Michael McFaul says democratic protests in 2011 made Russian President Vladimir Putin nervous and turned him against cooperation with the United States.
By Kristen Mitchell
Former U. S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul on Friday called the current state of affairs between the United States and Russia one of the most confrontational moments between the two world powers since some periods during the Cold War.
“You have to go deep into the Cold War to remember a time like where we’re at today,” he said at Jack Morton Auditorium.
Mr. McFaul, a Stanford University professor who served as ambassador under President Barack Obama from January 2012 to February 2014, presented a lecture titled “Explaining Our New Cold War with Russia: Can Trump End It?” The talk was part of George Washington University’s annual Walter Roberts Lecture series.
The timing could not have been better, said moderator David Ensor, a veteran journalist and former director of Voice of America. This week Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from any investigation into communications between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russian officials following reports he met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the campaign. Mr. Sessions failed to disclose those conversations in his Senate confirmation hearing, later saying because those conversations were not related to the campaign.
Mr. McFaul, who has been banned by the Kremlin from future travel to Russia, said he didn’t believe Mr. Session’s claims that he met with Mr. Kislyak to discuss Senate business.
“Of course Ambassador Kislyak was meeting with Sen. Sessions not to talk about what his committee is doing, he could care less about that,” Mr. McFaul said. “He’s talking to them to find out about what the candidate Trump is thinking and planning about foreign policy.”
You don’t have to be an expert in Russian studies to assume Russian President Vladimir Putin would prefer dealing with President Trump over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, Mr. McFaul said. Mr. Trump said during the campaign he would consider recognizing Crimea as part of Russia and lifting sanctions imposed against the country. Ms. Clinton took a stronger stance on those issues.
Mr. McFaul called for an independent investigation into any coordination between the Trump campaign and Russia, who intelligence sources say hacked the Democratic National Committee and attempted to influence the election’s outcome.
For the first half of the Obama presidency the administration worked with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev and Mr. Putin as prime minister. Mr. Putin previously served as president from 2000 to 2008 when he reached his two-term limit. In 2011, Mr. Putin ran for president again and took office in early 2012.
Mr. McFaul said the Obama administration didn’t expect much to change between the two countries after the transition. The relationship between Russia and the United States had improved following a 2009 reset and increased cooperation.
Mr. McFaul said they quickly realized while Mr. Medvedev and Mr. Putin worked together, they had radically different worldviews. Mr. Putin, a former KGB agent, still viewed the United States as an enemy.
“He didn’t change his mind about that just because the Soviet Union collapsed and he became president,” Mr. McFaul said. “That became very apparent to us in our interactions with him.”
Mr. Putin was skeptical of the United States and believed the government was behind past operations to overthrow autocratic regimes. He believed the United States was behind civilian-led, democratic protests in Egypt, Libya and eventually Russia.
If Mr. Putin had an open mind that Mr. Obama was different from previous presidents who intervened in other countries’ affairs, 2011 convinced him otherwise, Mr. McFaul said. Mr. Putin labeled Russian dissidents puppets of the United States and Mr. McFaul a specialist in revolutions.
Democratic uprisings are dangerous for autocrats, and they made Mr. Putin nervous. Mr. Putin needed an enemy, so he turned against the United States and the progress made since the 2009 reset.
Now that those democratic protests have ended, the central drama to the conflict between the United States and Russia has ended, Mr. McFaul said. It would be difficult, however, for Mr. Putin to pivot and embrace cooperation with the United States without facing backlash at home.
“The one wildcard in all of it is our new president,” Mr. McFaul said. “I don’t know what he really believes, I don’t think really he knows what he really believes about places like Russia. But he’s most certainly demonstrating a willingness and an intention to do other out of the box or dramatic things.”
This annual lecture is funded by the Walter R. Roberts Endowment for the Public Diplomacy Institute, established in 2006 by a philanthropic gift from Walter R. Roberts, emeritus faculty member of the Elliott School of International Affairs.