Russian President Vladimir Putin at his annual news conference last week.

Russian President Vladimir Putin at his annual news conference last week. Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik via AP

The Key to Putin’s Cyber Power

The Russian president has both the capability and the intent to cause harm, says a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. And the threat won’t vanish once Donald Trump takes office.

Michael McFaul, Barack Obama’s ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, has a blunt assessment of the actions that his former boss took against the Russian government this week. The sanctions on Russian intelligence officers and organizations, along with the expulsion of Russian intelligence officials and closing of Russian compounds in the United States, is “not going to change” Russian President Vladimir Putin’s behavior, he told me shortly after the measures were announced. Obama’s retaliation—at least the retaliation that the U.S. government has made public—isn’t sufficient to deter the Kremlin from interfering in future U.S. elections, he said.

But in naming and punishing specific Russian agencies and individuals over the hack and leaks of Democratic emails, the president has, McFaul hopes, put to rest the “debate about whether the Russians were interfering in our presidential election.” Which is why he’s so frustrated by Donald Trump’s continued insistence that the country “move on” from the Russian cyber campaign. That campaign represents a threat to the sovereignty President Trump will be sworn to protect, he said. One message of Obama’s actions, McFaul added, is that this threat didn’t disappear on Election Day, and it won’t disappear on Inauguration Day. The standard way to understand a threat is to evaluate intent and capability to cause harm. And in the cyber domain, McFaul explained, Russia has both in spades. What distinguishes Putin from other world leaders is that he’s “not afraid to use this stuff.”

McFaul was America’s man in Moscow during a pivotal moment in the U.S.-Russia relationship: after disputed elections in Russia convinced Putin that the United States was trying to undermine him, but just before Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. While McFaul defended Obama’s record on Russia, he admitted that the administration was initially slow to respond to Russian aggression. And he acknowledged that, in the waning days of Obama’s presidency, relations between the two countries are in a “precarious” state. “The Soviet Union did not annex territory,” he noted. “That’s something new. The Soviet Union did not meddle in [America’s] electoral affairs, at least to the extent and as successfully as they did this time. That’s something new.”

An edited and condensed transcript of our conversation follows.

Uri Friedman: In your view, is this a tough enough response by the Obama administration to Russia’s cyber campaign during the election?

Michael McFaul: Well, I’m pleased there is a response. This is a very important marker to put down, especially before the Obama administration leaves office. For me, the most important thing is actually not the sanctions. The most important thing is the attribution that the administration had to do in order to put these entities and these people on sanctions. There are still many Americans, millions of Americans, including maybe even our president-elect, [who refuse] to believe that anything even happened. This action, I think, should end forever [the] debate about whether the Russians were interfering in our presidential election.

Friedman: What is it about the level of attribution that you feel ends the debate?

McFaul: You don’t punish an individual or an organization unless you have overwhelming evidence of what they did. And especially this administration and this president, somebody I used to work with—he would never do this unless the evidence was absolutely overwhelming.  

An important part of what the administration was trying to communicate [was]: This is a real threat. It didn’t end [with Election Day] on November 8, and it won’t end with the inauguration of President Trump. [It is] naive to think, “Well [the Russians] just do this stuff because tensions are high, but when we get to a detente with Russia this will end.”

Friedman: The U.S. already has sanctions in place against Russia for Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine. What’s the marginal impact of additional sanctions? Do you think it actually hurts Russia economically?

McFaul: I don’t think so, to be honest, not this set of sanctions. I don’t think that’s the intention. The intention is to exact a cost and to attribute this attack to those entities and those individuals. The Obama administration understands that this relatively small number of entities and people sanctioned is not going to have an economic impact. It’s not going to change Putin’s behavior, especially because Putin, not without reason, believes that he’s going to have an opportunity to roll back the sanctions with the next [U.S.] administration.

As the president, you’re in charge of national security. So we don’t just get on with our lives.

Friedman: You spent a couple years in Moscow as the ambassador to Russia. You know the Kremlin up close. How do you expect the Russian government to respond to these measures? What do you think Vladimir Putin is thinking and doing right now?

McFaul: They’ll reciprocate, without question. With respect to sanctions, they have a somewhat different policy [than the U.S. does], which is they respond, in their words, “commensurately,” but they don’t always respond publicly. There are many more Americans on their sanctions list than we know publicly. I myself found that out just a few weeks ago—that I’d been on the list for a couple years. And I only found out when I tried to get a visa.

In Moscow, there’s lots of anticipation of the new era working with President Trump. So I wouldn’t predict a big blowup that [Trump] would feel compelled to respond to. [The Russians] want to begin the era of lifting sanctions, not deepening sanctions.

I do think that's going to be harder for the president-elect. [The Obama administration’s actions are] a response to a national-security threat. The entire government is on board, there’s no division. For him to come in and reverse what they did, he’s going to have to have a national-security explanation for why he’s doing that. There will be people extremely upset who work in our intelligence community if, just in the name of getting along with Russia, we reverse this.

With respect to attribution, this is a big step. With respect to deterrence, it’s a small step, but better than nothing.

Friedman: [On Wednesday], when asked about retaliation against Russia, Donald Trump said, “We ought to get on with our lives.” With these measures that the Obama administration has taken, to what degree will he be able to get on with his plan for better relations with Russia?

McFaul: The most important thing is I hope he never says that again. [Trumpreleased a statement saying something similar minutes after I got off the phone with McFaul.] [There’s] overwhelming data, now complete with sanctioning those individuals that they’ve identified, that the Russians interfered in our presidential election. As the president of the United States, you’re in charge of national security. So we don’t just get on with our lives. I don’t want to make the comparison that others did to September 11 or a terrorist attack, because I think those are inappropriate analogies, but [the Russian cyber campaign] is a threat to our sovereignty, and I hope this will help to convince [Trump] of that. If nothing more, that would be a very important objective achieved.

Having said all that, he has tremendous leeway as president to change the course of foreign policy and to try to get along with Russia. Now, I personally believe that he has not developed a strategy toward Russia yet. To get along with Russia, or any other country, is not a strategy. It shouldn’t be a goal of U.S. foreign policy ever. You’re getting along, and then what? [Putin] throws you a nice party at the Kremlin, and then what? What does he want to achieve in terms of American security interests or American economic interests?

Friedman: Fight ISIS, right?

McFaul: But it turns out we’re already fighting ISIS, and the Russians are not. To be fair, that would be one [goal]. If he said, “In the interests of getting the Russians to fight ISIS, this is what I’m prepared to do in terms of getting along.” I would disagree with that strategy, but at least that would be a strategy.

Most people would be shocked at the tremendous capacity the Russians have with all things cyber in America.

Friedman: Do you think [Barack Obama’s] measures are sufficient to deter Russia from launching a similar cyber campaign against the U.S. or its allies in the future?

McFaul: In and of itself—what was done [on Thursday] publicly—my answer would be no. If part of a broader campaign of 1) attribution, 2) deterrence, and 3) resilience, then this could be the beginning of a much more effective cybersecurity strategy.

With respect to attribution, I think this is a big step. With respect to deterrence, I think what we know is a small step, but better than nothing. With respect to resilience, we haven’t even begun that debate or conversation.

Friedman: What do you mean by resilience?

McFaul: To make it harder for them to do these things in the future. To build up our defenses—not just deterring offense, but to actually have the ability to protect U.S. government officials.

I think most people would be shocked at the tremendous capacity that the Russians have with respect to all things cyber in America: government, business, personal.

Friedman: Do you think they’re the number one cyber power in the world right now?

McFaul: Well, we’re number one. But in terms of capability, they most certainly are extremely capable. And the thing that Putin has that other countries don’t have is he’s got the intention, too. He’s not afraid to use this stuff in the ways that he has. It would be unthinkable, from my perspective at least, for the Obama administration to steal Russian data and then use it in a way to manipulate an electoral process in Russia. [Obama] just would never do that. [Putin] has proven that he has both the capability and the will to do things like that. And not just against the United States, but against lots of countries.

Friedman: On numbers two and three—deterrence and resilience—Obama’s got weeks left in [his] administration. That’s a task for a new administration, right?

McFaul: Correct.

We weren’t trapped in fighting the old Cold War. But the Russians always were.

Friedman: You get the impression [these days] that you’re in a Cold War time warp. Help us put this in historical context. How does this effort to punish Russia compare in scale to similar U.S. actions in the past?

McFaul: It’s an apples and oranges thing. We’re most certainly not in a Cold War with Russia because we’re not fighting an ideology that seeks to conquer the world. We’re not fighting proxy wars against each other around the world, although some may say we’re fighting a proxy war in Syria right now. So that’s how things are different.

President Putin definitely sees the United States as an enemy. He sees us as propagating values that he thinks undermine Russia and Russian national interests. [That’s] a parallel to an earlier period in the Cold War. It always felt to me, when I was in government, that it was one side fighting. [The United States] had fought real wars after the Cold War: Afghanistan and Iraq. So we weren’t trapped in fighting the old Cold War. But [the Russians] always were.

But there are things that are more sinister. The Soviet Union did not annex territory [as Russia did in 2014 with Crimea]. That’s something new. The Soviet Union did not meddle in [America’s] electoral affairs, at least to the extent and as successfully as they did this time. That’s something new. The Obama administration’s response to that also goes beyond anything we saw in the Cold War. The sanctions put in place after Russia annexed Crimea and supported the separatists in Ukraine go way beyond any [sanctions] you ever saw in the Cold War. It’s a uniquely challenging moment. Maybe it will all change [to] a different dynamic in a few weeks.

Friedman: I spoke with Representative Adam Schiff last week about the election hack, and he advocated covert retaliation against Russia in addition to sanctions, including efforts to expose corruption on the part of Putin and his inner circle. What additional measures would you like to see the U.S. government pursue in the [Obama administration’s] final weeks?

McFaul: One last thing would be to endorse the idea of a bipartisan, independent commission, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to get much deeper investigation [into] what happened, but also how we responded to what the Russians did. [The 9/11 Commission] wasn’t set up to blame the Bush administration for what happened, but to dig deep with a lot of authority and resources and declassified information, as a way to help us avoid the next catastrophic terrorist attack.

That’s really important, because [the Obama administration’s retaliation] is not enough. We won’t be ready for 2020 if we just say, “OK, we’re done with this.” Again, capability and intent are different. And we can’t predict what Russian intentions or Chinese intentions or Silicon Valley rogue groups with the same capacities—we don’t know those intentions in 2020. But the capabilities we have a pretty good sense of. And the capabilities are only going to get better unless we do something much more serious to protect the integrity of our electoral process.  

Friedman: When Mitt Romney described Russia as America’s “number one geopolitical foe” during the 2012 election, Obama mocked him, saying “the 1980 are calling to ask for their foreign policy back.” A couple years later, [Obama] dismissed Russia as a weak “regional power.” Is what we’re seeing this week a too-little, too-late attempt by the Obama administration to address a serious threat after years of underestimating it?

McFaul: I disagree with that. I was in the Obama administration for five years. I think what we did in the beginning, in terms of engagement with Russia, was right. And we achieved a lot. To use the president-elect’s language, we got some big deals done. We got the START [nuclear-arms reduction] treaty done. We got sanctions on Iran. We got a new supply route to Afghanistan. We got Russia into the [World Trade Organization]. All of those things are good for America.

We didn’t change our policy. Putin changed his policy, because he became paranoid about Color Revolutions, first in the Arab world and then in Russia itself [in 2011], and then later in Ukraine in 2014. There was nothing we could do. I sat there and watched us try to convince him that we were not orchestrating these revolutions against either his allies or him, and we couldn’t convince him.

Now, could we have responded a little bit faster? My answer to that is yeah. We probably tried too hard to keep cooperating with the Russians in 2012, and we probably responded a little bit too slowly to what happened in Crimea. But those are marginal calls. I think there’s been a strong but measured response to Russian belligerent behavior in Ukraine, inside Russia, in Syria, and in our own election.

I worry now, given what the president-elect has said, that he’s going to forget all those things, and in the name of getting along, look the other way [from] very egregious acts of Russian aggression. We’re at a pretty precarious moment right now.