Even though American democracy is facing its own challenges, the U.S. needs to do more to support foreign democracies, according to a former U.S. secretary of state and a former ambassador to Russia.

On Monday, former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and former Ambassador Michael McFaul discussed “Fostering Freedom at Home and Abroad” with an emphasis on Russia’s war on Ukraine for the annual Mansfield Center Lecture at the University of Montana. Both speakers appeared online from their offices at Stanford University.

While the two represent different political parties - Rice served under presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush while McFaul worked for President Barack Obama – they had similar experiences with and assessments of Russian president Vladimir Putin. Rice dealt with Putin for eight years starting as the National Security Advisory in 2001 while McFaul spent 2012-2014 at the U.S. embassy in Moscow.

They agreed that Putin’s overriding fear of democracy and not the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is what prompted the attack.

“Not until democracies started in places like Ukraine and Georgia did he become obsessed with NATO expansion. He never mentioned it in the years before, because it really wasn’t an issue for him,” Rice said. “The issue for him is the reestablishment of greater Russia and to do so in a way that protects him and Russia from democracy.”

Both speakers said Putin overreached when he decided to attack Ukraine on Feb. 24, although Ukraine’s resistance has surprised many. That’s made for an uncertain future because it’s put Putin in a position from which he can’t easily recover.

McFaul said Putin would probably move to “Plan D,” because the initial “shock and awe” attack didn’t work, the Ukrainians didn’t run, the armies couldn’t capture the major cities like the capital Kyiv and intensive bombing hasn’t really worked.

“Plan D is to try to connect Crimea in the south with Donbas in the east. And focus on that city of Mariupol,” McFaul said. “That seems to be his next objective; the Ukrainians objective is to stop that. And I think we’re going to see a very conventional war in that part of the county. I can’t predict how it will end, but I think it will be the biggest war we’ve seen in Europe since World War II.”

McFaul said he hopes the Ukrainians win, but a stalemate is more likely. That could lead to a peace settlement.

Rice wasn’t sure a stalemate would lead to lasting peace. Putin’s brutality has led not only to fierce resistance in Ukraine, Rice said, but also disapproval from some of his own people. Such resentment doesn’t die easily.

A fair number of Russians live in Ukraine but also the Russian people have come to expect more since the fall of the Soviet Union in the early ‘90s. Under President Boris Yeltsin, they got a taste of more freedoms and were able to travel more. Recently, many who refuse to believe Putin’s state propaganda are leaving Russia, creating a brain drain, Rice said.

The ones who remain tend to be older, poorer, less educated, and they tend to believe Putin, McFaul said. But not all. Rice said the U.S. and other democratic nations need to encourage “whatever green shoots remain.”

“There’s a reason that Putin arrested (opposition leader Alexei) Navalny right before this war. We didn’t know it at the time. Now we do,” McFaul said. “There’s a reason he closed down Ekho Moskvy, the leading independent radio station, and TV Dozhd, the leading independent television station. There’s a reason he closed down Facebook and Twitter. Because those are all the sources where that (younger) demographic gets its information. ”

Rice said any peace settlement should favor Ukraine and not Russia for three reasons.

First, Putin shouldn’t be given “a way out” to continue to participate on the world stage after the butchery of the past several weeks. Russia should remain isolated as long as Putin is in power. Second, a settlement should send a strong message to “the fence sitters,” nations such as India and China. Finally, if Russia does take Mariupol, Russia will likely still face local resistance, which should be supported.

“They might be able to rule by fear. But it’s quite a different thing if you have Ukrainians that will continue to fight,” Rice said. “So I don’t see an easy end to this. Unfortunately, we’re going to see a lot more bloodshed and a lot more civilian deaths.”

McFaul said he’d hoped to see more democratic institutions develop in former Soviet countries like Georgia and Moldova. But the Soviet Union left a socially toxic legacy that can be hard to overcome in just 30 years.

“I think having a giant autocracy next to you and Vladimir Putin is a central reason,” McFaul said. “But democracy is a long process. It took us a long time and we’re still working on it.”

Rice agreed that Georgia’s democracy is challenged but it fortunately has a civilian society and a press that is fighting for it. Meanwhile, Ukraine used to be fairly corrupt after a slew of ineffective leaders.

“If you’d have asked me 10 years ago was Ukraine going be carrying the banner for democracy in the former Soviet states, I wouldn’t have bet on it necessarily,” Rice said. “But the emergence of (Volodymyr) Zelenskyy as not just a democratically elected leader but one who clearly has the core interest of his nation and his people at heart - it could mean a real leap forward if the Ukrainians win this, (one) that others will look and say ‘Why not us?’”

The U.S. has its own challenges as far as maintaining a healthy democracy, Rice said. While our nation has strong institutions created by our Constitution, they are facing some tough challenges, Rice said, primarily an increasing lack of confidence in those institutions.

Americans increasingly distrust the branches of government, the media and the electoral process, Rice said. Meanwhile, digital technology and the internet, with all its opportunities for spreading misinformation, bolster that distrust.

“No great democracy can flourish if there’s a lack of trust in institutions, and I think we need to get to the bottom of what’s causing that,” Rice said. “Most importantly, I think we’ve come to not trust each other very much. That sense of polarization; that we can’t have a civil conversation if we disagree about an issue; that we rush instead to the ramparts to proclaim that good is on our side rather than listening to each other.”

McFaul said certain institutions, elites and the media do push Americans into partisan extremes. He pointed out that Barack Obama won 47% of the vote in Montana in 2008.

“I can’t believe the preferences and opinions have changed so rapidly in Montana between then and now. What it suggests is the institutions have shaped us in these ways, including the way we nominate candidates, including our media, including the way we finance things,” McFaul said. “Most Americans are purple; we’re not red and blue.”

Contact Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.