. we eliminated 30% of the nuclear weapons allowed in the world between the united states and russia in 2010. we got the most comprehensive set of sanctions on iran ever in 2010 working with dmitry medvedev. we got a new supply route in afghanistan open through russia, flying soldiers through russia the first since world war ii that happened, that allowed us to not be dependent on pakistan as we were at the time that we joined the government. over 90% of our supplies back in 2005 went through pakistan. and that allowed us to bring the war against terrorists inside pakistan, including most directly and dramatically in 2011 when we killed osama bin
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lauden. when vladimir putin came back, there was no disagreement in the white house. i was still at the white house. but things were going to get difficult. i had written for years about putin and joined the white house. i don't think anybody would accuse me about being naive of vladimir putin. he so doesn't like my views about him he has banned me from traveling to russia. i'm the first ambassador since george ten an to not be allowed to travel to russia. the question, you have to deal with who is in place. you don't get to choose their leaders. we tried. we tried to engage with mr. putin. and when things went south, we then put together a new strategy, a much more confrontational strategy, including sanctions against many of his senior officials. that had never happened before in u.s./russian relations. we did that in tragedy. we didn't do it in delight. oh, the cold war is back, isn't
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this great? no, we were all disappointed with it. but at the end it takes two to tango and we lost a cooperative partner in 2012 in russia. so we had to pivot our strategy as well. >> it's really fascinating. thank you so much for this account. and, of course, from your book, from cold war to hot peace, an american ambassador in putin's russia. michael mcfaul, thanks for joining us. we hope you enjoyed that look back into our archive. and that is it for this special edition of our program tonight. thanks for watching amanpour on pbs. join us again tomorrow night. ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ >> you're watching pbs.
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