Russian Ambassador Antonov visits Stanford: Why that’s a good thing

FSI Director Michael McFaul (left) meets with Russian Ambassador to the U.S. Anatoly Antonov (right) at Stanford University.

By Michael McFaul, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. This op-ed originally appeared in Russian in Echo.

Last week, I hosted the new Russian Ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) at Stanford University. The previous year, I had hosted his predecessor, Sergey Kislyak, for a private discussion and public talk at Stanford as well. This time, however, the public reaction to my acknowledging this normal activity of our institute and our university generated all sorts of negative and suspicious commentary. On Twitter, some of my followers asked me why I was hosting a “war criminal.” Many other followers of mine on Facebook and Twitter — Russians, Americans and Ukrainians — speculated that I had sold out to the Russian government as a way to get off the Russian sanctions list (I am currently not allowed to travel to Russia, the first former Ambassador to Russia denied this privilege since George Kennan in 1952).

Others cautioned me — sometimes with humor and sometimes seriously — that I was now going to be investigated by the FBI. One obscure Russian-language website called me a Russian spy! As the American ambassador to the Russian Federation, I was accused of fomenting revolution against Putin and his government. Now I am accused of working for the Kremlin!

There is no greater sin in diplomacy than a conflict based on misunderstandings or misperceptions.

The hysterical attention given to a routine public presentation by a Russian ambassador at an American university is evidence of some very unhealthy trends in relations between the United States and Russia today. On substantive policy issues, our two governments have many major disagreements. Anyone who reads my writings and commentary on these issues knows where I stand. President Putin’s annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine, Russia’s military actions in Syria resulting in the deaths of too many innocent civilians, and the Kremlin’s violation of American sovereignty during our 2016 presidential election are all egregious acts to which the United States and our allies rightly responded. In his presentation at Stanford University, Ambassador Antonov outlined many grievances that his government holds regarding American actions. But the existence of acute policy differences — some are irreconcilable differences — does not mean that Russians and Americans should stop talking to each other. There is no greater sin in diplomacy than a conflict based on misunderstandings or misperceptions. Those happen more frequently when governments and societies do not engage with each other.

I want our community to hear directly from this representative of the Russian government.

I applaud Ambassador Antonov’s efforts to engage with non-governmental organizations like my institute at Stanford. I want our community to hear directly from this representative of the Russian government. They are now better informed about Russia government positions. In parallel, I also invite leading figures from Russian civil society, Ukrainian civil society as well as Ukrainian government officials to speak at Stanford. In the same week that we hosted Antonov, we also hosted Ukrainian Ambassador Valeriy Chaly at our campus. And Slava Vakarchuk performed at my institute just last week as well (Antonov should have come a few days earlier to hear this fantastic performance!). That’s what universities are supposed to do, provide a platform for learning and engagement with multiple points of view.

We Americans also must push back on the trend to criminalize interactions with Russians or foreign officials more generally.

I was dismayed to hear how difficult it has been for Ambassador Antonov to meet with American officials and opposition leaders. He should meet with everyone — American human rights activists, Pentagon generals, business leaders, FBI and CIA officials, Democratic and Republican senators as well as their counterparts in the House of Representatives, and even political opposition leaders without representation in the government right now. The more, the better. And the Kremlin should allow the same kinds of meetings for Ambassador Huntsman, who recently reported that he had to cancel his planned trip to the Far East because local government leaders refused to meet with him. Just as I hope Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi will meet with Antonov, I hope that Alexei Navalny will meet with Huntsman.

Meeting with Ambassador Antonov should not be feared, but welcomed.

We Americans also must push back on the trend to criminalize interactions with Russians or foreign officials more generally. It is not in the American national interest to begin to presume that every interaction between a private American citizen and a Russian government official (or any foreign government official) is a violation of the ancient Logan Act from 1799. Do we really want every track-two meeting organized by American think tanks clearing their talking points with the State Department? Must I now stop criticizing Trump foreign policies while speaking in China (I did that a few weeks ago) or meeting with South Koreans (I did that last week) for fear of being accused of undermining the diplomatic efforts of the current administration? Must Henry Kissinger never question the party line when meeting with presidents Putin or Xi? Were Americans who engaged with Prime Minister Netanyahu to try to undermine President Obama’s support of the nuclear deal with Iran — a group that included many members of Congress — violating the law? This trajectory leads nowhere good. This hysteria has to end.

Of course, colluding with foreign agents to win an election is wrong. Taking in-kind support from a foreign government to help with campaign efforts cannot be tolerated. Lying to the FBI about foreign contacts (or anything!) is never a good idea. But meeting with Ambassador Antonov should not be feared, but welcomed.

Agreeing to meet does not mean agreeing on issues. Nor is the fact of a meeting some kind of gift of legitimacy or a concession. It’s called diplomacy. And when it happens between a government official and non-governmental leader or private organization, it’s called public diplomacy. We need more of both in American-Russian relations today.


Faculty views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies or Stanford University, both of which are nonpartisan institutions.