Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) Michael McFaul M.A. ’86 called for the international community to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin during a “teach-in” event about Russia’s war on Ukraine on Saturday.
More than 80 students gathered at the FSI’s Bechtel Conference Center to pose questions to the former ambassador and share their thoughts on the war. In addition to the Q&A with McFaul, the event provided a platform for Ukrainian and Russian students to share their perspectives and calls to action.
Ukrainian officials want negotiations to be predicated upon an international security guarantee that entails a commitment from countries around the world to provide financial assistance, weapons and military personnel to the Ukrainian government in the event that Ukraine gets attacked again. But the formulation of an international security guarantee may be more difficult than it seems for the country, which has been at war since 2014 and experienced more than 3,000 civilian casualties during the ongoing conflict, McFaul said.
McFaul pointed out that the Biden administration has yet to commit to such a guarantee, and the process of ratifying a formal treaty detailing such an agreement from the U.S. would require at least 67 senators’ support in Congress.
McFaul also answered queries about the Russian government’s claim that Ukraine sent military helicopters into Russia to target an oil facility in Belgorod. Although the Ukrainian government has not claimed responsibility for the attack, the helicopters reportedly damaged tanks and spurred a fire in the facility that yielded no casualties.
“They have the legitimate right to defend themselves, and the fuel that’s being attacked is the fuel that you use for armored vehicles to attack Kharkiv, so that’s a very legitimate target as far as I’m concerned,” McFaul said.
After being asked about the ethics of imposing sanctions that could impact Russian civilians, McFaul shared that he feels “pretty torn” about supporting sanctions that would hit Russian civilians economically, but explained that “there has to be some moral responsibility,” even if civilians cannot put their lives on the line.
“You’ve got to do some small act of resistance, and it’s no longer, to me, sufficient, to say ‘Well, you’re punishing us for something we have nothing to do with,’” he said. “Tens of thousands, 50 thousand — yes, Putin can arrest those people. He can’t arrest millions.”
Despite his concerns about sanctions impacting civilians, McFaul expressed his support for sanctions targeting Putin’s regime and inner circle.
“Putin should be treated as a pariah for the rest of the time he’s in power,” he said. He also raised the possibility of reparations and argued that any discussion of lifting sanctions would not only require Putin’s exit from power but also “some game plan for how to rebuild Ukraine in the long term.”
According to McFaul, in Russia, Putin has drawn comparisons of the invasion of Ukraine to Russia’s “Great Patriotic War” and the Soviet Union’s military success on May 9, 1945 during World War II to frame the invasion as “denazification” and galvanize Russian support for the war.
McFaul reiterated that the Ukrainian government is not controlled by Nazis, as falsely claimed by the Russian government, and described an online interaction with a Russian woman who was “feeding back to [him] the propaganda she’s seen” but still appeared “not comfortable with it.”
One Russian graduate student took to the microphone during the “open mic” portion of the event to open up about the difficulties she has experienced discussing Putin’s regime and the war on Ukraine with her father, who lives in Russia.
“The propaganda is very effective,” she explained. “It creates this bubble.”
On an international scale, McFaul explained that Putin’s regime has engaged in a “disinformation-information game” to instill fear in the international community about possible retaliation to other countries’ involvement.
The Russian government has applied far-reaching tools of disinformation in an attempt to shape people’s views of the war in Ukraine. For instance, the Kremlin engaged numerous organizations and social media accounts to disseminate pro-Putin comments online, even paying bloggers and providing intelligence to news websites that promotes Putin’s view of the war.
McFaul expressed his support for the U.S.’s decision to cancel an intercontinental ballistic missile test to quell nuclear tensions with Russia but warned that “fear of escalation is constraining some of us in the West” and expressed his view that “there will not be peace until there is stalemate on the ground.”
McFaul also criticized the leadership of countries that have not stepped in against Russia’s aggression. Nations like China and India, which are heavily populated and wield significant power and influence on the global stage, have refrained from taking decisive action against Russia amidst the war.
McFaul pointed out that Chinese President Xi Jinping is “missing a giant historical opportunity right now” to take on a “mediating role” in the war. The former ambassador referenced a speech given by the Kenyan ambassador to the United Nations comparing the war to the colonial legacy in Africa and warned that failing to stand up to Russia may “cause problems [with] China’s relationship with the Global South.”
McFaul left students with a message of encouragement and a call to action for the Stanford community.
He emphasized the role that academics at Stanford and around the world play in framing analyses of the war and the countries’ histories, noting that theorists must take accountability for the “normative and prescriptive consequences” of their academic work. Specifically, he underscored the importance of establishing Ukrainian studies programs that are distinct from and comparably robust to Russian or Soviet studies programs.
Although McFaul highlighted the “giant asymmetry” between the size of the Ukrainian and Russian militaries, he said that “in the long run, there is no doubt in my mind that Ukraine wins,” attributing his “optimistic” outlook to Ukraine’s sovereignty and democracy.
Members of Stanford’s Ukrainian Student Association concluded the event by calling on attendees to contribute to relief efforts, which have been made available at the website standwithukraine.how.