VLAD’S REVENGE: Part of an occasional series
In interview after interview with top U.S. intelligence officials and foreign diplomats about the downward spiral in U.S.-Russian relations, one date keeps resurfacing: January 2012.
That month Michael McFaul, President Obama’s newly appointed ambassador to Russia, arrived in snow-covered Moscow and almost immediately began meeting with opposition leaders and human rights activists critical of the Kremlin.
It was a provocative move at a sensitive moment when Vladimir Putin was already seething over perceived American backing of mass protests designed to smear him. The Russian president was also facing a wobbly economy as global oil prices plunged as he struggled to reclaim Russia’s influence on the world stage.
Mr. McFaul, an academic by training and a political appointee, had never served as an ambassador before. The sandy-haired Montana native was 49 at the time, and in the midst of his whirlwind first month in Moscow, he blogged that he’d started things off “with a bang.”
An investigation into what’s happened since, down to and including explosive charges of Russian meddling in the U.S. political process, suggests the fallout was greater than anyone could have predicted.
In interviews The Washington Times has conducted with several foreign diplomats and more than a dozen current and former high-level U.S. intelligence and national security officials, Mr. McFaul’s arrival in Moscow has been cited as being like a bee sting that enraged the Russian bear.
It actually “pissed off Putin so much” that the Russian president personally vowed revenge, said one former official involved in the intelligence debate raging over the causes of the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“The Washington establishment drastically underestimates who started this,” a foreign diplomat with access to Mr. Putin told The Times. “It was actually Obama and Hillary, not Putin. They sent McFaul over to Russia to try and overthrow Putin, and it made him livid.”
Mr. McFaul in an email exchange insisted it was never the Obama administration’s policy or goal to overthrow the Russian president. But he acknowledged outright that Mr. Putin “perceived us — of course, wrongly, in my view — as trying to undermine his legitimacy.”
“Could that perception have been one of the motivating factors for his attack on our sovereignty in 2016?” the former ambassador wrote. “Yes.”
Mr. Putin’s inner circle, including a mysterious Army general who would later rise in prominence to craft the Kremlin’s policy of “hybrid warfare” against Washington, already knew Mr. McFaul well before 2012.
A political scientist at Stanford who helped set up the Moscow Carnegie Center in the mid-1990s, Mr. McFaul had served as the top Russia policy adviser on Mr. Obama’s National Security Council during the administration’s fumbling attempt to “reset” relations with Moscow in 2009. By the time he showed up as U.S. ambassador, he was viewed by Mr. Putin’s allies as a henchman for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Just before Mr. McFaul’s arrival, Mr. Putin and Mrs. Clinton had engaged in a nasty public exchange over the 2011 Russian legislative elections, which triggered the largest Moscow street protests since the 1990s. Mrs. Clinton criticized the vote as “neither free nor fair” and called for a “full investigation.”
Mr. Putin countered by accusing Washington of supporting the opposition protesters. “We need to safeguard ourselves from this interference in our internal affairs,” he declared.
‘To punish Hillary’
The politics had become deeply personal, according to former U.S. officials who worked on Russia policy with Mrs. Clinton.
How Mr. Putin would strike back at her wouldn’t be known for another four years, and it would come about in ways that may take Washington many more years to fully comprehend.
Former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden said Russia’s efforts to influence the 2016 presidential election were the “most successful covert influence campaign in the history of covert influence campaigns.”
“The Russians,” he added, “wanted to punish Hillary and erode confidence in the American electoral process itself.”
Back in 2012, Mr. McFaul felt the Kremlin’s wrath immediately. Within a month of his posting to Moscow, Russian state TV launched a major propaganda campaign blasting him with tabloid exploits of his meetings. Picket lines also sprung up at the U.S. Embassy, with a pro-Kremlin youth group even playing dead at the front gate and referencing U.S. involvement in the Arab Spring protests breaking out across the Middle East.
Mr. McFaul increased his security.
Speaking to reporters at the time, the new envoy said he’d never anticipated “the relentless anti-Americanism” that had taken hold in the Russian capital.
With the hindsight of five years, he told The Times this week that his “reaching out to opposition figures was deliberately and grossly exaggerated by the Kremlin and state-controlled media.”
Mr. Putin felt threatened by the Moscow street demonstrations, said Mr. McFaul, who returned to Stanford and is also a contributing columnist at The Washington Post.
“The Kremlin needed a way to discredit the opposition, so they accused them of being puppets of the West, Obama and me,” he said. “In my view, their propaganda efforts succeeded.”
‘Hair standing on end’
A former covert intelligence agent previously based in the region said Mr. McFaul underestimated the threat Mr. Putin felt.
“We were not at war with [Russia], but they were at war with us,” the former agent said.
“McFaul made the Kremlin’s hair stand on end,” added a prominent Western journalist based in Moscow during Mr. McFaul’s ambassadorship.
In November 2012, 10 months into the McFaul ambassadorship, Mr. Putin raised the stakes significantly by appointing General Valery Gerasimov, a mysterious operator within the Russian military’s brain trust, as chief of staff of the Russian armed forces.
Now 62, Mr. Gerasimov hailed from a region of Russia home to the ethnic Tatars. His early career included one of Russia’s bloodiest recent conflicts, the second Chechen War, which pitted separatist rebels against the Kremlin and was one of Mr. Putin’s signature initiatives.
In 2013 the new military chief published an article in a Russian journal that widely has come to be considered the strategic foundation undergirding the Kremlin’s subversion policies in the years since.
Known in military commands as the “Gerasimov Doctrine of Hybrid Warfare,” the theory encourages blending conventional and unconventional warfare, essentially expanding military battlefield options infinitely — including into cyberspace.
“In the 21st century we have seen a tendency toward blurring the lines between the states of war and peace,” the general wrote. “Wars are no longer declared and, having begun, proceed according to an unfamiliar template. The very ‘rules of war’ have changed.”
The general also addressed the Arab Spring. Mr. Putin, who obsessed over the mass protests that led to the Soviet Union’s collapse, believed a hidden U.S. hand factored heavily in the “color revolutions” in former Soviet states such as Georgia and Ukraine and the 2011 popular uprisings that rocked the Muslim world.
The Kremlin particularly feared the power of Twitter and other social media platforms during the Arab Spring and their ability to mobilize opinion and organize protests even in authoritarian countries. In his writing, Gen. Gerasimov warned the Arab Spring-type events were “typical of warfare in the 21st century.”
It was here, intelligence officials told The Times, that Mr. McFaul — who had studied and taught at Stanford and prominently used American social media as a diplomatic tool to connect with the Russian people — and Mr. Gerasimov intersect. “McFaul was the essence of the Twitter culture, sunny California high-tech solutions and Democratic optimism,” a former intelligence officer said. “Gerasimov and Putin were two guys who studied the best way to smash you over the head with a rock.”
Fast-forward four years to the U.S. presidential election of 2016, and the Kremlin stands accused of using those same social media tools to sway the political debate during the campaign.
It’s not clear whether the U.S. intelligence community or multiple congressional investigations into Russia’s activities — not to mention former FBI Director Robert Mueller’s special counsel probe — can stop the Russians if they try again.