On the Ground in Ukraine: A Report from Michael McFaul and Francis Fukuyama

On the Ground in Ukraine: A Report from Michael McFaul and Francis Fukuyama

A trip to Kyiv gave FSI Director Michael McFaul and Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow Francis Fukuyama the opportunity to meet with policymakers, military experts, and Ukrainian alumni of FSI's programs and fellowships.
Michael McFaul poses with a Stanford University flag in front of a group of Ukrainian alumni during a reunion dinner in Kyiv. During a trip to Kyiv, Michael McFaul had the opportunity to reconnect with Ukrainian alumni from FSI's many fellowships and development programs. Michael McFaul

For many, summer is a time for traveling, and the scholars at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) are no exception. This September, Michael McFaul, the director of FSI, and Francis Fukuyama, the Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at FSI, made their way to Kyiv to participate in the the Yalta European Strategy (YES) conference, an annual forum for discussion about Ukraine’s future and place in a global context.

Getting to Kyiv in the midst of an active war is no small feat. For McFaul and Fukuyama, it required a flight to Frankfurt, then a connecting flight to Warsaw. From there, it’s a four hour drive to Chełm on the Polish-Ukrainian border, where an overnight train runs to Ukraine.

But the payoff was worth the journey. While in Ukraine, McFaul and Fukuyama met with policymakers and government officials both from Kyiv, Europe, and beyond. Each participated in several panels, including discussions with Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President in Ukraine; Olga Stefanishyna, deputy prime minister for European and Euro-Atlantic integration of Ukraine; Nobel Peace Prize recipient and FSI program alumna Oleksandra Matviichuk; famed Yale historian and Ukraine studies advocate Timothy Snyder; Crisis Group CEO Comfort Ero; Hoover Institution Senior Fellow Niall Ferguson; and former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, among others.

McFaul and Fukuyama are both longstanding and vocal supporters of Ukraine. McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and scholar of Russia and the post-Soviet landscape, wrote his first book on Ukraine, Revolution in Orange, in 2006, and has steadily advanced the field of scholarly research on Ukraine in the years since.

Fukuyama, a globally recognized political philosopher and expert on democracy, has directed civic leadership development programs in Ukraine such as the Leadership Academy for Development (LAD) and actively supported initiatives like the Strengthening Ukrainian Democracy and Development (SU-DD) Program, formerly the Ukrainian Emerging Leaders Program (UELP), at Stanford for many years. 

Both scholars have written extensively about the war, Putin’s true motivations in attacking Ukraine, the prospects for a Ukrainian victory, and the need to provide Kyiv with the military and fiscal resources it needs to bring Russia to the negotiating table.

First Impressions of Kyiv

Their trip to Kyiv marked the first time either scholar had been to Ukraine since the full-scale invasion by Russia on February 24, 2022. Both were struck by the contrasts of everyday life in the capital.

“It was surprising how normal Kyiv looked,” Fukuyama told McFaul during their recent conversation for the World Class and Frankly Fukuyama podcasts. “People were going to restaurants and nightclubs and driving around. Apart from the burned Russian tanks on display and soldiers everywhere, you wouldn't necessarily know that it's a nation at war.”

Listen to the full episode of World Class below, or in your favorite podcast app.
Follow the link for a full transcript of the episode.

But looks can be deceiving. Despite the efforts to cultivate a sense of normalcy, the tremendous upheaval and destruction of the last eighteen months were never far from the surface.

“In my more personal time to talk with people, I was struck by the prevalence of the loss of life, of the tragedy, and the stories of different people,” says McFaul. In particular, a conversation he had with Deputy Defense Minister Andriy Shevchenko, a 2009 alum of the Draper Hills Summer Fellows (now the Fisher Family Summer Fellows program) at the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law, stayed with him.

“He told me the story of how his brother was killed. That makes it much more personal than just reading the numbers. I felt it much more palpably being there than I had before,” reflected McFaul.

Reconnecting with Alumni and Friends

The Freeman Spogli Institute has actively built relationships in Ukraine for almost twenty years, starting with the recruitment of Ukrainian participants in the first iteration of the Fisher Family Summer Fellows program, then simply called the Summer Fellows.

Speaking of those efforts, McFaul says, “We made a big bet way back in 2005 on Ukraine’s cause, because we view it as a frontline country in the global struggle for democracy.”

Explaining the philosophy that shapes FSI’s efforts to support democracy in Ukraine, Fukuyama explains:

“We understand we can’t do things like provide policy advice very well to a country that’s so far away from us. But what we can do is try to help train a new generation of leaders who will inherit power, and in the near future, hopefully lead the country to a better outcome as we keep in touch with and support them.”

Outside of the YES Conference, McFaul took the opportunity to meet with many of those alumni and hear directly from them about their experiences. Some, like Oleksandra Ustinova (UELP 2018-19), Mustafa Nayyem (Draper Hills Summer Fellows, 2014), and Serhiy Leshchenko (Draper Hills Summer Fellows, 2013) are currently serving in government. Ustinova is a member of the Ukrainian parliament, Nayyem is the head of Ukraine’s reconstruction agency, and Leshchenko is an advisor to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s chief-of-staff. Others like Artem Romaniukov (UELP 2019-20), have served terms of active duty with the Ukrainian Defense Forces since the outbreak of the war.

“I am so very proud of this group. They are all doing terrific things,” says McFaul. 

Into the Bunker

In contrast to the panels and busy networking that took place at the conference, McFaul also joined a very different set of meetings, this time below Kyiv. As one of the main coordinators for the International Working Group on Russian Sanctions, McFaul and co-coordinator Andriy Yermak, head of the Office of the President of Ukraine, met with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy along with other group members, economist, and policymakers to discuss the current sanctions regime against Russia and ways to further strengthen it.

This meeting marked the second time McFaul has met with President Zelenskyy in person. In September 2021, FSI hosted Zelenskyy during his first official visit to the United States and California. After the outbreak of war in 2022, Zelenskyy addressed the Stanford community again, this time over a video call to a packed auditorium.

During their meeting in Kyiv, McFaul and the working group had the opportunity to present their latest recommendations on sanctions that would reduce Russia’s capacity to continue waging war. Tighter sanctions against the sale and transfer of technology was a prominent talking point.

Speaking to Frank Fukuyama on World Class, McFaul explained one of the many dilemmas Ukraine is facing:

“It's very clear that places like Hong Kong and Kazakhstan and Belarus and Georgia are being used as intermediaries to bring Western technology into Russia that then helps them build rockets to kill Ukrainians. The world has done some important things on sanctions; but we have to keep pushing."

It’s a challenge the government leaders in Ukraine are well aware of. Continuing his recap of the meeting, McFaul told Fukuyama:

“Zelenskyy’s argument to me was, ‘Look you’re allowing thousands of dollars to be made by these companies in Europe, but mostly the United States. Then you spend hundreds of thousands of dollars with your Patriot missiles to shoot down the rockets that they're building with the technologies your companies supplied. This is illogical.’ And I think he's right. It is hard to control technology — you know that better than I — but that was the place in our conversation that I heard the most frustration in his voice.”

Even while acknowledging the difficulties ahead, the meeting ended on a positive note with McFaul accepting the Order of Merit, Third Degree, an award announced a year ago in recognition of “significant personal merits in strengthening interstate cooperation, support of state sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine, as well as a significant contribution to the popularization of the Ukrainian state in the world.”

Out to the World

Despite the hardships brought about by conflict, the resolve of Ukrainians remains unbent. In his conversations and excursions around Kyiv, Fukuyama says that he “didn’t see any kind of war weariness.”

“So many people have lost relatives and friends or have people at the front that are actively fighting, and they just are really angry. And they’re really not in any kind of mood to compromise,” he told McFaul.

But even as that willingness to keep fighting remains strong within Ukraine, challenges from without the country are looming.

For Fukuyama, the recent protests by farmers in Poland and Bulgaria over falling grain prices are a poignant reminder of how ripples in local politics can create waves on the international stage. 

“There's a lot of complicated politics here that, unfortunately, is going to weaken the very solid front that existed in NATO previously,” Fukuyama explained to McFaul.

On the whole, Fukuyama believes Ukraine’s European allies will continue to find ways of supporting the country. The peaceful transfer of power from the nationalist Law and Justice party to the centrist Civil Coalition in Poland’s recent elections promises the continuation of pro-Ukrainian support from a country that has been one of Ukraine’s loudest and most proactive allies throughout the war.

Fukuyama also gives leadership credit to French President Emmanuel Macron’s who’s political stances toward Ukraine have evolved away from attempts to engage Putin in dialogue about the war in recent months.

“Macron has flipped on some of his previous positions. He’s recently become one of the people who’s really pushing to include Ukraine in the broader European landscape. In fact, he's now taken a little bit more forward position than the Biden administration, and that's encouraging,” Fukuyama says.

Fukuyama’s main worry now is the impact domestic politics in the United States will have on American support for Ukraine. 

In the short term, Fukuyama is confident that Congress will find a way to pass another aid bill to Ukraine despite the departure of Kevin McCarthy from the house speakership and the resulting partisan chaos that has caused on Capitol Hill. But looking further ahead, he is less optimistic.

“Once you get into next year and the election campaign, it's going to be hard to increase that level of support. With the exception of Nikki Haley and a couple of other people who are never going to become the candidate, Trump and every other Republican have taken up an anti-Ukraine position. Unfortunately, I think there’s a ticking American time clock,” cautions Fukuyama.

It’s a concern that McFaul shares as well. Writing for MSNBC in February, he made the case in both moral and realpolitik security terms as to why all Americans have a stake in what happens in Ukraine. In his conversation with Fukuyama, he worries that a similar malaise will keep the U.S. and its allies from issuing Ukraine a formal invitation to join NATO at next year’s summit in Washington, a step McFaul and Fukuyama both support.

Neither scholar doubts Ukraine will continue to fight for its sovereignty and independence, regardless of outside support.

“After you've lost so much, you want to just keep fighting. You don't want to negotiate with these people. After you've lost your loved ones and you've lost so much, the idea of negotiating with Russia makes Ukrainians angry. That was my biggest takeaway,” says McFaul.

For those looking for how to best support Ukraine, Fukuyama advises looking closer to home and exercising the democratic right to vote. 

“The 2024 presidential election in the U.S. is going to be one of the most important elections in our history. World history could go in very, very different directions depending on the way it goes,” he cautions.

To stay up to date on the latest commentary and analysis from FSI scholars about the war in Ukraine, follow us on XFacebook, and LinkedIn, and explore our resource page below.

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