This story is over 5 years old.


‘There Has to Be More Pressure’: Michael McFaul, America’s Last Ambassador to Russia, Discusses Putin and Ukraine

VICE News speaks with the former ambassador about his experience serving US interests in Russia and his views on the crisis in Ukraine.
Photo via Flickr

Nearly a week after the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the international ramifications of the crash continue to reverberate. Relations between Russia and the West have plummeted to their lowest levels since the Cold War.

US intelligence officials believe that Russia “created the conditions” for the firing of a Russian-built missile at the airliner from territory controlled by Russian-backed Ukrainian separatists — an attack described by President Barack Obama as “an outrage of unspeakable proportions.” Condemnation has also been widespread in Europe, where the debate over whether to strengthen sanctions against Russia remains complicated. European leaders fear that additional punishment could potentially complicate an already difficult investigation and disrupt Europe’s close trade and energy ties with Russia.


Russian Roulette: Exclusive footage of MH17 aftermath. Watch here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is attempting to walk a line between the enormous international pressure on him to help facilitate a fair investigation of the incident and the nationalist sentiment he has fostered at home. Conspiracy theories dominate Russian airwaves and the internet, including one that claims that the downed airliner was actually Malaysian Airlines Flight 370, which went missing over the Indian Ocean in March. Meanwhile, fighting in eastern Ukraine continues to intensify. Two Ukrainian jets were reportedly shot down on Wednesday.

Few people are in a better position to discuss the crisis than Michael McFaul, a political science professor at Stanford who completed a two-year stint as US ambassador to Russia earlier this year. McFaul is one of America’s leading thinkers on Russia and the promotion of democracy. Arriving in Moscow in the middle of an anti-Putin protest movement, he was subjected to repeated anti-American harassment for supposedly encouraging a new Russian Revolution.

But McFaul has worked to build understanding between the two powers. While serving on the National Security Council during Obama’s first term, McFaul led the crafting of a “reset” policy that sought to rebuild the US-Russia relationship following Russia’s 2008 war with Georgia. The “reset” helped enable US-Russian cooperation in addressing Iran’s nuclear program, a New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) to reduce nuclear stockpiles, and the opening of the so-called Northern Distribution Network to facilitate American supplies into Afghanistan.


Downed planes and burnt corpses in eastern Ukraine. Read more here.

The crisis in Ukraine has upended this progress. When Russia annexed Crimea shortly after his departure, McFaul argued that the era of cooperative engagement with Russia was over and outlined a new strategy for “Confronting Putin’s Russia.”

McFaul spoke with VICE News about Putin, Russia, and the situation in Ukraine.

VICE NEWS: Is there a face-saving way out of the crisis for Putin following the downing of MH17? What might that path look like, can he actually take it, and will he actually take it?
Ambassador McFaul: Can he do it? Yes, because what this tragedy gives him is a reason to break with the insurgents, and it could be very simple. He could call [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko and say, “Here are the three things I need so that we can declare victory.” And it could be decentralization, the protection of Russians by international monitors, and the use of the Russian language. I think Poroshenko would take that deal and Putin could say, “Congratulations, the insurgency has accomplished what it needed to.”

There’s a big argument about whether he has leverage or not. My view is that he has a lot of moral leverage and soft power leverage even if he can’t call up these guys and tell them to lay down their guns. If he goes on national television and says, “Mission accomplished,” it will be very hard for them to continue the fight…. Will he do it? My answer is no. I don’t predict that he’ll do it. I think there’s a higher probability today because of this tragedy that he might, but every indication so far is that he’s not interested yet in that kind of a settlement.


Should we impose more sanctions? What’s the balance between the damage that these sanctions will potentially do to Putin and the impact that they may have on the European or global economy, or other areas of cooperation?
My view is that if he does not respond and does not take advantage of this tragedy to end the war, then there has to be more pressure. There has to be new sanctions. I would hope by now that the Europeans would realize that they have to do the same as well. I believe that there are certain national security issues where you put principle before profits, and this is one of them. Yes, it will hurt the American economy. Yes, it would hurt the French economy to postpone the sale of those ships. Yes, it would hurt the British financial markets and German industry. But that’s the cost of performing effective national security policy.

The second piece, though, is we keep thinking that the way to end this crisis is to put pressure on Putin, and I think we should put more focus on the things we can do to change the situation in Ukraine using policies that do not require Putin to change his policies. In particular, I think we should be listening to the Ukrainians about what they believe they need to help them with their security challenges in Ukraine right now. And I don’t know what that would be. I would want to hear from them. I don’t pretend that I know their security interests better, but so far all the focus has been on Putin. None of the focus has been on changing the balance of power on the side of the government through either economic or even military assistance. So I think that’s the debate, and if Putin doesn’t use this crisis to end the war, then I think we have to begin having that debate.


Just to be very clear, you’re talking about being open to Ukrainian requests for weaponry?
Yes. I would ask the question in a normative way. The Russians have said, “This is atrocious. This is awful. You should never do this. This would mean escalation.” And my answer to that is, “Well, why is it okay for Putin to arm illegitimate, illegal insurgents inside of Ukraine, but somehow it’s not legitimate for us to assist the internationally recognized government of Ukraine?” Again, I don’t want to pretend to know what kind of assistance they need, but to say that it’s off limits because we don’t want to offend Putin — I just don’t understand normatively why that is an acceptable argument, especially in the wake of this tragedy.

You’ve discussed how Putin gives the US a lot of agency — he sees the Americans behind every revolution, whether in Tunisia or Libya or Syria. He thought you were behind the Russian protesters. How do you think such movements should be managed?
All around the world people think we’re way more powerful than we are. I find that curious given that at home all we talk about is Obama’s weakness — abroad everybody talks about all the incredible powers he has. That’s a really interesting paradox, right? Even the Russians — the mighty, powerful Russians, the strategic thinker Putin — still believe that we have all kinds of power and that we’re doing all kinds of things in the world that I don’t think we’re controlling.


Second, I think you respond mostly through normative solidarity. I think there are very few instances where there are popular protests that our intervention directly, in terms of assistance, helps them. But you most certainly have to make clear that you know that there is a moral line here, and that we’re on the side that points toward justice, as Martin Luther King said — I’m paraphrasing — “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” We want to make sure that people understand we’re on their side. And I think we could do a much better job, frankly. Even when you can’t affect the politics on the ground, you should make sure that you understand that you’re in agreement in terms of norms with people who are demanding their rights. Because when you aren’t, they know it. They feel it. And there’s nothing that feels worse to me than when I hear people around the world say, “Oh, because of this economic interest or this other interest, you’re not on our side.”

A lot of the criticism of President Obama at home is that he’s weak or reactive — that he “leads from behind.” A more sophisticated version of those arguments is that he has “overlearned” the lessons of the Bush Administration. Are there lessons from Obama’s shortcomings that the next president, Democrat or Republican, should keep in mind?
I think there most certainly was in the beginning of the Obama Administration an overreaction and rejection to what the Bush Administration called the Freedom Agenda. If they were all for it, there were some in the Administration that thought we had to be against it. I do think over time that the President has articulated a much more sophisticated position, his own voice in this debate. I think about two of his UNGA [United Nations General Assembly] speeches where he did that. I think about his May 2011 speech on the Arab Spring. Or even his South Africa speech last year where if you go and you look at these, they have some pretty clear analytic statements about why the United States should support democracy and human rights abroad. You can see there the democratic peace argument. You can see there the economic progress argument that says that democracy and development go together, they’re not in competition with one another….


I think the problem for the Administration has been to articulate in difficult places strategies for doing something about those analytic statements. And that’s where I think in terms of self-criticism, including my own work in the government. I wish we had done better and wish I had done better to have the kinds of implementation strategies to achieve the objectives that the president has outlined.

To turn back to Ukraine, I’m actually quite impressed by what the Administration has been able to do under very constraining circumstances with allies that are reluctant to engage in this. Crimea, of course, that came out of the blue. But I think the response in terms of the insurgency in eastern Ukraine has been rather impressive. I can think of areas where that could have gone in a much more negative way. So that’s a particular area where I think the president did show leadership, he pivoted strongly to put this coalition together. And when people say the president is weak, I would remind people — how many people were sanctioned when Russia invaded Georgia? The answer to that is zero. So it’s got to be compared to that when you talk about the weak response of the Administration.

The American ambassador is an easy target. Do you think Putin successfully implemented a strategy against you? Were you, as an expert on democracy, an especially easy target?
The answer to your first question is yes. Day two on the job as ambassador, a big feature of me was run on national TV in Russia basically saying that I was sent to Russia to foment revolution. That was part of the campaign strategy and I was a part of it.


The answer to your second piece about my biography is also yes. In that hit piece and in many others they would take out of context my writings, some of which I did fifteen years ago, and portray them as US foreign policy. Sometimes they just added things and made up things. Let’s be clear, there’s no commitment to the truth when it comes to these folks. But they would definitely use my biography that way, and that was frustrating for me. They didn’t write about my writings — I have lots of writings, for instance, about why we should engage with Russia and reset relations. I wrote those articles years ago, too, but they didn’t focus on that. Nor, of course, did they focus on the work that I did at the White House in terms of signing the START treaty, opening the Northern Distribution Network, Russia’s WTO accession. I was involved in all of those things, I wasn’t just involved in democracy and human rights.

Having said all that, I think there were some people even in the West that thought, “Why is McFaul there? There he is again speaking about the nasty things that Putin is doing in terms of democracy and human rights, and talking about how greater autocracy leads to more belligerent foreign policy.” I think there were lots of people that thought that it was all about me personally. I think what the subsequent history shows is that it was not about me personally. This was a bigger, broader trend. This was not about me, this was about Putin. I think the evidence is now overwhelming that it was about him. And maybe people should have paid a little more attention two and a half years ago to the things I was saying to better understand why we’re in the mess that we’re in now.

How strong is Putin? Is he really as powerful and controlling of the situation in Russia as it appears from the outside?
Well, I think he’s quite powerful when it comes to foreign policy matters. I should underscore that no amount of quiet diplomacy, no amount of constructive engagement at lower levels or with Putin, in my view, would have changed the dynamic in US-Russia relations that we see today. I think that that’s sometimes hard for people to admit. But I’ve thought about this pretty hard and I don’t think that if only we had some secret channel to Putin through some government official or private citizen, we could have solved the problem. Because he just has a different theory about international relations than we do. He sees us as a sinister force. He sees us as wanting to foment regime change around the world, and no amount of engagement is going to change his mind. I saw the president engage with him. I saw other senior American government officials engage. And he’s pretty firm in his views. That’s the first thing.

The second thing is there is not, in my view, a coalition around him that does the kind of red-teaming, plan B, or pushing back on his theory of international relations. He’s been in the job for fourteen years, so he thinks he knows everything. And if fourteen, ten years ago, there were people around him that I think he did listen to, particularly on economic policy, today I think his circle has become smaller and more insulated and more filled with yes men….

The last piece that I would add to that concerns the international stage. In his first term, there were several leaders around the world that he had relationships with and that he respected, so they had some influence on him. I think the moment he went into Crimea was the moment he just said, “To hell with them all. I don’t really care what they think.” And aside from maybe [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel, although that relationship seems rather strained right now, you don’t look out there and see people, his peers in the international leadership, that are people he would listen to. That therefore makes influencing him all the much harder today than it might have been, say, ten years ago.

Follow Ari Ratner on Twitter: @amratner

Photo via Flickr