Michael McFaul is the Director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. He served five years in the Obama administration, first as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Russia and Eurasia at the National Security Council (2009-2012) and then as the US Ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014). This essay is adapted from testimony at the US House Foreign Affairs Committee Hearing: “U.S. Policy Towards Putin’s Russia.” Originally appeared in Fall 2016.
US-Russia relations today are more strained and more confrontational than at any time since the end of the Cold War. For the first time since the end of World War II, a European country has annexed territory of a neighbor. Emboldened by the relative ease of Crimea’s annexation, Vladimir Putin then went a step further and intervened in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to wrestle more territory away from Kiev’s control. Inside Russia, Putin has increased his autocratic grip, in part by blaming the United States for “fomenting revolution” against his regime. Once again, like the darkest days of the Cold War, Russian stated-controlled media outlets portray the United States as Russia’s number one enemy intent on weakening, if not even dismembering, Russia. According to the Kremlin’s media, we are also responsible for many of the evils in other countries including the tragic civil wars in Syria and Libya and the Nazis who came to power in Kiev.
The Obama administration’s response to Russia’s actions, in partnership with American allies in Europe, has been qualitatively different than any other period in the post-Cold War era. Dozens of Russian officials and companies are now sanctioned. Even during the most difficult periods of the Cold War, the chief of staff in the Kremlin was not on a sanctions list. In parallel, after decades of focus on other missions, NATO is now retrained on deterring a threat from Russia. Two years ago, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly, President Obama argued that the three greatest threats to the world were Ebola, IS militants, and Russia.
In parallel to these actions and reactions between our two governments, the majority of Russians and Americans now view each other again as enemies.
This is a tragedy. For last three decades, American presidents — Democrats and Republicans alike — sought to integrate Russia into the West and encourage democracy inside Russia in parallel. Both of those projects are now over.
How did we get to this point and what must be done now to pursue American national interests in our relations with Russia?
Diagnosis: Domestic Sources of Russian Foreign Policy
Too often, we in the United States jump to the discussion of “what must be done” before properly diagnosing the problem. In the case of US-Russia relations, the United States will only develop successful policy prescriptions if we accurately understand the causes of our current conflict with Russia. A poor diagnosis can lead to bad policy prescriptions. One popular explanation of the current confrontation in Moscow and in some circles in Europe and the United States is that the United States and its allies in Europe have been pressing on Russia too hard for too many decades and Putin just had to push back. The West lectured the Russians about markets and democracy, then expanded NATO, bombed Serbia, invaded Iraq, allegedly supported color revolutions and the Arab Spring, and Putin finally felt compelled to strike back by annexing Crimea and intervening in eastern Ukraine, or so the argument goes. This explanation is wrong.
Although Presidents Yeltsin and Putin both at one point in their careers suggested that Russia should consider joining NATO, this idea was never popular in Moscow. Nor did most Russian officials support the NATO campaign against Milosevic, the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq, or so-called color revolutions in Serbia, Georgia, and Ukraine. Yet, these older policy differences cannot explain the current confrontation. In the intervening period, we have had an intense and successful period of cooperation with Russia, known in the Obama administration as the “reset.” During the era of the reset, from 2009-2012, President Obama and Russian President Medvedev worked together on several projects, which improved the security and prosperity of both countries. In this period, the two countries signed and then ratified the New START Treaty, passed in the spring of 2010 United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929, the most comprehensive set of sanctions against Iran. The two governments also worked together to diffuse tensions in the Caucasus, and manage ethnic strife in Kyrgyzstan after the government there was toppled. In 2011, President Medvedev even agreed to abstain on UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973, which authorized the use of force against the Libyan regime of Muammar Gaddafi. No Russian leader had ever acquiesced to a UN-approved military intervention into a sovereign country. In this period, the two governments cooperated to increase trade and investment, including working together to help Russia obtain membership in the World Trade Organization (WTO).
During this period, NATO expansion was not a contentious issue in US-Russian bilateral relations. On the contrary, when President Medvedev attended the NATO summit in Lisbon in November 2010, he echoed other Western leaders in waxing effusively about NATO–Russia relations. Behind closed doors, President Medvedev engaged in a serious discussion with his NATO counterparts on missile defense cooperation.
During the heyday of the reset, roughly 60 percent of Americans viewed Russia as a friendly country; a similar number of Russians had a positive view of the United States.
All of this cooperation and positive attitudes towards each other’s countries occurred after NATO expansion, after the Iraq War, and after the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. These factors, therefore, cannot be cited to explain the current era of confrontation.
A second explanation also places the blame on the United States, but for doing too little, not too much. Putin invaded Ukraine because Obama was weak, so the argument goes. Former House Speaker John Boehner succinctly expressed this kind of analysis when he said on October 27, 2014:
“When you look at this chaos that’s going on, does anybody think that Vladimir Putin would have gone into Crimea had George W. Bush been president of the United States? No! Even Putin is smart enough to know that Bush would have punched him in the nose in about 10 seconds.”
In fact, in response to Putin’s more belligerent policies, the Obama Administration began to pivot away from cooperation with Russia long before Putin intervened in Ukraine, including dramatically cancelling a summit planned in Moscow in September 2013. The truth of the matter, however, is that the United States has never had effective policy options to deter Russian aggression in its neighborhood. Putin actually did invade a neighbor, Georgia, during the Bush administration in August 2008, and President Bush did not punch him in the nose or stop that intervention. US presidents have also failed to prevent Soviet interventions in Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, or Soviet-supported martial law in Poland 1981. Whether Democrat or Republican, no US president has ever succeeded in deterring Soviet/Russian military intervention in Eastern Europe in those countries not members of NATO.
The driving force of our current clash with Russia is not US policies, but domestic politics in Russia and Ukraine, specifically Putin’s response to popular challenges to his authority and the authority of his former ally in Kiev. These are factors over which the United States had little control.
Relations with Russia began to deteriorate rapidly after Putin’s return to the Kremlin in 2012 and his decision to suppress popular opposition to his rule. In December 2011, tens of thousands of Russian protested against a falsified parliamentary election. Not since 1991 — the year that the Soviet Union collapsed — had so many Russian mobilized on the streets against the government. Putin’s old social contract — economic growth in return for political passivity — was no longer sufficient to appease these middle class protestors. He needed a new argument for legitimacy so he turned against the United States, labeling it as Russia’s enemy. In particular, Putin argued that the United States was seeking to topple his regime, just as the Obama administration had done earlier in the year throughout the Middle East. Putin, his aides, and his media outlets accused the leaders of Russian demonstrations of being US agents. During my time as ambassador, these same media outlets constantly propagated the idea that President Obama sent me to Moscow to foment a “color revolution” against Putin’s regime.
During this period, US policy towards Russia did not change. Rather, Putin’s policy towards the United States changed radically.
Putin also blamed the United States for fostering regime change against his Ukrainian ally, President Yanukovych, in the fall of 2013 and winter of 2014. Putin always sees the hidden hand of the CIA behind popular protests since, in his view, individuals cannot act on their own. When Yanukovych fled Ukraine in February 2014, after a desperate effort by Western intermediaries to forge a compromise between the Ukrainian government and the protestors, Putin blamed the United States again. To exact revenge against the new government in Kiev as well as the “double-crossing” West, he first annexed Crimea and then intervened in the Donbass in support of secessionist groups who aimed to peal away what they called Novorossiya from Kiev’s control.
Two years later, Putin intervened in Syria to make sure his autocratic ally, President Assad, did not suffer the same fate as former President Yanukovych in Ukraine. Putin’s intervention in Syria aimed primarily at propping up Assad and very little to do with fighting IS militants.
Putin’s intervention in Ukraine was initially very popular among Russians. Putin’s perceived success among Russians in battling neo-Nazis in Ukraine, the evil Americans, and the decadent West more generally will make it hard for him to change course. To maintain his argument for legitimacy at home, Putin needs perpetual conflict with external enemies — not full-scale war or a direct clash with the United States or NATO — but a low-level, yet constant confrontation to support the narrative that Russia is under siege from the West.
Prescription: Stay the Course
This conflict did not start as a result of a particular US foreign policy action, so seeking to “correct” some US foreign policy will not produce a change in US-Russian relations. Putin did not intervene in Ukraine to stop NATO expansion, because NATO expansion to Ukraine was not on the agenda in 2014. Likewise, the United States cannot stop promoting regime change in Russia as a way to win favor with Putin, because the Obama administration was never promoting regime change in Russia. Equally dangerous would be to disregard Putin’s actions in Ukraine and pivot to start making deals with the Kremlin, as Mr. Donald Trump, the Republican Party’s nominee for the 2016 presidential election, had suggested. Such a policy would prove to Putin and his government that they can annex territory, use military force, and then wait patiently until the United States and Europe grows tired of confrontation and seek cooperation again. Suggesting moral equivalency between Russian behavior and US actions abroad is also very damaging to our national interests.
Instead of searching for corrections in our past policies, the United States should stay on course with its current polices. The Obama administration, together with its European allies, respondeded correctly to Putin’s belligerent actions in Ukraine. The West’s unified and comprehensive response to Putin’s aggression was impressive and effective, but now needs to be maintained and deepened.
Support Ukrainian Reform
Putin is waiting for Ukrainian economic and political reform to fail. The United States must do all it can to help Ukrainian reform succeed. There is no better way to rebuff Putin’s belligerent foreign policies and autocratic domestic practices than to consolidate democracy and strengthen market practices in Ukraine.
Under difficult circumstances, the Ukrainian government has achieved some success. In close cooperation with the International Monetary Fund, the Ukrainian government has reduced government expenditures, raised heating tariffs, tightened monetary policy, and eliminated energy dependence on Russia — all difficult but important reforms for stimulating economic growth.
Ukrainian military reform and expanded training also continues, supported by American assistance. The US$600 million in security assistance that the United States has committed to Ukraine has increased the effectiveness of Ukrainian military forces to deter future Russian offensives. This support should be continued.
Ukraine’s new leaders have also proven capable of enacting major institutional reform. For instance, the overhaul of the police patrolling system, aided by support from the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL), has been remarkably successful. Ukrainian civil society remains robust, and continues to pressure the government to maintain momentum on reform. United State’s support for Ukrainian civil society has been a smart, impactful investment.
Despite such progress, more needs to be done. Above all else, the influence of Ukrainian big business conglomerates in politics needs to be reduced. The new government has to make more credible commitments to fighting corruption. US policy should assist them in making these commitments through aid conditionality, technical assistance, and political support.
The United States and our European allies should also be doing more to reach out, nurture, and support directly the people in the Donbass, including the 1-1.5 million of them currently displaced in other parts of Ukraine. They need short-term humanitarian assistance, as well as long-term support — education, housing, and retraining — to rebuild their futures.
The Russian threat should not be exaggerated. The probability of a Russian attack on a NATO ally is low. Putin does not have a master plan to recreate the Soviet Union. Putin is not irrational. Already, his Novorossiya project in Ukraine has failed.
Nevertheless, Putin will take advantage of opportunities, including splits within the alliance or ambiguities about NATO’s commitment to defend all members. The United States must deny him new opportunities and dispel his doubt about our commitment to defending all NATO allies against military threats. That is why actions taken by President Obama, such as dramatically increasing the size of the European Reassurance Initiative (ERI) to US$3.4 billion and NATO’s plan to deploy four battalions on a rotational basis in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania complement a series of decisions taken earlier that strengthen NATO’s deterrent capacity. In addition to providing one of these battalions as apart of our obligations to NATO, the United States should maintain its bilateral military cooperation with all of these countries.
Work with the Russian Government on Issues of Mutual Interest
Even after Putin decided to portray the United States as an enemy in order to bolster his domestic support, he continued to engage with President Obama and his administration on a limited set of issues on which our interests overlapped. For instance, during this period of confrontation, the two governments still managed to work together to remove chemical weapons from Syria and to maintain unity in the P5+1 process to achieve an agreement to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. When opportunities to cooperate with Russia arise on issues of mutual benefit, the United States should pursue them, and not link cooperation on these issues to progress on other issues of disagreement.
The United States should not continue to pursue engagement, however, without results. Putin’s military intervention in Syria, for instance, has achieved his goal of shoring up Assad and his regime, at least in the short-term. The United States has no interest in associating with this objective. The United States must demand more from our Russian counterparts, and push them to pressure Assad to do more, including allowing more humanitarian assistance to reach distressed Syrian communities, and engaging more seriously in a political negotiation process.
Deepen Engagement with Russian Society
Many Russians in government, business, and society quietly believe that Putin’s current course of confrontation with the West does not serve Russia’s long-term economic and strategic interests. The United States should not isolate these people, but instead maintain contact with them. The United States and its European allies should increase efforts to engage directly with the Russian people, including students through exchanges and scholarships, peer-to-peer dialogue with non-governmental organizations, and allowing Russian companies not tied to the state to continue to work with Western partners. There is no better way to undermine Russian propaganda than a three-week trip to Palo Alto. There is no better way to show that Americans are not obsessed with “destroying Russia” then to send Russian students to spend an academic year in our schools and universities. Likewise, there are no better ambassadors for our country than young Americans studying at Russian universities or interning in Russian companies. The more interaction that can be promoted between the two societies, the better.
Lift Sanctions (at the Appropriate Time)
The United States and our allies should lift sanctions against Russian companies and individuals immediately after Putin and his surrogates in eastern Ukraine implement the Minsk agreement. Lifting sanctions beforehand would be terribly damaging to US and European credibility. Likewise, a partial lifting of sanctions in return for a partial implementation of Minsk is a dangerous, slippery slope. Sanctions put in place in response to the annexation of Crimea should stay in place until Russia leaves Crimea, however long that may be.
Counter Russian Propaganda with Factual Journalism
The US government should not seek to counter Russian propaganda with US propaganda. Instead, the best method for countering disinformation is real reporting from credible journalists in Russia, Ukraine, and other countries in the region. US direct funding of these media outlets would taint them. Instead, our focus should be on providing short-term training opportunities, yearlong fellowships at US and European universities, and internships at Western media organizations. Education and the free-flow of information are our best tools in this long struggle against Russian propaganda.
The next US president, to be decided in November, will have to deal with Putin and the Russian government. And, it is possible for the next president to engage Russia’s president without undermining our allies, without abandoning Ukraine, without checking our values at the door, and without fueling false expectations about the possibilities of a new kind of relationship. We can use our understanding of Mr. Putin’s goals for democratization and deeper market reforms at home, or greater integration in Western institutions, to further our response to strained relations. Many projects from earlier days in US-Russian relations are over and cannot be revived for the foreseeable future. Instead, we must play a longer game — engaging when we can for mutual benefit, containing Putin’s foreign endeavors when we must, and hoping that long-term forces of modernization inside Russia will eventually create more permissive conditions for deeper engagement in the future, however distant that future is likely to be.