Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has been ubiquitous since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began last month, a regular presence on cable news and Twitter. It’s for good reason. McFaul knows Vladimir Putin as well as anyone in the West and shares the West’s outrage over the Russian army’s murderous assault on civilians and violations of international law.
In a conversation with the Washington Monthly on March 15, McFaul argued that President Joe Biden and NATO should give Ukraine all the weapons it needs—short of deploying NATO warplanes to enforce a “no-fly zone” over the country—to counter Russian attacks.
McFaul is the director of Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, a professor in the department of political science, and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He served in the Obama administration as a special assistant to the president and as senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council (2009–12) before becoming U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012–14). This conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.
There’s increasing pressure on President Biden to do more than he’s already done to help Ukraine. You have said a no-fly zone is inappropriate, but what more can the U.S. and NATO do, short of that, to turn the tide?
Send more weapons to Ukraine and put more sanctions against Russia. It’s just really that simple. Weapons are the most important. And the weapons that are at the top of the list are surface-to-air missiles that can shoot down Russian high-altitude planes and those counter-fire radar systems that can find artillery and fire back at them.
You have also said a no-fly zone enforced by NATO would essentially declare war against Russia. So far, is there some support in Congress for that?
A declaration of war, according to the Constitution, is something the U.S. Congress is supposed to do, not the president. So, if they want to push that idea, they should talk about seeking responsibility to declare [war]. I know they won’t because they haven’t done that for a long time. But that would be my recommendation. I don’t sense that the Democratic Party is out of sync with the president. My sense of the Democrats in Congress—I don’t really have any expertise about the whole Congress—is that that is not an idea that has a lot of support within the Democratic Party.
You gave the Biden administration an A+ on Ukraine so far for organizing military assistance, releasing intel, imposing sanctions, and bringing NATO together. But you said it’s still in the midterms stage, in the academic sense. So, what does the rest of the course look like?
Well, there are still lots of surface-to-air missile systems that the Ukrainians could use that haven’t been sent. There’s still a scandal over the MiG-29s. But I think if President Zelensky thinks that he can use those fighter aircraft, we should send them, and it’s not our job to judge what’s in his national security interest. I spoke to Zelensky four or five days ago. And it seems like he knows what he’s doing. He’s a heroic figure fighting to stop Putin’s army. And that’s what you need to have a negotiation, by the way. You won’t have a negotiation until you have a stalemate on the ground. And that hasn’thappened yet.
How do you get to meaningful negotiations?
On the military side, we need to help Zelensky achieve a stalemate. And then on sanctions, I applaud what [the Biden administration] has done, and I applaud what a lot of private-sector actors have done, too. There are 600 or 700 people on the sanctions list now. People say there could be 6,000 people on that sanctions list. The notion that we’ve done everything we can, and then we just have to sit back and relax and watch this war, I think, is an incorrect analytic framework. You’ve done a lot. You should get applause for that. And there’s more to be done.
When you spoke to Zelensky, did he ask for things you haven’t mentioned yet that you can discuss? You’ve also talked about wanting Biden to get even tougher, correct?
Well, that was a private conversation. And so, I don’t want to get into the details. On Biden, I don’t even think tougher is the word I would use. The word is more. So, it’s just to keep providing what they need, short of having American soldiers or pilots going to Ukraine.
How concerned are you about the danger of escalation by the West? Are these weapons we’re sending to Ukraine potentially risking an escalating conflict?
Well, I worry about escalation. Yes, of course. When Mr. Putin has talked about the use of nuclear weapons, I’d say two things about that. Number one, we should be concerned about that, and we should be engaging with him. And Chinese leader Xi Jinping should try to get reassurances that [Putin is] committed to not using nuclear weapons. Putin is angry and a bit unhinged, but I don’t think he’s suicidal. And there are no winners in a nuclear war. That’s the end of the Earth. I find it hard to believe that he’s going to blow up the planet because we send a bunch of ancient MiG-29s to Ukraine.
And then, short of that, I want people to define what they mean when they say they’re worried about escalation. What does that mean? And if it means you’re worried about Putin attacking NATO, I’m not so worried about that. His army is barely able to move very slowly against the Ukrainian army, that is not very well armed, and small, and doesn’t have the modern weapons that NATO does. So, in the middle of fighting a war against one country, and you’re not doing very well, you’re going to expand the war by attacking the biggest alliance on the planet anchored by the most powerful military in the world? That doesn’t seem very logical to me.
I get that he wants to scare us away from supplying weapons. But I think we have to think seriously through what that really means. I don’t want to be cavalier. But if you’re barely beating the Ukrainians, do you really want to engage the NATO alliance in a war?
And how do you see the endgame? Is there a way the U.S. and NATO can give Putin an off-ramp and somehow help him save face without compromising Ukrainian sovereignty?
I’d say two things, first about Putin and then about how wars generally end. With respect to Putin, of course, the Biden administration and everybody should pursue ways to end this war—seeking cease-fires, every time, all the time. I just don’t see that Putin himself has signaled that he’s interested in doing that. It takes two to tango. He’s the one invading. He’s the one escalating. We’re not. And with respect to saving face, that’s just a phrase I don’t think is useful in the Russian context. Because in front of whose face is he saving? He needs to tell his generals, the oligarchs, the people of Russia? Tragically, I don’t think that’s how that system works. So, it’s really, you have to convince him and not think what he needs. Most certainly, Zelensky has indicated he would go pretty far in trying to negotiate a settlement. But again, I just don’t see Putin himself ready to do that yet.
And that’s because, to my second point, wars tend to end—though not always—in two ways. One is that one side wins. And two is a stalemate. And right now, you don’t have either of those conditions. For all of the heroic, valiant, incredible effort and wins that the Ukrainians have achieved on the battlefield, Putin still has roughly 90 percent of his forces at his disposal. Ninety percent. Not 50 percent. Not 30 percent. Not even 70 percent—but 90 percent. And it’s going slow, but he’s still expanding the war. This is just three weeks into this war. We’re not very far in, so I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t see any indications yet that he’s ready, that we’re close to a stalemate. And if we’re not close to a stalemate, it’s unlikely to have a negotiated solution.
A lot has been made about Putin as the chess master, expanding Russia’s sphere of influence or restoring the Soviet empire. Has he miscalculated and underestimated Ukrainian, American, and NATO resolve? Is he still the wise chess master that many have called him?
Well, I most certainly never called him a chess master. I want to say that for the record. I wrote my first article [on Putin] in March 2000, when I worried that he would build autocracy and we weren’t paying attention. The piece was called “Indifferent to Democracy.” And later that year, I worried that he might become Russia’s [Slobodan] Milosevic. So, I’ve been debating Putin for over two decades. And I think we always underestimate his evilness. I hate to use that word, but it’s the word to use. When he tried to kill [the Russian opposition leader Alexei] Navalny a couple of years ago, I used that word. I said Putin is “evil.” And I took all kinds of criticism. Critics said that was not diplomatic. Well, I’m sorry, but there is good and evil in the world. And this is an evil, evil war.
So, you never thought he was a savvy “genius,” as Donald Trump and others have called him?
You are not savvy when you bomb innocent children. There’s nothing chess-mastery about that in my book. But you asked, the other point: Yes, he has overreached, and, to me, it reminds me a lot of [the former Soviet leader] Leonid Brezhnev. Remember back in the ’70s, the Soviets were on a roll when Brezhnev was in power, and we were not, right? So, during the ’70s, Marxist-Leninist regimes took over in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia—and then in Africa—Angola and Mozambique. And by the end of the decade, even closer to home, in Nicaragua? And it looked like history was moving in their favor. And by the way, those were times that didn’t look so good in America—right? Killings of our leaders, the Nixon resignation? And that’s when Brezhnev invaded Afghanistan, and he thought he was on a roll. And that was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. I do believe Ukraine is Putin’s Afghanistan. I wouldn’t be so arrogant as to predict how that plays out. Remember, there was a lot of history between the invasion of Afghanistan and the fall of the Soviet Union.
Is Ukraine going to be Putin’s downfall?
I have no crystal ball. But I do think Putin, in three weeks, has wiped away the positive legacy that he had inside Russia. And it wasn’t positive, in my view, but it was, I think, for lots of Russians, positive. And then, he had a social contract with them. He said, “Let me be your dictator. And in return, I will make you wealthy and stabilize the economy.” And that was the trade that the billionaires took and everybody else. And he’s broken that social contract now. Over time, I think this will be remembered as the beginning of the end of Putinism in Russia. I want to be clear. I don’t mean that Putin will be overthrown. I’m not expecting that. But the idea that this kind of regime and these kinds of policies are what needs to be sustained after Putin—I think a lot fewer people support that idea than three weeks ago.
What blame does America share for Ukraine, if any? Do you think President Bush’s or Obama’s not giving stronger responses to the Georgia incursion in 2008, the Crimea invasion in 2014, and Obama’s drawing, then backing away from, his red line about the use of Syrian chemical weapons, might have emboldened Putin, then and now?
I don’t think the Syria thing is related at all. I think those dots that people are connecting make no sense to me. And let me just remind you, the previous president, George W. Bush, no one would accuse him of not being ready to use force. He invaded two countries, Afghanistan and Iraq, and had a pretty muscular use of American power. And just a few years later, after that, Putin invaded Georgia. This notion that Obama was weak, and so Putin invaded Ukraine—President Bush looked pretty strong, and that didn’t stop [Putin] from invading Georgia. I think those are dots that people like to connect. I don’t see them as related.
I think 2014 is different. And I think after the surprising military operations of annexing Crimea and supporting the separatists [in Ukraine’s Donbas region], we should have done more. And note, I switched to “we,” because it doesn’t do any good if the United States does sanctions without our European allies. And I want to say, the most comprehensive set of sanctions ever done against Russia was done in 2014. Remember, George W. Bush sanctioned zero people in August 2008. Zero. Obama, [then German Chancellor] Angela Merkel, and the Western alliance and partners did a lot. But I think they could have done more. And this is very important; it would not have deterred Putin from this operation.
People don’t understand that Putin is not a rational actor. He’s not some cost-benefit analysis kind of thinker. He’s very ideologically motivated. His goal was to undermine Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity in 2014. He made that crystal clear in his speech before he invaded, and I think he was willing to risk great costs, including to his own economy. So, I think we should have done more. But I’m not confident in saying that would have deterred him. Actually, I don’t think it would have.