MICHAEL KIRK - [Tell me about] the circumstances
under which you meet Mr. Putin the very first time.
JOHN BEYRLE - It was December of 1999.
It was literally about two weeks before he took over as acting president.
When [Boris] Yeltsin resigned, at that point he was the prime minister under President
I was at that point the acting secretary of state for Russia and Europe.
I went with Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary, for a meeting with Prime Minister Putin.
This was not Strobe’s first meeting, but [it was] my first meeting with him.
I was struck by how disciplined he is, how really unemotional, well prepared and smart
as an interlocutor he seemed.
… That was the meeting at which I discovered, for the first time, that there were certain
issues which are kind of hot-button issues for Putin.
In this particular case, the hot-button issue was Georgia.
We had had for maybe half an hour a normal meeting in which we went through the agenda
in a routine way, until we got to Georgia.
At that point, we were raising the issue of Chechen fighters, fighters that the Russians
were fighting against in Chechnya, who were running away from the Russians and finding
sanctuary in Georgian territory.
We tried to explain what we had heard from Georgian President [Eduard] Shevardnadze about
what the Georgians were doing to prevent those Chechen fighters from escaping into Georgian
As we described what we had heard from the Georgians, from Shevardnadze, we could see
Putin’s face just start to redden a little bit.
He leaned forward in his chair just very, very slightly and interrupted us, and said
in Russian, “Vash drug Shevardnadze balbes.”
“Your friend Shevardnadze is a fool.”
And then he proceeded in circumstantial detail to explain why he thought Shevardnadze was
It was as though the temperature in the room dropped five or 10 degrees in the space of
about two or three minutes.
In the meetings that I had with Putin after that, including with President Clinton, in
which we talked about the same subject, we saw the same reaction, that Putin had a very
strong, visceral, anti-Georgian feel to his view of what Russia’s rights and privileges
MICHAEL KIRK - What does that tell you about him?
JOHN BEYRLE - He’s a man who sees the collapse of the Soviet Union as a great loss for Russia.
Countries which used to be in the Russian orbit were lost, and perhaps irretrievably
Also, in his view, the United States played an active role in working to distance countries
like Georgia, like Ukraine, like the Baltic states from Russia.
MICHAEL KIRK - You were the enemy in some ways.
Is that too harsh?
JOHN BEYRLE - I think he talked about the United States as an adversary in his famous
speech in Munich in 2007.
He made it very, very clear that he saw the West and the United States in particular as
countries which viewed Russia as a threat and that they were setting themselves up,
essentially, to make things more difficult for Russia.
MICHAEL KIRK - When Yeltsin gives that horrible speech on New Year’s Eve, where he’s admitting
JOHN BEYRLE - Which we saw last night excerpts of.
MICHAEL KIRK - Exactly.
So there it is.
It’s devastating, yeah.
What did you make of what Yeltsin was saying, where things stood, on the moment that Putin
was about to take over?
JOHN BEYRLE - He really illustrated, in a very personal and sad way, a lot of the decline
that Russians themselves had felt their country experience over the preceding eight, 10 years.
Yeltsin, who had many, many good qualities, and who I think in his bones was a democrat,
lacked at the end of the day the force and the forcefulness to really see his agenda
through, because of a lot of his own personal and physical frailties.
And those were on vivid display that night.
I think for a lot of us who had been dealing with Russia for a long time, and had very
high hopes when the Soviet Union fell apart, and independent Russia, led by a democratic
force like Boris Yeltsin, had emerged on the stage, had some hopes that this could be something
sustained through the changes that needed to be made in Russian.
But it was clear that Yeltsin wasn’t the person who was going to see those changes
I don’t think any of us really, at that time, thought that Vladimir Putin was the
one who was going to see those changes through.
I certainly saw [Putin] as another in a series of transitional temporary figures who had
obviously populated the prime ministerial seat under Yeltsin but now might only be there
for a short time as president.
That obviously would have much more profound implications for the direction of Russia.
It wasn’t so much that we feared Putin would take Russia in a wrong place.
We felt that Putin maybe wouldn’t last and would be succeeded by some hard-liners who
really saw the West as an enemy, who really saw the Soviet Union as something that needed
to be reconstituted, and reconstituted fast.
MICHAEL KIRK - Were you surprised at how Putin took it, how fast he took it, the way he took
it, what happened under President Putin?
JOHN BEYRLE - It was really remarkable to see him step up to the responsibilities of
that job in the way that he did, in the serious way that he evidenced very early on.
Remember, when he became acting president after Yeltsin resigned, he had a three- or
four-month period in which he was literally running for the presidency against some token
opposition, because Yeltsin had sanctified him as the heir apparent, and it was clear
that he was going to become the president.
But he had to show himself.
He had to show his presidential mettle at that point.
In the interactions that he had with the Russian people, in the program, manifesto that he
put forward at that time, I think he, at least to my eye, he showed himself to be much more
capable than some of the more disposable prime ministers who had come before him.
MICHAEL KIRK - How about the harsh things?
When did that make itself apparent, that he was going to be a strongman?
JOHN BEYRLE - I think in the meeting he had, the roundtable he had with the Russian oligarchs
in 2000, in which he essentially laid down the law and said: “There's a new sheriff
The old rules no longer apply.
You’ve all made tremendous amount of money over the last 10 years, and no one is going
to challenge you on that, regardless of how you might have made it.
But you have to stay out of politics, and you have to pay your taxes.
As long as you do those two things, we’re not going to go back and have a truth squad
or a restitution effort.”
It was clear enough that he meant it, that a couple of the oligarchs whom he had singled
out as maybe already not playing by those new rules, Boris Berezovsky and Vladimir Gusinsky,
pretty quickly decided that it was time for them to leave the country.
In fact, I think Gusinsky was maybe even briefly jailed for a while.
These were both media barons who controlled the media.
In doing that, Putin made clear not only that all of the oligarchs had to play by new rules,
but that oligarchic control of the media, especially the broadcast media, which is how
most Russians get their news, was no longer going to be outsourced.
This was going to be a state-run operation.
It’s remained that way throughout [Putin’s] term.
MICHAEL KIRK - How did you feel?
I mean, if I was standing there in your perch and seeing this new guy come in, and suddenly
the media, especially the media, is one of the first things that he takes control of,
that feels like a giant step backward.
JOHN BEYRLE - It didn’t happen all at once.
There were stages to it.
There was a Russian television network called NTV, which under Yeltsin had been really the
voice of opposition and had gotten Russians used to the new circumstances of actually
hearing their leaders criticized on the nightly news.
I think it was pretty clear that Putin was not going to continue with that, which in
the eyes of even many Russians had gone a bit too far.
This is a conservative country that’s not used to dealing with these sorts of freedoms.
People can be easily convinced in Russia that these freedoms are actually turning into license
and that they're injurious to the country, and that’s what Putin sought to do.
But he was also helped by circumstances.
There was the terrible terrorist attack on the Nord-Ost, the theater in Russia, in Moscow,
… Over 100 Russian theatergoers were killed when they pumped fentanyl gas into the theater.
Putin used the media coverage on NTV in particular, of the siege of that theater, to tighten the
screws, shut down even more of the freedom in NTV.
It was really at that point, I think, that it was clear that NTV, as it had existed up
to that point, an alternative voice against the line coming out of the Kremlin, was going
to be gone.
Once Russia lost an independent NTV, it became a different country.
MICHAEL KIRK - In what way?
JOHN BEYRLE - It was a country in which you simply didn’t have the media speaking truth
to power anymore.
It became the country it had been before the Soviet Union fell apart, in which the media
existed to serve the views, the agenda, the program of the party or the government.
MICHAEL KIRK - Were you there when President Bush came in and looked him in the eye?
JOHN BEYRLE - I was actually in Ljubljana [the Slovenia summit].
That was in July of 2001, maybe June.
That was an interesting meeting from a lot of perspectives, actually.
It was the first meeting the two had had.
I remember, because we briefed President Bush going in on what he was going to be facing,
the usual pre-brief.
I remember being struck by how both President Bush and President Putin seemed almost a little
bit nervous as they had their initial encounter in front of the press, before they went off
to have their one-on-one meeting, which was scheduled as one-on-one meetings always are,
for a half an hour or 45 minutes, knowing that they’ll usually run longer.
You never want them to end before their appointed time.
So off they went.
I wasn’t in that meeting.
I went into the meeting with Colin Powell and the then-Russian Foreign Minister Igor
A half hour stretched to 45 minutes to an hour to an hour and a half.
By that point, the Foreign Minister Ivanov was looking at his watch and saying: “Is
there a possibility that they’ve left?
Maybe somebody just forgot to come and get us.”
And Colin Powell said, “No, I'm sure that when the time comes…”
That actually was a fascinating conversation for another time, because both men ran out
of talking points and just started talking more directly about how they saw the world—fascinating
conversation—but with Igor Ivanov always a bit worried that something was happening
in another room that he didn’t exactly have a handle on.
Eventually they came and got us and brought us to what was supposed to have been a large
format meeting for about an hour.
As we sat down, both President Bush and President Putin looked extremely relaxed.
It was striking how different they both acted after that, what we now know was a very long
detailed and personal encounter that they’d had in the one-on-one.
They both said, “Well, this meeting can only take about 15 minutes, because we’ve
covered all the main subjects in the small meeting.”
We basically, I think, just had some small talk where a few of the other people around
the table spoke up.
Then we went off to get ready for the press availability, which was held outside on a
We briefed President Bush [and] went over what we had already written for him to say.
But then, after he made that statement in which he described the good meeting that they’d
had, in circumstantial detail what they’d talked about, he was asked, in the first question
I think, “What is your view of President Putin?”
And he said what he said.
MICHAEL KIRK - What did he say?
JOHN BEYRLE - He said, “I looked into his eyes, and I got a sense of his soul.”
In that meeting, President Putin had told President Bush the famous story about the
time his dacha burned down in Leningrad or St. Petersburg, and a religious medallion
which had belonged to his mother, I believe, which had gotten lost, and he thought this
was irretrievably gone, and then a fireman brought him this, almost like a holy relic.
It was a very affecting, emotional story and had some effect on President Bush.
I think that is part of what led President Bush to say: “I got a sense of who this
I got a bit of a look at his soul.”
As we heard that, sitting on the podium behind, we all realized, at the time, that this would
be something that we would have to explain or the president would be questioned about
JOHN BEYRLE - … But in fact, if you look at what the results of that meeting were in
another three or four months after 9/11, you can argue that the bond that President Bush
formed with President Putin at that point allowed President Putin or gave President
Putin the confidence to overrule his advisers about a week after 9/11, all of whom were
telling him, almost unanimously, not to allow the Americans to establish temporary bases
in Central Asia for their inevitable attack on Afghanistan, the source of the 9/11 attacks,
because the Americans would never leave.
Putin overruled those advisers, saying: “No, from what I've heard from George Bush, I think
the more important thing is helping the Americans in their fight against the Taliban, in their
fight against al Qaeda.
We’ll deal with the bases question later.”
President Bush rightly, and I think justifiably, was able to say that his bonding with Putin
in that meeting in Ljubljana actually paid dividends for the United States after the
9/11 attacks in a way that might not have happened had they not had that meeting.
MICHAEL KIRK - Putin calls within an hour.
The way the story goes, he’s the first person who gets through to President Bush.
JOHN BEYRLE - Yeah.
He doesn’t actually talk to President Bush.
No one was actually getting through to the President.
I believe he talked to [then-National Security Adviser] Condi Rice.
But he immediately did reach out.
He knew that American forces would be going on extremely high alert at that point.
The playbook said that when the American forces go on high alert, Russian forces go on high
He was calling essentially to say: “That’s the playbook.
But we’re throwing that out.
That’s not what we need to do to help you right now.
So when your forces go up, ours will stand down.
And in fact, we’ll cancel an exercise that we had scheduled.”
Not an insignificant gesture by the Russian president at that moment.
MICHAEL KIRK - When you step back and you look at almost every interaction President
Putin has with new presidents of the United States, there's a honeymoon period.
Maybe there always is with everybody new.
But then it sort of doesn’t work out that way for one reason or another.
From the American perspective, from the president’s perspective, from what you saw, what happened
to the relationship between President Bush and President Putin?
What happened in the next two or three years?
What were the moments that really counted, where at least the way it looks from outside,
things get colder?
JOHN BEYRLE - Well, a couple of things.
The withdrawal from the ABM [Anti-Ballistic Missile] Treaty, without a lot of notice to
the Russians, and Putin accepted that, and they made the best of the American withdrawal
from a longstanding arms control treaty, which had been part of the fabric of deterrence
that had kept the two superpowers from going to nuclear war.
The Russians weren’t happy about that.
And Putin I think in that saw a bit of the unilateral approach to foreign affairs that
would come to characterize President Bush and certainly Vice President [Dick] Cheney
and Defense Secretary [Donald] Rumsfeld view[s of] America’s interests and ways of protecting
and projecting America’s interests.
Obviously, leading to the invasion of Iraq and the Iraq War, which the Russians openly
sided with the French and Germans in opposing, not joining the coalition of the willing along
with the U.K. and others.
This was all happening against the backdrop of a remarkable reversal of fortune in Russia,
because of the price of oil, which between 2000 and 2008, just about quadrupled.
In the process, the disposable income of the average Russian tripled almost.
… As that happened, it gave Putin and the people around him a sense of confidence that
they weren’t back on their heels anymore, that they were able to pay off their foreign
sovereign debt, which had been a looming problem for them for a while.
In time it came to give them what I think was a misplaced confidence that they really
didn’t need the West anymore, that they were doing fine on their own, playing by their
And in fact, among some it came to be seen as an article of faith that not only did Russia
not need the West anymore, but really, the West was responsible for the problems that
still existed in Russia and in Russia’s nearest neighborhood.
The Orange Revolution, the Rose Revolution, in Ukraine and Georgia respectively, both
were seen inside of Russia and by Putin directly as an American attempt to weaken Russia’s
sphere of influence, sphere of privileged interest in what they called the near abroad,
which they, Putin, the siloviki [in Russia, security personnel who in general were formerly
agents of the intelligence, armed forces, or law enforcement agencies] surrounded him
saw as their natural sphere of influence.
MICHAEL KIRK - In fact, we, the EU and NATO certainly had encroached, moved in pretty
closely over the years since the Wall came down.
Was he right about some of that?
JOHN BEYRLE - NATO enlargement played a role in that as well, but NATO enlargement was
not something at the time that Russia opposed.
It certainly wasn’t opposed—much would happen under Yeltsin obviously.
But the second wave of enlargement took place to the Baltic states, former Soviet territory,
to Bulgaria, one of Russia’s closest allies.
That happened under Putin’s watch.
And it was, at the time it happened, not strongly protested against.
This has become the narrative ex post facto more than at the time.
MICHAEL KIRK - 2007, well we kind of did Munich.
Let’s do Munich.
What is happening with him [Putin] when he takes the stage in Munich?
What does he say?
What is the American perspective on it as he says it?
JOHN BEYRLE - What he said in Munich was I think essentially the culmination of what
I described earlier as that growing sense of confidence in Russia’s ability to manage
its own affairs according to its own rules, not being—I want to use the word “vassal”
because I heard it several times last night from Putin, but it’s not the word he would
have used then—that Russia, at that point, was no longer going to be mentored by the
United States, and really didn’t see the West and the U.S. as any kind of even a democratic
He was beginning to expound his view of the exceptionalism of Russia as a kind of unique
Eurasian civilization, not a derivative of a Western civilization.
This was something that was not really unexpected or anything that’s very different.
Russian history is replete with examples of internal arguments between Westernizers and
Slavophiles or hard-liners, whatever you want to call them, those who don’t see Russia’s
future tied up in any kind of greater relationship with the West or the United States.
So Putin, in that aspect, wasn’t really propounding anything new or different, but
he was clearly setting himself on one side of an argument that’s been going on in Russia
for centuries, about what the future of that country is, which direction it will go.
What I thought was interesting was the response of the United States government, as represented
by Secretary of Defense [Robert] Gates, who was there at that time.
I was not in Munich for that, so I was watching this from the sidelines, but Secretary Gates,
who knows Russia as well as anyone in the U.S. government, simply said, “Let’s not
rise to the bait here.”
His response in Munich, which isn't remembered anywhere nearly as well as Putin’s, was
itself a masterpiece of diplomatic deflection.
Essentially Gates said: “If you want to try to arrogate to yourself a leading role
in the Eurasian sphere, knock yourselves out.
But don’t expect any support from the United States, and expect to have opposition from
the U.S. and the West when you cross lines, when you infringe on sovereignty, when you
break international agreements that you’ve taken on yourself.”
MICHAEL KIRK - So what happens with Georgia?
JOHN BEYRLE - Well, it was interesting.
When I went to Moscow as ambassador in 2008, I got there about a month before the Georgian
war broke out.
That was in early August.
I arrived just around the Fourth of July.
In my initial round of meetings with Russian officials that I had, foreign minister, Putin’s
foreign policy advisers, [Dmitry] Medvedev’s foreign policy advisers—because Medvedev
was president at that point—I had a sense that this feeling that the Russians were enunciating
what we had heard at Munich, I really felt on the ground in Moscow.
I came back, and I remember a meeting I had with Dan Fried who was the assistant secretary
of state for Europe.
I said, “I've never really felt that place spoiling for a fight the way I feel it right
And this was a month before the actual fighting started in Georgia.
But it was very, very clear that the Russians were fed up with [Mikheil] Saakashvili, the
president of Georgia, who was, they felt, pushing against their sovereign rights, their
sphere of influence, that they had the right to control.
They were obviously very, very concerned that the Bush administration was moving toward
allowing both Georgia and Ukraine to get into NATO, which was, for them, a huge red line.
It really probably didn’t need to be.
That’s a different argument.
The conditions were in place for a clash.
It was almost as though the Georgian leadership almost blundered into this, not realizing
that the Russians would respond with force in the way that they did.
It was very clear to us, in the summer leading up to August of 2008, that the Russians were
prepared to pick a fight.
They were doing overflights of Georgian territory.
There were other probes and sorties and diplomatic pricks that made it clear that this was maybe
not the time for the Georgians to do anything rash.
We warned Saakashvili about this.
But the war broke out.
That’s a very, very long seminar on exactly who shot first, who started.
But once the Russian forces came across the border, it was clear that the order of the
day was to get them to stop before they got to Tbilisi.
There was no guarantee, in early August, that Russian forces would not simply continue into
They were having a rough fight, but they certainly had superiority of numbers in personnel terms
to do that.
But obviously, a diplomatic effort was undertaken by [President Nicolas] Sarkozy, led by the
French; the United States took a part in that.
The fighting was stopped, but not without the recognition of the two disputed territories,
South Ossetia and Abkhazia, without the recognition of them as independent countries by Russia.
That was a game changer, because that was really the first time that territory belonging
to a sovereign neighbor of Russia, which had been recognized as part of that sovereign
neighbor by Russia up to that point, suddenly changed.
There were other disputed areas in Russia, but the two in Georgia and the unilateral
recognition of their independence by Russia made it clear that Russia would go to some
lengths to make clear its view that it still needed to control what happened in those countries.
In a way, it was a harbinger of what happened several years later in Crimea.
MICHAEL KIRK - How did President Bush, how did [National Security Adviser] Steve Hadley,
how did they react to what happened there?
JOHN BEYRLE - You have to remember, this was at the very end of the Bush administration.
We had a presidential campaign underway between candidates [then-Sen. Barack] Obama and [Sen.
John] McCain, and there was a lot of discussion within the Bush administration about sanctions
aimed at Russia in response for what they had done in Georgia.
But in the end, I think the clock ran out on getting those put together and approved
by the Europeans, because it was very clear—I wouldn’t say approved, but signed onto by
the Europeans, because it was very clear to all of us that unilateral American sanctions
at that point, that the Europeans did not join, wouldn’t have any effect or enough
of a desired effect on Russia, in particular at a time when an outgoing administration
has much less of an ability to make a bold, strong push in that way than a new administration,
or even an administration in the middle of its term.
Essentially, it was a lot of discussion of pretty wide-ranging economic sanctions.
But in the end, the decision was made to help Georgia as much as possible bolster its own
defense so that it could at least draw a line where the line had stopped, and make sure
the Russians didn’t go any further.
MICHAEL KIRK - So President Bush, who began his relationship with Mr. Putin looking at
his soul, by the end, what's his opinion of President Putin?
JOHN BEYRLE - Frustration, and I think a sense, as many American presidents have had, that
the hope that they came into office with to build some kind of different, more productive
relationship with Russia, turned out to be much more difficult to sustain than they had
And this was not unique to President Bush.
I think just about every of the last four presidents has come into office saying he
wanted to build a better relationship with Russia.
Certainly President Clinton felt disappointed at the end of his administration; President
Bush and President Obama all felt disappointed.
That’s why I have a sense of deja vu when I heard President Trump come into office saying
he also wanted to build a more productive and constructive relationship, because the
track record hasn’t been good.
MICHAEL KIRK - From your view, having witnessed what happened during the Bush years, how different
was Putin than you expected him to be?
JOHN BEYRLE - Putin evolved and hardened over the time that President Bush was in office.
I think a lot of this had to do with the economic, the reversal of fortune that happened when
President Putin was presiding over a government which wasn’t only solvent, it was able to
raise pensions; there was much more money for education, health care, certainly for
A country which really had been headed toward second-tier status looked suddenly again to
have some pretensions to being a superpower.
That gave Putin and the people around him a lot of confidence that they could push back
against what they saw as the kind of overweening confidence and even arrogance of the United
I'm not saying that that’s a justified view, but that certainly was their view.
They felt themselves, for the first time, uniquely placed to be able to act on that,
because they had the resources to back it up.
MICHAEL KIRK - Barack Obama wins the presidency.
Hillary Clinton is the secretary of state.
It’s reset time.
Obviously, they ask you: "What should we think about Putin?
What should we do about Putin?
What's the state of play in Russia?"
What do you say then?
JOHN BEYRLE - When Obama came in as president, I think there were two or three circumstances
which made it more likely that we were going to be able to turn a page and get beyond what
had really become a rancorous relationship in the tail end of the Bush administration
and begin to get some cooperation out of Russia on issues that answered our own interests,
specifically on Iran and its nuclear ambitions.
The circumstances were first the fact that we had a new president, which always allows
the Russian side to visit all the sins of the past on the outgoing administration and
look at what looks like a cleaner page with the new administration.
We were dealing with a different Russian leadership as well.
You asked about President Putin, but we were, in fact, dealing with President Medvedev at
JOHN BEYRLE - Prime Minister Putin was certainly calling a lot of the shots from that prime
ministerial seat, but the vis-à-vis for Barack Obama was Dmitry Medvedev.
Those two things were setting the stage for the possibility of a better relationship.
But what really made the difference was the economic situation, because in 2008, and especially
by 2009, the bottom had dropped out of the global economy, and Russia was hit worse than
I think any other emerging economy.
The ruble lost 30 percent of its value.
Inflation spiked up.
The Russian stock market had a couple of sickening plunges in which a lot of capital was lost.
Suddenly, as the Russian leadership looked around, they realized that this perception
of Russia as sitting on top of the world, controlling its own fate and being resource-rich,
suddenly looked a bit more shaky.
As happens periodically in Russian history, when that happens, Russia realizes that it
has some ground to make up, that there are some gaps and some lags.
They traditionally, historically, in those periods, have tended to look to the West for
support in helping them fill some of the gaps.
Whether or not that means that Russia has changed its worldview, that strategically
it sees itself better served by a closer relationship with the West, is a different question.
But tactically, it opens up many possibilities for American businesses to do more in Russia,
for the United States and Russia to be able to talk more seriously about Russia finally
joining the World Trade Organization, which had been a longstanding failed effort on the
part of both countries.
The economic downturn of 2008-2009 was really the key to opening up something that looked
more like a productive and constructive dialog with Russia than we’d had in the past.
MICHAEL KIRK - But did you really think Putin was gone?
JOHN BEYRLE - … He had clearly decided not to change the constitution or violate the
constitution by standing for a third-term election, which was prohibited—two consecutive
terms only—and he had found a good stand-in in Dmitry Medvedev.
The question for us in the Obama administration was, how much can we get done in this new
circumstance with a different Russian president who has a slightly more pro-Western worldview
than Mr. Putin did and who also forged a pretty good personal relationship with President
They had a lot of similarities: same generation, both former law professors, families approximate
size, same ages.
There was some hope that it was at least productive to try to move things forward.
You never go into this with illusions that you’re going to get a lot of things done,
because the weight of history and experience shows you how hard that can be, but you never
want to look back and say, "We didn’t try hard enough."
In fact, in that set of circumstances with a new American and Russian president, with
Russia feeling back on its heels a bit more economically, we were able in fairly short
order to renegotiate a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty [START].
Russia agreed to lower and America agreed to lower the nuclear levels on both sides
and to re-establish the verification regime that had atrophied during that time.
This was a major accomplishment for American interests, not to mention what we were able
to negotiate with the Russians vis-à-vis supply of our forces in Afghanistan through
We actually had American planes flying across Russia, refueling at a Russian airfield, carrying
American troops and materiel into Afghanistan, a pretty remarkable state of affairs which
assumed extremely high importance after the killing of Osama bin Laden when we found it
very difficult to bring things in through Pakistan for a time.
There were definite accomplishments which answer American interests in the reset.
The problem is always how do you make this last.
MICHAEL KIRK - Especially in the face of things that began to happen, the other revolutions,
ultimately [the] Arab Spring, the many destabilizing influences where soon Putin himself is not
liking the way it’s all lining up.
JOHN BEYRLE - … We never really saw Putin and Medvedev clash over a foreign policy issue
in public until Libya, until the U.N. Security Council resolution which authorized the use
of force in Libya which Russia, at President Medvedev’s instruction, abstained on.
It was only a matter of hours, I think, until President Putin found his way to a microphone
to announce to the Russian people and to the world why he thought that was a mistake, why
he saw the West on another crusade against an Islamic country in the Middle East, and
by implication—not a direct criticism, but by implication—that Dmitry Medvedev had
made a mistake by abstaining and not vetoing that resolution.
Within I would say less than a day President Medvedev went back on television in his own
way defending what he had done, essentially implicitly criticizing Prime Minister Putin’s
criticism of him.
That was the moment at which it became pretty clear, I think, to many of us watching Russia
and wondering about the succession dance that had been going on, that Medvedev was probably
not going to be asked to serve a second term as president.
MICHAEL KIRK - What made you think that?
What was it?
Was it— What made you think that?
JOHN BEYRLE - Just that and a number of other things made it clear that it seemed as though
Putin did not have the confidence that Medvedev would hold the line against what he saw as
American/ Western encroachment on Russia’s interests in the way that he himself, Vladimir
Putin, had already demonstrated that he would stand up against.
MICHAEL KIRK - It’s that big to him?
It’s that palpable?
It’s that real that we are the opposing force?
JOHN BEYRLE - This is the way not only Vladimir Putin [but] many Russians were brought up
and trained, to see the United States and the West as the unalterable ideological foe,
antagonist of the Soviet Union and by extension Russia.
The way you are brought up, the way you are trained, has a very long-term effect on your
[vzglyad na zhizn].
MICHAEL KIRK - There is another countervailing force and energy that seems to be happening
in 2011, I guess, and that’s the protests that rise up, some motivated by the force
of the Web, the force of Facebook, the force of Mr. [Alexei] Navalny and others.
Take me there.
Explain what happened.
JOHN BEYRLE - I think a lot of that came out literally onto the streets after Putin and
Medvedev made their joint appearance in early fall of 2011, announcing that Putin in fact
would stand for another term as president and that Medvedev would become prime minister,
in essence that they would swap jobs.
Medvedev himself in the immediate aftermath of that, and even at the event itself, it
appeared to many of us that he didn’t feel completely comfortable with this, or certainly
the way that it had been rolled out.
But more importantly we started to hear and feel from the Russians we had contact with,
from what we were seeing in social media—this was a time at which blogs and Twitter were
in their infancy but still a vehicle for people to express themselves, and especially a younger
generation [than] Putin’s, we began to feel something that we described I think even in
cables back to Washington as "Putin fatigue," that the prospect of another four- or six-year
term with President Putin was something that a number of Russians had strong feelings against.
We saw that begin to play out on the streets of Russia after the parliamentary elections
in December, which I think by almost any objective measure were tampered with.
There was some evidence of fraud there.
The Russian people reacted to that by going out into the streets with signs that said
literally “President Putin must go.”
This was quite extraordinary in the history and experience of a lot of us dealing with
Russia to see that level of opposition played out on the streets without a corresponding
show of force.
The December protests, the famous Bolotnaya Square protests, were not put down with any
significant violence on the part of the authorities.
They played themselves out in a way that was striking to all of us longtime watchers of
Russia who really wondered, how long can this situation go on?
It did not seem at all likely to us that President Putin was going to allow that state of affairs
to continue on for very long, and of course as a first order of business he had to find
someone who was responsible for the outrage of people carrying signs in the street, calling
for him to step down, and he found that in Secretary of State Clinton, who had given
a speech a day or two earlier in which she criticized the fact that the elections had
been tampered with and that the Russian people were perhaps in their rights to go out on
the street and protest against that.
Of course that kind of gave Putin all the ammunition he needed to blame her for sending
those people out on the street in the first place.
From that point, things spiraled downward fairly steadily.
MICHAEL KIRK - And how intensely spiraled?
Describe the spiral for me, will you?
JOHN BEYRLE - Well, now we’re getting to the point where I actually left.
I left Moscow in January of 2012, so it was pretty clear to me that having heard Putin
directly accuse Hillary Clinton of inciting people onto the street against him, having
heard my counterparts in the Russian Foreign Ministry begin to question the activities
of the U.S. Agency for International Development, USAID, which had done a lot of different projects
in various spheres in Russia for a long time, but suddenly I began to hear questions about
how much longer Russia would allow USAID to work inside its country, because in their
view it was USAID which was supporting and even funding a lot of these opposition NGOs
[non-governmental organizations], various other organizations which were spearheading
the movement against Putin.
So the storm clouds were starting to gather by December 2011 and January of 2012.
MIKE WISER - Was there a relationship between Hillary Clinton and Putin at the very beginning
of the reset?
What was her attitude toward him, and what was the interpersonal [relationship]?
JOHN BEYRLE - The challenge throughout the Obama administration, throughout certainly
the reset, was how do you maintain a relationship with Vladimir Putin, who is a very influential
and consequential figure in Russia, some would say even more influential and consequential
than the president, but not signal in establishing and carrying on that relationship with him
that you’re somehow diminishing the stature of the sitting president, Dmitry Medvedev,
who was the natural vis-à-vis.
We set out to do that by finding the right interlocutors for Putin that he would accept
and who we could use to move the conversation forward and to also get a sense of where he
was on key issues like Iranian sanctions, like support for WTO accession by Russia.
Hillary Clinton as secretary of state was a big part of that, because the secretary
of state would almost always meet with the Russian president and prime minister when
he or she would come to Moscow.
It goes back to Madeleine Albright days.
So [there was] a good channel of communications there.
President Obama met with Putin as prime minister when he came for his summit meeting in 2009
with Dmitry Medvedev.
Vice President Biden came to Moscow in 2011 for extensive talks with Prime Minister Putin
at that point, always with the aim of keeping lines of communication into these two powerful
men whose own relationship wasn’t completely transparent to us.
We were in effect trying to hedge our bets there, always, obviously realizing that it
was more likely than not that Putin would come back as president, but never wanting
to undermine Dmitry Medvedev, because he was in a position to make decisions and do things
furthering our interests in a way that we wanted to take advantage of.
MICHAEL KIRK - Were you there when Hillary met—
JOHN BEYRLE - Putin?
MICHAEL KIRK - Yeah, Prime Minister Putin.
JOHN BEYRLE - Sure.
MICHAEL KIRK - How was that?
What was it like between the two of them?
JOHN BEYRLE - … Putin is a very demanding interlocutor.
He sizes his meeting mates up pretty quickly, and he is the kind of guy who really is capable
of holding forth for 40, 45 minutes in great data-laden detail without notes, and your
ability to have an effective conversation with him depends on your ability to listen,
sometimes for a long time, to these filibusters almost, and to take mental notes and to respond
to each of the points that he has raised, many of which demand to be challenged, in
a way that doesn’t miss anything and shows him that you are a serious person and commands
a bit of respect.
Hillary Clinton did that as well as any American leader that I ever sat in with on a meeting
Legal training obviously, a lot of experience at the top levels of U.S. government, very
sharp mind—Putin had a lot of respect for her professional ability.
He obviously didn’t like the things that she said about Russia.
There was going to be an ideological confrontation there, because Hillary Clinton was never going
to concede that Russia had a sphere of influence in its neighboring countries in a way that
Putin was always seeking to hear from his American interlocutors.
I think that was probably some of the source of what turned out to be a bit of friction
between them, because they were very evenly matched in terms of intellectual capacity
and I would just say nimbleness at the table, which is kind of art that develops among the
best in the business in these kinds of encounters.
MIKE WISER - In December 2011, when he’s so critical of her, he sees her involved [in
the protests], what is her response?
How are you hearing about what Putin and the Russian government think about it?
What is that moment like?
JOHN BEYRLE - It was pretty tense.
They were very unhappy about the speech that she gave in Vilnius, Lithuania, in which she
directly criticized the conduct of the election and by implication called into question the
legitimacy of the ruling party United Russia’s hold on power in Russia.
That was from the Russian perspective; from the point of view of the Kremlin, the Foreign
Ministry, a bridge too far and a very, very sore point, because she had a point, because
in fact Russian voters, especially in the larger cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow,
had shown that they did not support United Russia, and by implication they were expressing
a vote of no confidence in Vladimir Putin to a certain degree—not a majority but a
strong minority—and that was something that rankled.
When the American side criticized it, that criticism had to be answered.
MICHAEL KIRK - … Did it feel to you like a momentous allegation on his part, like this
is something that is not going to go away, especially if somebody—
JOHN BEYRLE - No, it actually wasn’t unprecedented.
It was unprecedented in the personalization that Hillary Clinton was named, but we had
heard this for years, that the Americans were inciting Russians to express themselves in
ways that the Russian government didn’t feel was right.
So this was really nothing new, but the personalization against Hillary Clinton was something new
and obviously would make it difficult for her and Putin to be able to have productive
MICHAEL KIRK - Why do you think he did it?
JOHN BEYRLE - It was an accusation that needed to be answered, and she had put herself on
the record, and rightly so, in Vilnius the day before, calling out the Russian government
for the conduct of the elections.
She was the one who gave voice to that, so she was the one who took the brunt of their
DAVID HOFFMAN - I really want to follow just on this point.
All the way up until those 2011 protests, there really had not been any domestic protests
of Putin, and I wonder—
JOHN BEYRLE - There had been, actually.
We in Moscow were watching this pretty closely, because I think I mentioned that after the
joint appearance by Medvedev and Putin, we started to feel and see, pick up in social
media in particular, this sense of Putin fatigue, and this actually played itself out in public,
I think in October of 2011, at of all things a boxing match in Moscow that for some reason
Putin appeared at and went into the ring to make some sort of statement, and he was loudly
booed by the boxing fans in the arena in a way which was quite striking.
It was, I think, an indication that they had kind of set him up in the wrong way.
The cover story that came out was that the boxing fans had just seen a long match, and
they had been drinking a lot of beer, and they hadn’t been able to take a rest break,
and then when Prime Minister,candidate [for] President Putin came out to make a statement
when they thought they were finally going to be able to get up and go to the bathroom,
then the boos were occasioned by that, not by any enmity toward Putin himself.
MICHAEL KIRK - Sure, sure.
DAVID HOFFMAN - John, I grant you that, but what I’m saying, what I want to know is,
did you ever hear from Putin in the earlier years, prior to 2011, this paranoia that the
CIA rules the world; the color revolutions are being directed by America?
Did he keep that to himself, or did you know that he felt that way?
JOHN BEYRLE - We knew it, because we would, even back in the early years of Putin’s
presidency, during the civil war that they were fighting in Chechnya, there was a lot
of criticism and direct protest from the Russian side about American interference in supporting
the Chechen rebels, because we at that point—this is the Bush administration—were criticizing
Russia’s conduct of the war, which occasioned a lot of needless civilian casualties and
violations of human rights that we, the Bush administration, felt absolutely unconstrained
about speaking out against.
Putin came back at us very directly.
In a couple occasions he actually accused individuals in the State Department of conspiring
with named Chechen officials to support them in the war that they were engaged in against
Russia, and this was quite often tied to actions by the U.S. security services, by the CIA
Again, this was in large part exaggerated, if not wholly made up, but again, very strongly
believed by Putin.
JIM GILMORE - … How different is the guy that comes in in 2012 than the man that you
had been dealing with?
JOHN BEYRLE - He was different because he had had time and occasion to form a new ideology,
an ideology with a Russia-dominated Eurasia at its core.
Remember, as he came back in as president, his main project, what we saw at the time
as his legacy project, was creation of what he called the Eurasian Economic Union, which
would be a counterpart to the European Union, economically based and including most of the
states of the former Soviet Union, importantly including Ukraine, whose economic heft would
be central to the importance of anything like that.
This was part of Putin’s way of siding with those on the Russia side who were not willing
to see the West as any kind of a model or a mentor or even a sustainable partner for
Russia, that Russia simply would have to play by its own rules in its own sphere of influence
and not really worry too much about what the West or the rest of the world said or thought
MICHAEL KIRK - When you left, looking in your crystal ball, what did you think the near
future held as problems?
Where was Russia headed?
Where were we and Russia headed?
What was the road ahead?
JOHN BEYRLE - It was very clear, almost tactically immediately, that the Russians were going
to expel USAID from the country.
They had signaled that, made it very clear, and there was not a whole lot that we could
do about that.
The larger question was Russia under Putin in a third term now is acting in a way that
really doesn’t pay attention as much to the opprobrium of the West, to sanctions,
to criticism from the Europeans or the Americans.
What does it take if the chips really begin to fall for us to prevent the Russians from
moving into the Baltic states or into Ukraine?
Obviously a lot of that concern was validated by what we saw happen in 2014.
MICHAEL KIRK - … I’m going to skip Ukraine, because—
JOHN BEYRLE - Yeah, really, because I’m out of government at that point, a worried
MICHAEL KIRK - A worried onlooker.
Tell me what that means.
JOHN BEYRLE - How can you not be a worried onlooker when you see Russia break the rules
of the postwar compact in such a conspicuous, indefensible way?
MICHAEL KIRK - Why would they [voters] be angry about Putin?
JOHN BEYRLE - There is a kind of unwritten compact that got established in the early
2000s between the Kremlin and the Russian people which said to them: "Look, you can
see that your disposable incomes are rising in a way that you can measure pretty easily
year by year by year.
You’re living better and having more money than you ever had before.
Pensions are rising.
So you let us take care of the political side of things, and we’ll guarantee you a continued
rising standard of living.
And oh, by the way, all these personal freedoms that your parents didn’t have—the freedom
to travel, the freedom to watch Dozhd TV or go on the Internet, browse, anything you want
to do, go to churches—we’re not going to pry into your private lives anymore, and
your economic well-being we will look after, but let us take care of the politics."
By 2010-2011, as the air went out of the Russian economic bubble in connection with the global
depression/recession, that deal suddenly seemed to a lot of Russians less ironclad than it
had just a couple of years earlier.
MICHAEL KIRK - And they blame Putin?
JOHN BEYRLE - Some of them would blame Putin, and I think that’s part of the reason why
the levying of economic sanctions against Russia in an unfortunate way plays into a
narrative on the part of the Russian leadership that it’s not our own economic mismanagement,
it’s not our own corruption which is responsible for the stagnation of the Russian economy;
it’s our enemies in the West who are sanctioning us and trying to weaken us.
So yeah, standards of living are not going to grow as quickly as they had in the recent
years, but you can’t blame us for that; somebody else is responsible for that.
And it gives Putin and people in the Kremlin around him more of an excuse and more of an
out for having to deal with the real causes of Russia’s economic stagnation.
MICHAEL KIRK - Let me ask you this.
Now we’re moving forward.
It’s the spring/summer of ’15, spring of ’16, and the hacking has happened.
It’s starting to come out.
The intelligence services know about it; people are beginning to know and say that it’s
What do you think when you hear this?
JOHN BEYRLE - There is practically no doubt that the capabilities that Russia has would
be and were used in this way to try to influence, to try to play inside the American electoral
And it was done, I think, not specifically at the beginning with the goal of electing
one candidate or disadvantaging another candidate; I think it was more likely greenlighted as
an effort to simply show that what the Russians see as interference in their own electoral
processes over the years by the United States is a game that two can play at.
MICHAEL KIRK - Is that what Putin wants?
JOHN BEYRLE - I think that is certainly what he wanted to do, what the powers that be in
Russia were seeking to do, to undermine what they see as an arrogant expression of American
superiority as the leading democratic country.
It rankles many, many people in Russia when they hear America described as the leader
of the free world, the democratic beacon that others look to.
They see this in a very zero-sum way, that any extra greatness that accrues to the United
States somehow comes at their expense, and if they’re in the position to take the United
States down a notch internationally so that other countries question our ability to manage
an electoral process, so much the better for them.
DAVID HOFFMAN - So is Putin the winner out of this, or has he lost?
JOHN BEYRLE - I think strategically Putin has lost on a lot of fronts, actually, in
strategic terms if you look at Russia’s long-term interests over the next 10 to 15
to 20 years.
Is it in Russia’s interest to alienate a whole generation of Ukrainians who now see
Russia as an enemy?
This is a country that Russia had always had a much more congenial, almost familial relationship
with, although there were tensions between Russians and Ukrainians.
The enmity toward Russia now in Ukraine is striking and certainly is not in Russia’s
Is it in Russia’s strategic interest to have reawakened NATO in the way that it has
after the annexation of Crimea, after the fighting in the Donbas?
NATO had moved on from seeing Russia as a threat, was looking at a lot of other out-of-area
problems for it to deal with.
Now Russia has put itself back almost at the center of the bull’s-eye in a way that I
don’t think is in Russia’s long-term interest.
So no, I wouldn’t think that Putin really has won any victories here, and I think the
attempt to interfere in the American election also has caused a lot of people to look at
Russia in a much more different and negative way in the United States than was the case
six to 10 months ago.
That also can’t be in Russia’s interest.
MICHAEL KIRK - Does it feel to you like we’re in a kind of war with them, not a shooting
war, not a—but a different kind of disruptive, chaotic, permanent—
JOHN BEYRLE - No, nothing is permanent.
MICHAEL KIRK - OK.
JOHN BEYRLE - No, there is no permanence in U.S.-Russia relations.
I wouldn’t call it a war at all, and I certainly wouldn’t call it a new Cold War.
Russia doesn’t approach the level of ideological purity and allegiance that it commanded when
it was the other superpower as the Soviet Union, but it is a country with tremendous
reach and tremendous resources that we need to continually try to find a way to have fighting
with us rather than against us, and right now it does feel like Russia is fighting more
against us sometimes than with us.
But again, I don’t see that as a permanent state of affairs.
MICHAEL KIRK - OK.
JOHN BEYRLE - On that note.