Little will ease the strained relations between Russia and the United States as long as Vladimir Putin is president, according to a former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
On Wednesday night, former ambassador Michael McFaul took Missoulians through the timeline of U.S.-Russian relations from the end of the Cold War until now to support his contention that Russia might have become more of an ally were it not for a few chronological twists.
The Stanford University professor was invited to talk about the ideas in his book “From Cold War to Hot Peace” as part of the University of Montana President’s Lecture Series.
McFaul’s interest in Russia was kindled when he had to argue for expanding U.S. trade into the U.S.S.R. while on the Bozeman High School debate team in the late 1970s.
But behind that interest was a little fear. McFaul reminded those filling the theater, some of whom were too young to remember the Berlin Wall, that the Cold War was a scary time.
“I, as a 17-year-old kid, was scared to death that we were going to blow up the planet,” McFaul said. “I had this idea that these politicians were screwing up the world. If we as people could just get to know each other better – Soviets and Americans – we could reduce tensions between our two societies.”
As he watched and eventually participated in events over the following three decades, hope started to replace that fear.
In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan encouraged President Mikhail Gorbachev’s economic efforts known as “perestroika.” The Berlin Wall fell in November 1989, followed a few years later by the Soviet Union. McFaul was studying in Russia and participated in the 1991 mass demonstrations that preceded the end of the U.S.S.R.
“The end of the Cold War for me was one of the most euphoric moments of my life,” McFaul said. “We were cooperating with the Russians.”
That cooperation is now almost nonexistent, McFaul said, due to the interaction of three things: power, policy and Putin.
Russia struggled after the Soviet Union broke apart, but has slowly regained power. In the past few years, it’s chosen to use that power to take over or annex nearby countries like Ukraine. Putin tried to coax Ukraine into joining his Eurasian Economic Union in 2012 to ensure their continued trade, then took matters into his own hands when Ukraine balked.
But nations don’t become predatory just because they have power, McFaul said, pointing to Germany and Japan. So some political analysts blame poor U.S. policy decisions – bombing Serbia, invading Iraq – for Russia’s belligerent attitude.
McFaul agreed that invading Iraq wasn’t good policy, but pointed out that his former boss, President Barack Obama, had three or four years where sounder policy prevailed and Russia’s tone softened a bit.
After Putin accused the U.S. of meddling in the affairs of other countries in order to covertly institute regime change, Obama worked with McFaul on finding projects with win-win outcomes to patch up relations with Russia, a strategy dubbed the Reset.
The two countries signed a new treaty limiting nuclear weapons, pursued Taliban terrorists in Pakistan, and placed joint sanctions against Iran that eventually forced Iran to sign a nuclear deal in 2015. President Donald Trump recently pulled the U.S. out of the Iran deal.
One cooperative effort that few Americans know of involved a revolution that rocked Kyrgyzstan in 2010 and threatened a U.S. airbase. About 3,000 Uzbeks fled the country.
“This was one of the scariest things I dealt with at the White House,” McFaul said. “You didn’t read about that, because back then, when Medvedev was president, we got together and we decided, ‘It’s not in your interest and it’s not in our interest to have this thing blow up. Let’s work together.’ And we did.”
But Dmitry Medvedev, a younger, slightly more progressive man, was the key to that short-lived cooperation, McFaul said. Putin, a former KGB agent who cut his teeth during the Cold War, became the ultimate roadblock to an easy peace.
Medvedev even agreed to not vote against a United Nations authorization of a U.S. military response against Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi as Qaddifi marched on rebel forces in Benghazi, Libya, during the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Putin berated Medvedev for allowing the U.S. to institute regime change, moved Medvedev down to prime minister and retook the presidency in 2012. The Reset began to falter, because Putin “is not a win-win guy,” McFaul said.
And that’s when Obama sent McFaul to Moscow as the new ambassador to Russia.
Putin, suspecting the U.S. of trying to overthrow him, targeted McFaul for the next two years. Russian state media discredited McFaul using propaganda and political harassment. Two years later, Obama pulled McFaul out.
“This is what disinformation is. Our country is suffering through this, by the way. It’s very difficult to deal with. It’s certainly going to make it hard to do win-win outcomes with someone across the table who’s accusing you of being a pedophile,” McFaul said.
In 2011, Russian protesters chanted their desire to be rid of Putin. Eight years later, they want to throw Medvedev out. But is Putin, the man who controls the Russian government and media, really so popular?
McFaul isn’t so sure.
He reminded the audience that Russia is the most highly surveilled country in the world, and many protesters were arrested after the demonstration against Putin in 2011. Russians aren’t likely to publicly say no when asked if they support Putin, so it’s hard to know what they think, McFaul said.
For now, McFaul said, the U.S. should return to Cold War attitudes: Try to deter Russia’s efforts to control other nations but cooperate when we can.
“I would add a big dose of just forgetting about Russia. I think we spend too much time trying to engage, trying to make them our friends,” McFaul said. “The good news is, with new leadership in Russia, things could change. The bad news is that Putin was just reelected last year. I think he’s going to be in power for as long as he’s healthy.”
Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.