An NPR member station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Former U.S. Ambassador To Russia Offers Advice, Lessons Ahead Of Biden-Putin Summit


I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Geneva, on the shores of Lac Leman. This is - the lake cuts right through the heart of the city. We have come down to the beach today, which is crowded, as you can probably hear.


KELLY: We actually picked this spot because about a hundred yards away is Villa la Grange. This is this grand 18th century villa. It is the site of the Biden-Putin summit, which is coming up in two days' time. And they've got security perimeter and checkpoints already set up. Journalists are rolling into town. Diplomats are rolling into town. Among them, Michael McFaul.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Former diplomats are rolling into town, yes, even.

KELLY: Former diplomat - yeah, you were the U.S. ambassador to Russia back in 2012 to 2014.

MCFAUL: Right.

KELLY: And I think the last time I saw you in person was in Helsinki.

MCFAUL: Yes, that was a very memorable one.

KELLY: It was, indeed. Well, let's start with what - with a little preview of this one on Wednesday. I am always curious how much actually gets decided in these meetings because you've got Vladimir Putin...


KELLY: ...And so much of power in Russia seems to be centralized in the person of Vladimir Putin.


KELLY: Can you actually get that much done if he's not in the room?

MCFAUL: You can't, and I would say increasingly so, that's become true. He doesn't listen to his advisers. No disrespect to Foreign Minister Lavrov, but he's an implementer of policy, not a maker. And I think that's part of the Biden administration's thinking about why they decided to do this meeting, is because they thought at the end of the day, there's just one decision-maker, so let's sit down with him.

KELLY: So the agenda - President Biden says he is going to confront Putin, tell him the cyberattacks have got to stop. Have you seen any indication that Putin is inclined to listen to that, to comply?

MCFAUL: Not yet. You know, he's not writing talking points - and his staff isn't - about how to improve relations with the United States, as they get ready to sit down with President Biden. But I do think it's important for the president to say those things, nonetheless. I actually was at their last meeting - it was 10 years ago - when he was vice president and Putin was prime minister, March 2011. And I was impressed by how the vice president would not let go the difficult issues - the irritants, sometimes diplomats call them. And we spent a great deal of time, actually, on Georgia because Russia had invaded Georgia, and they were still occupying territory - by the way, 10 years later, they still are. And I think that's important for Putin to hear from the president of the United States.

KELLY: But to the point you just made, Biden spoke strongly to Putin, according to you, who were in the room...

MCFAUL: Right.

KELLY: ...About Georgia, and yet they're still there. Does the U.S. have any leverage at this summit?

MCFAUL: Not a lot, not on the big things. They're not going to trade barbs and then Putin's going to say, hey, you're right; I'm leaving Eastern Ukraine. Oh, yeah, Crimea - that was a mistake. Putin has never admitted to a mistake ever in 20 years of running that country. So that's not going to happen. But there is a small agenda that, with a little bit of, you know, give-and-take, maybe we might see that. So...

KELLY: Things like climate?

MCFAUL: Climate - climate's easy. Humanitarian assistance to Syria on the multilateral agenda - that would be a great achievement from this summit. And Iran - JCPOA - President Biden and his team have made it clear they want to get back into it. That's a place where we're on the same side. And then I find it tragic how small our representation is in Russia today.

KELLY: We have no ambassador on the ground there right now.

MCFAUL: No ambassador. And I think just some tiptoeing towards normalizing diplomatic presences - not relations. That's out of the question. There's not going to be no normal relationship with Russia as long as Putin is in power. But diplomatic presence - they might be able to make some progress on that.

KELLY: There's going to be no joint presser.


KELLY: Biden will give a solo press conference.

MCFAUL: They've studied Helsinki (laughter).

KELLY: Well, I mean, what do you think's going on here? Is this a good idea?

MCFAUL: Well, I - they have studied Helsinki, and they've also studied George W. Bush's first trip to Europe. And he went to Slovenia to meet with President Putin, and he made a mistake in that meeting. I can't remember exactly, but he said - on the spot, he said, I looked into his soul, and I saw somebody I could cooperate with. And I tell you that story because Helsinki's a really low bar. I mean, Helsinki will go down in history as the worst bilateral meeting between Russians and Americans ever - one, because President Trump agreed with Putin and not his intelligence community, but the other thing is Putin jammed him. He jammed him with this idea to interrogate alleged criminals on both sides. I was one of them.

KELLY: You have a personal stake here.

MCFAUL: I was one of them.

KELLY: This list of a dozen names that Putin dropped - you were on it because of your involvement in pulling together what came to be known as the Magnitsky list back when you were in the Obama administration.

MCFAUL: That's right. So I was watching President Trump. I'm sure he had no idea what President Putin was talking about. And he looked really bad, and it took him a week to clean it up. So I think it's right not to do a joint press conference. One, you're going to avoid those kind of mishaps. But two, why give Putin a stage next to President Biden? He doesn't deserve that.

KELLY: Critics of President Biden would argue that he's already giving too big a platform to Putin...

MCFAUL: Right.

KELLY: ...By bringing him a summit in the first place. I got to take you back to another moment of high-stakes diplomacy here in Geneva, 2009. Then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had flown in to meet Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov...

MCFAUL: Still in the job.

KELLY: ...To do this big reset. And she handed him an actual, like, palm-sized reset button.


HILLARY CLINTON: ...Gift which represents what President Obama and Vice President Biden and I have been saying, and that is we want to reset our relationship. We worked hard to get the right Russian word. Do you think we got it?

SERGEY LAVROV: You got it wrong.

CLINTON: I got it wrong.


LAVROV: It should be - (non-English language spoken). And this says - (non-English language spoken), which means overcharged.


KELLY: Needless to say, there was not a successful fresh start in the relationship with Russia. You had a hand in that.

MCFAUL: I was here. I was here.

KELLY: You were the top Russia guy on the National Security Council.

MCFAUL: Right.

KELLY: What are the lessons from that?

MCFAUL: One, focus on substance; don't focus on gimmicks. That was a gimmick. Even if the substance is about disagreements, you're much better off on that territory. And it's a - I want to be honest with you. I've been in many meetings with Putin. He's taking this meeting really seriously. And on occasion, he'll spring things on you and make you at unease. And even if the substance is thin, don't be too chummy, either. You know, there's a tendency from these leaders at the top - I've saw it with President Obama. I saw it with Vice President Biden, especially. He likes to build rapport. That's dangerous here in Geneva.

KELLY: Michael McFaul, veteran, as you just heard, of a lot of meetings with Vladimir Putin.

Thanks for giving us a little preview of what we may see at this one.

MCFAUL: Thanks for inviting me to the beach. Great to see you guys. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.