If you follow the Trump reality show, you might remember that at the recent love-in in Helsinki Vladimir Putin suggested that he could be willing to extradite the Russians indicted (unjustly) for interfering in the US election if Trump sent some American bad guys to Russia to answer for their plotting against Russia. Top of the list was Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under Obama.
I leave it to others who know what they’re talking about (Condoleezza Rice, Madeleine Albright, George Shultz) to sing the praises of the book’s analysis of US-Russia history and relations. What interested me was McFaul’s own story – he’s an American idealist of a kind that seems sweetly old-fashioned these days – and the picture of Putin he paints. McFaul has been interested in Russia since his student days and worked on the ground with local change activists in the Gorbachev years when it seemed possible that Russia might come in from the cold. And there’s the root of Vlad’s obsession with him. You can understand why Vlad might be suspicious of anyone who worked for the “American democracy-promoting organization, the National Democratic Institute – supported by US government funds, but officially nonpartisan and non-governmental”. Even McFaul sees the problem – “but history was in the making and I no longer wanted to watch. I wanted to help. NDI gave me that chance.” (13) His belief in American democracy is evangelical:
All of these disturbing challenges [i.e Trump] to American democracy help Putin make his case that the United States is not exceptional, that American democracy is no different from Russia’s political system, and that we have no moral authority to preach to other countries about their behaviour. (447)
Putin himself emerges as the essential reason for the breakdown of the US-Russia relationship. In 2010 with Medvedev as President, cooperation between the two countries on arms control, trade and investment had never been higher. “Russia was popular in America, and America was popular in Russia.” Two years later, on the first day of McFaul’s ambassadorship, under Putin, he was described on the state-run media as
A professional revolutionary whose assignment was to finance and organize Russia’s political opposition as it plotted to overthrow the Russian government (ix)
It’s a fascinating clash between an American idealist (perhaps a rather naïve one) and a man who seems motivated by visceral anger at the US bestriding the world. It’s interesting that the American idealist can make you see just what it is about the US that gets Vlad’s goat.