Sunday, June 19th 2016
image from, with caption: Lavrov, McFaul, and Medvedev
“Russia relations today are more strained and more confrontational than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In fact, even some periods of the Cold War seemed more cooperative than our current era.” These were opening comments by former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul at the June 14, 2016, hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The subject was “U.S. Policy Towards Putin’s Russia. McFaul is now the Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University.
Public diplomacy practitioners will be particular interested in his comments on countering Russian propaganda and study in the United States. Here are some key points from his opening statement:
- Putin has increased his autocratic grip, in part by blaming the United States for “fomenting revolution” against his regime. Once again, like the darkest days of the Cold War, Russian state-controlled media outlets portray the United States as Russia’s number one enemy intent on weakening if not even dismembering Russia.
- According to the Kremlin’s media, we are also responsible for many of the evils in other countries including the tragic civil wars in Syria and Libya and the Nazis who came to power in Kyiv. As someone who lived in the Soviet Union, I find the current level of vitriol against the United States and the West more generally even worse than during the Cold War days.
- . . . majorities of Russians and Americans now view each other again as enemies. What a tragedy.
- For last three decades, American presidents -- Democrats and Republicans alike -- sought to integrate Russia into the West and in parallel encourage democracy inside Russia. Both of those projects are now over.
- Putin’s old social contract–economic growth in return for political passivity–was no longer sufficient to appease these middle class protestors. He needed a new argument for legitimacy, so he turned against the United States, labeling us again as Russia’s enemy and calling those demonstrating against him American agents.
- In particular, Putin argued that the United States was seeking to topple his regime. Like the old days, the United States was interfering in Russia’s internal affairs, “We know, regrettably, that...some representatives of some foreign states are gathering those to whom they are paying money, so-called grant recipients, carrying out instruction sessions with them and preparing them to do the relevant ‘work’, in order to influence, ultimately, the election campaign process in our country.”
- To maintain his argument for legitimacy at home, Putin needs perpetual conflict with external enemies—not full-scale war or a direct clash with the United States or NATO -- but a low-level, yet constant confrontation to support the narrative that Russia is under siege from the West. Prescription: Stay the Course.
- Counter Russian Propaganda: The United States government should not seek to counter Russian propaganda with American propaganda. Instead, the best method for countering disinformation is real reporting from credible journalists in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in the region. American direct funding of these media outlets would taint them. Instead, our focus should be on providing short-term training opportunities, yearlong fellowships at American and European universities, and internships at Western media organizations.
- Education and the free-flow of information are our best tools in this long struggle against Russian propaganda.
- The United States and our European allies should increase efforts to engage directly with the Russian people, including students through exchanges and scholarships, peer-to-peer dialogue with non-government organizations, and allowing Russian companies not tied to the state to continue to work with Western partners.
- There is no better way to undermine Russian propaganda than a three-week trip to Palo Alto. There is no better way to show that Americans are not obsessed with “destroying Russia” than to send Russian students to spend an academic year in our schools and universities. Likewise, there are no better ambassadors for our country than young Americans studying at Russian universities or interning in Russian companies. The more interaction we can promote between our societies, the better.
- Many Russian civil society leaders have been forced to leave Russia. The United States and our allies should increase our efforts to support these people now living in exile, either through scholarships and fellowships to attend universities or work at think tanks, or through direct financial support for their organizations operating from outside Russia.