The Sunday Show with Michael McFaul
16 September, 2018

The Sunday Show is back with a new season, new time and new format! Each week we’ll be sitting down with a leading expert to chat about the most important topics and trends in Ukraine and the region.

To kick off the new season, we speak to professor and former US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who gives us his take on Ukrainian politics ahead of next year’s presidential elections, as well as this week’s bizarre developments in the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal on British soil.

We also take a look at the US and what former Trump aide Paul Manafort’s guilty plea means for the Mueller investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.

And finally, McFaul tells us what happened after he was targeted by Moscow in the case against financier Bill Browder, and what this could mean for relations between the two countries.

You're in Kyiv now, there is a big event, a lot of politicians are here. It’s an opportunity for you, and for us, you've met with a lot of people, you met with your colleague, who is currently working as the US ambassador in Russia, you've talked to Ukrainian politicians – I don't know to what extent you've talked to the leaders of the state – young politicians. For instance, I know you're in touch with Yaroslav Vakarchuk...

They were there together today just now, yes

So, what would be your major take on what is going on in the Ukrainian politics, and also everything related to Ukrainian politics in the global context?

So, to start at 30,000 feet, I frequently have this experience, and most certainly in the few days that I've been here, I have this emotional feeling, very strongly, which is to say that when you sit in Palo Alto, or you sit in the United States, and you read about Ukraine, the news is usually pretty negative, let's be honest. There's a lot of focus on corruption, there's a lot of focus on the reforms that have slowed down, the difficult negotiations with the IMF, obviously the tragic war in Donbas that seems like the negotiations there are not making much progress, Mr Volker is here, ambassador Volker is here. That's the impression you read from afar and it's a pretty negative story. Every time I come to Ukraine – and I come about twice a year – I always come here, and the energy, and hope, always seems... I always leave with more hope than when I arrive. And that has most certainly been the case for the last three days because you have, at least from a comparative perspective -- and now I'm going to put on my professor hat, as someone who looks at lots of countries around the world, and struggles with democracy, struggles with market reform. That's my area of specialization. What is striking about Ukrainian society is two things: one; the depth of civil society, and by that I also mean independent media, all together, right, there's an energy here that you don't see in other countries, especially countries further to your east – number one. And two: on the political side, sometimes your politics are pretty rough and tough, I've heard some negative about each leader, different politicians, and criticisms of the parties not doing enough, and presidential candidates. But, what's interesting to me, just looking at it comparatively, is it's a lively, competitive process. Competition is the key to democracy. No competition, no democracy. And here's a very important point: do you know who's going to be the president of Ukraine next summer?

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

I really have no idea. I really have no idea...

That means there's democracy. If you...

It could be, in fact, at least what I can believe, there are three people, who definitely have a chance. It's not even just two...

Right. But the fact that it's three...

There might be more. I could even consider four myself.

But, in my academic world – I've been in the political world, so I'm going to bounce back and forth between academia and politics. So, in the political definition of democracy, there's a minimal definition that we use. One, is before the election, whether it's parliamentary or presidential, that the rules are known and that they don't change. So somebody does not manipulate the rules of the game. That seems like that's pretty clear here, that nobody is trying to change the rules of the presidential election ahead of time. Two: uncertainty that on election day, or during the campaign, there's some uncertainty about who wins elections. Now, in some democracies, there's more or less some uncertainty. And that feels this way. I've just listened to four – three, maybe four –presidential candidates speak in the last two days, and the strong impression I get, and you just confirmed it, is that nobody knows who will win the first round, and nobody knows who will win the second round. That's a good thing. And then the third key condition is that, after there's been an election, that there's not somebody that comes in and says: Oh well that didn't matter, we're now going to have the military decide, or we're going to have Allah decide, as you might seen in a theocracy. And those conditions, I think, are present an that gives me hope about the future of Ukrainian democracy.

But, with everybody I talked to at the YES conference and all the foreign guests here: analysts, former politicians, current politicians, the only questions they are really asking about now are not even about the war, about Crimea, not even that much about reform, but about the presidential elections. And the one clear question is: who will win? Do you really think that this old guard – like Poroshenko and Tymoshenko – are repeating past? And are you encouraging anybody new to run? Or encouraging youngsters to run?

Well, let me say a few things. First of all, I want to be very, very clear that I do not support any presidential candidate, I don't support any political party, I don't want to interfere in the domestic affairs of Ukraine. So that's point number one. Point number two: do I encourage young people in Ukraine to get involved in politics? Absolutely. As you know, because you are an alum of our program. We have been running a leadership program at Stanford for 15 years now. It's the fifteenth year of YES, I think. This will be the fifteenth year of the Draper Hills program, you're an alumnus of that program, and, in that program, we do a lot of things, as you know, but one of the things, the messages we communicate, is that it's sometimes important for those involved and active in civil society to become more directly involved in politics. So, as a general message, I think that's a good idea, not necessarily journalists, by the way...

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Yeah, we have at least four journalists who have attended your program and are now in parliament or running for government.

That's right. Now that you have reminded me, yes, there were some journalists who decided to come. But the independent media has a separate, very important role in democracy, so I don't pressure journalists to do that. But then, the third thing I would just say about the transitional thing that you said, I'm not as... I'm more focused on competition, and less focused on the generational change or not. As long a there's a competitive process, that gives Ukrainian voters a clear choice, then we should just leave it to the voters. And if they chose to vote in the old guard, well that means that the old guard has made the argument that they should be voted in. And, at the same time, I'm encouraged that there are new political forces, and new candidates that are thinking of running. That's a healthy process in a democratic society.

One other topic, and of course it's not just a Ukrainian topic, is the war in the east. Following what ambassador Volker was saying and knowing what's going on with Russia, I hear more and more, and especially because of the elections in Ukraine, it's very hard to wait for any kind of deal, or peacekeeping operation because we're coming to start of a cycle, meaning the elections in April, and then we need to wait for the parliament. So we can't really expect anything for a year. Have you heard anything? Was it discussed?

Yeah, I've heard that.

And what do you think also about the Russian stance? Are they really the ones who are waiting until the elections and then they will talk to whoever wins?

I think Vladimir Putin is going to wait for a long, long time. I'm pessimistic about chances for breakthrough. And I've heard it over the years now, there's always an election that we have to wait for. So, first there was the American election, no, first there was the Russian election, and then I heard that once President Putin wins, he's going to want to have a breakthrough on Minsk before 2018, before the summer, before the World Cup. And that turned out to be a complete illusion.

And before we waited for the Trump election, and later for the election in France and Germany...

Yes, and so, there's always going to be another election. I just don't see the argument yet for why, how Putin is going to leave his position. And, therefore, of course people should try, and I am a supporter of what ambassador Volker is trying to do, of course new ideas should be presented, and I think it is a creative idea to think about bringing in a United Nations peacekeeping force. What your President Poroshenko said yesterday I think is very rational. I just don't understand why Putin is going to sign up these ideas, so I'm rather pessimistic about breakthrough there. 

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Paul Manafort, a person important to this country, who was here almost 10 years working for our former president Yanukovych, and who later joined the campaign for current president Trump, he plead guilty, and he kind of agreed to cooperate with the Mueller investigation. What does it mean? A lot of people have been hoping for a year that this would happen, and now it's here, so what are the expectations? What can we know?

Well, that's a good question and most of what we will eventually know will have to wait for Mr. Mueller's report, right? So, just generally speaking, you know, I worked in the government for five years, I was three years at the White House and two years in Moscow, I worked with Robert Mueller, he was the head of the FBI when I was there -- by the way, he was also a Stanford visiting fellow, so you and Mr. Mueller have something in common, just so you know, because after the FBI, he came and spent some time with us. And the one thing I was always struck by in the government is when I would see about press reports of what was going on with some negotiation – it was always just a little piece of it, even the best journalists would only know a little piece of it, and I have that strong feeling with respect to Mr. Mueller's work. I think we just know a little bit of what he's doing. So that's the first point. Second point: I think it's a big thing that Mr. Manafort decided to plead guilty because the expectation was that he was going to hold out, he was going to be loyal to president Trump...

People were even discussing whether Trump would pardon him...

And then that was considered the quid pro quo, so this feels like we're in new territory, so that's a new development that I don't think is good for the president. There are also some things about Ukraine, and our society as well, in the indictment, including what looks to be a very vigorous smear campaign against Yulia Tymoshenko, that Mr. Manafort apparently was involved for several years, including with the Obama administration lobbying us to say certain things about her antisemitic ideas, her pro-Russian... I don't know exactly, I haven't read the whole indictment. Clearly, these things were not true, but it shows you the lengths to which the Yanukovych government was deploying resources to try to portray Yulia Tymoshenko in an unflattering way.

There probably wasn't anyone on that level, or maybe you will correct me, who plead guilty and is so deeply connected to very corrupt circles here in Ukraine and also in Russia. So that would probably be the way to know how it's working, because usually it's just the investigative journalists searching for this kind of thing. Also, what does it mean symbolically? What will people in Russia think? We need ask them, but what do you think? Would it make people there worried?

Well, one thing I want to say is that it's also a victory for transparency and independent journalism, and independent parliamentarians. Ukraine played a role in exposing some of this corruption and I think we should congratulate Ukrainians, your media and your Rada for helping to do that. I, as an American citizen, am thankful that that work took place here in Ukraine. Second thing: without question, Mr. Manafort has had a long-standing set of very complicated relationships with many people in Ukraine and also Russia. We already know that, some of these people I know from my work in the government. What I don't know is did his complicated, and now we know sometimes illegal, interactions with business people in Ukraine and Russia also were part involved with the Trump organization and President Trump? We don't know that yet. And I want to be very clear about, we should not jump, get ahead of our skis – a phrase we use in English, you know when you're skiing if you lean too far then you fall – to jump to conclusions. But, for me, it's always been the case that the most interesting part of what Mr. Mueller is doing is following the money. I've always said that. That, to me, will be... and whether it leads to a dead or not, I think that part of his investigation is the most important.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

I would also like to share the thoughts of the investigators, who are dealing with a lot of cases here connected to former president Yanukovych and involving Manafort. People in DC also need to know that Manafort is a very important witness to murder cases of people on Maidan, because there is an investigation now into our former president. Of course, Ukraine is always considered a smaller country, but because of this connection, it's also very critical to Ukrainian prosecutor especially dealing with serious crime, to get to know the information because it is their unique chance ato ask about probably one of the most horrible events in the history of modern Ukraine.

That's a great observation. Of course, that makes perfect sense.

I know they are trying but it's not really easy to get there, but I think the official request is there.

... has already gone in. Through Interpol or directly to the US government?

I think directly because of the different ways of cooperation. It's not going efficiently so far. I can say that on the record.

Well maybe this will add new impetus for it...

Yeah because it was mentioned on our broadcast that they are really looking forward to that.

This week we also followed a very interesting case of the two Russian guys – I don't even know what to call them – who are accused of the poisoning and are alleged suspects in the Skripal poisoning. These guys, Petrov and Boshirov, who gave a very strange interview to RT channel’s Margarita Simonyan, as if they traveled to Salisbury as tourists. The story doesn't make sense, it's pretty awkward. What are your thoughts? After that many journalists confirmed that they had almost identical passport numbers, numbers of some of the data is connected to the Ministry of... it could be some of the law enforcement and military personnel in Russia. The whole situation, especially this interview, is pretty odd for everybody. Nobody understands why they were shown like this, is it a new way of theatre in these relations? And what do you think of this case?

It's extremely strange to me. I honestly do not understand what President Putin was trying to prove when he said on the record: We found them and you should interview them. And then they were interviewed. It was a very strange interview. It did nothing in my mind to create any kind of case in support of their defense. Their alibis seem very strange, you know, you going to go to England for the weekend and you're going to stay in London and go to Salisbury twice. Very, very odd. And I honestly don't understand it. What I do understand about Mr. Putin is, two things. Number one: he is becoming increasingly defiant of the international system, of the sovereignty of other countries; your country, my country, and now the United Kingdom. Remember, all of these are violations of our sovereignty. What they did in our election in 2016, obviously more tragically what they've done to your country, but now here's another case as well. And I think these are illegal actions violating some of the basic norms of the international system. And I see him increasingly flippant, daring us to try to do something. So we need to learn more about these two gentlemen and what was going on, but, in some ways, I just see Putin saying: OK, I dare you to something against me. And I hope we do, I hope at least my country will. We've already imposed some sanctions with regard to this case. By law, the Trump administration is to increase those sanctions, coming up pretty soon by the way, and I hope we will do that.

Photo credit: Oleksandr Kokhan/HROMADSKE

Michael, what is happening to your case after Russian officials demanded to question you? There was a firm answer from the State Department, not that firm from President Trump, but that was right after the Helsinki summit, and there's already been a couple of months since then, so is there any news? Has anyone approached you? How is this working? What are you expecting? What else could be done at this stage?

To remind your viewers, at the Helsinki summit, President Trump and President Putin met one-on-one for a couple of hours. I personally thought that was a bad idea. I used to be the note-taker for President Obama in his summits, and I think it's a good idea to have experts around, by the way, and it's a good idea to have somebody taking notes because all presidents, American presidents, have to deal with all kinds of issues that it's impossible for them to keep up on, that's why we have staff, and I, many times, would write a note to President Obama about something that was happening in his meeting with Putin or Medvedev to try to help him understand what was going on. So in Helsinki.... I'm also a journalist now – well, a commentator – I work for NBC news in American, so I was in Helsinki as part of our team covering the summit. And, remember, three days before Mr. Mueller had indicted a dozen GRU intelligence officers with a very detailed indictment. By the way, for people who underestimate our intelligence community – that was a great piece of intelligence work and I hope many Russians read that closely. If we can do that with those gentlemen, we can do that with a lot of other people, that should be a warning to people about how good our intelligence services are. Sorry for the side advertisement for the CIA, but they're really good. But, Putin came to that meeting, and for me it was classic Putin, he's somebody I've known for a long time. It's whataboutism, moral equivalency for things have nothing to do. So, the way I understand it is he went into that meeting with President Trump and he said: Well you have 11 people that you think have broken your laws, here's our list, and I was on the list, of people that we think have broken Russian law. And I want to make one thing clear; usually people think that it's because of the old "crime" that I committed, which was to foment revolution against Putin, that's frequently in the Russian propaganda. This was a new one, this was about my work at the White House, as the General Prosecutor spokesperson made clear, in 2009-2010, I was coordinating our policy towards the wrongful death of Sergei Magnitsky, and that, allegedly, is my crime. And, unfortunately, President Trump said: I think it's a great idea to have these people interrogated. You know, at the time, I gave the President the benefit of the doubt, I said he probably doesn't understand what Putin's doing – it was clear as day to me what he was doing -- but, over time, they kept, as you rightly pointed out, they kept entertaining the idea. Thankfully, we have a democracy, and it's alive and well, and the US Congress stepped, the US senate stepped in and voted 98-0 to condemn this idea. And once that happened, then the administration changed their views and said they're not going to hand us over. By the way, they couldn't hand us over either because we have a constitution, I have my constitutional rights. Little side note that, even if President Trump wanted to hand us over – and I want to be clear, it wasn't just me, it was democrats and republicans that were on the list.

My next problem, the reason I brought up Interpol is that what I've learned over the course of this situation for me to be suggested that I might have committed some crime against Russia, although it's very abstract, means that they can use systems like Interpol to seek to stop me in third countries, and so my strategy moving forward is to try to make that virtually impossible. But I've learned that they've done it against Ukrainians, they've done it against Russians, where they abuse the Interpol system to try to detain people that they don't like for political purposes.

/By Nataliya Gumenyuk