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10 Questions for Amb. Mike McFaul

The former U.S. Ambassador to Russia talks Putin, Ukraine and what might come next during the tensions there.
Janet Napolitano, Michael McFaul
Former Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, right, and current President of the University of California leading the U.S. delegation to the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics, attends a news conference with fellow delegate, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, left, Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (AP Photo/David Goldman)David Goldman / ASSOCIATED PRESS

1) How much of an impact will U.S. sanctions have on Russia? Should more be done?

The sanctions already announced will complicate the financial lives of several people close to Putin. Already, there has been some good reporting on the direct effects of these sanctions on the financial affairs of the businesspeople on the list. The current list of individuals already sanctioned will not change Putin’s thinking about annexation.

President Obama also threatened to sanctioned companies and economic sectors if Putin invaded additional regions of Ukraine. These threatened sanctions will add to the costs of further military action. But the more important costs that Putin has to assess are loss of life to Russian soldiers. If he does invade, some Ukrainians will fight. It is unlikely to be a conventional conflict, but a long guerrilla war.

2) Do you think Vladimir Putin will go beyond annexing Crimea and invade the rest of Ukraine? What about Moldova or other neighbors?

Obviously, the Russian military buildup on the Ukrainian-Russian border is deeply disturbing. Many already are warning that invasion is imminent. I am not sure. I do not believe that Putin has signed military orders to invade Ukraine yet. Unlike in Crimea, he has no pretext to do so yet. His excuse for annexing Crimea, of course, was illegitimate and fabricated. But the ideas that (1) Russians in Crimea needed to be protected from some phantom fascist Ukrainian forces and (2) the referendum vote made annexation “democratic” both played well inside Russia. He has not developed similar story lines for invading Ukraine yet.

My greatest fear is that Russians and Ukrainians in the big cities in eastern Ukraine start a fight – a bar brawl or street clash – and then it escalates into shooting, and the Putin declares that he must protect the vulnerable Russian minorities in these regions.

3) Right now, U.S. astronauts hitch rides to and from the International Space Station with Russian help. If the tensions with Russia deepen – what kind of impact could it have on future space travel cooperation? What other U.S.-Russian cooperation could be in jeopardy?

I think U.S.-Russia space cooperation would be one of the last areas of cooperation to be interrupted. This cooperation has continued for decades through many ups and downs in US-Russian relations. It is also profitable for Russia.

I worry more about disruption in our use of the Northern Distribution Network (NDN), which helps to supply our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan. A key component of the NDN travels through Russia.

4) How will these tensions impact on the other big diplomatic challenges facing the world, particularly Syria and Iran nuclear talks?

Regarding Iran, I do not see an impact in the short run. At this stage in the P5+1 negotiations, the Iranians are most interested in sanctions relief from us and the Europeans. Russia cannot provide that sanctions relief. And more broadly, Iran sees the potential for normalized relations with the United States, an outcome that would be much more important for them over the long run than a return to buying arms from the Russians. However, if the P5+1 negotiations break down, I worry that Putin will be tempted to sell Iran destabilizing weapons, including the S-300 anti-aircraft system.

On Syria, Russia and the United States will continue to cooperate on our joint effort to remove and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons, since this outcome serves Russian security interests and was in part a Putin initiative. But I see little reason to hope that Russia will put any pressure on Assad to negotiate in good faith with the Syrian opposition on an end to the civil war, let alone a political transition.

5) Vladimir Putin, by his own admission, does not have a cell phone and is not a fan of the Internet. Did you have experience with that and does that make diplomacy more difficult with him?

The information flow to Putin about world events seems very poor. For instance, he has a fundamental misunderstanding of American foreign policy intentions and capabilities. More time on the internet would give him exposure to different sources of information and a wider range of views.

6) Do you agree with Ian Bremmer in NYT that the U.S. should be focusing more on supporting the Ukrainians and less on isolating Putin and Russia?

I spelled out my views very clearly in my own NY Times piece.

Ukraine must succeed as a democracy, a market economy and a state. High on its reform list must be energy efficiency and diversification, as well as military and corruption reforms. Other exposed states in the region, like Moldova and Georgia, also need urgent bolstering…And, as before, the current [Russian] regime must be isolated. The strategy of seeking to change Kremlin behavior through engagement, integration and rhetoric is over for now.

7) Russia will host the FIFA World Cup in 2018. Should countries pull their participation in arguably the world’s biggest sporting event over this?

No. I believe it was right for the Obama administration to not boycott the Sochi Olympics, but instead use the composition of our presidential delegations to make a political statement. I was very honored to be a member of both the opening and closing ceremony delegations.

I see the World Cup in the same way. Athletes should not be punished for the bad behavior of government leaders. In the future, however, FIFA and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) should think twice before deciding to hold their events in countries with poor human rights records or belligerent foreign policies.

8) You have said the post-Cold War era is over, so what is this era now? If not a new Cold War, then what?

I can't answer this in a few words. My elaboration is in my New York Time's piece here.

The shrill anti-Americanism uttered by Russian leaders and echoed on state-controlled television has reached a fanatical pitch with Mr. Putin's annexation of Crimea. He has made clear that he embraces confrontation with the West, no longer feels constrained by international laws and norms, and is unafraid to wield Russian power to revise the international order.Mr. Putin has made a strategic pivot. Guided by the right lessons from our past conflict with Moscow, the United States must, too, through a policy of selective containment and engagement.

9) Has the president been forceful enough in creating consensus and building Western support against Russia?

Though the time was coincidental, this was a very good week for President Obama to be in Europe. The Hague Declaration by the G-7 was a very strong statement as was President Obama’s speech. My only regret was that the European and American lists of sanctioned individuals were not the same. Having the exact same list would have sent a powerful message of unity.

10) The President gave a powerful speech in Brussels attempting to rally Europe to the cause of stopping Russian aggression, but are you worried that it fell on deaf ears?

I thought it was a very powerful speech. I especially liked the discussion of ideas, norms, and values. I hope it will not fall upon deaf ears. The new challenges we face in Europe are serious, and therefore require serious, strategic thinking and bold, sustained action. Obama provided the vision of what needs to be done in that speech. Policymakers in Europe and the United States now need to articulate and execute a strategy for realizing the lofty aims so eloquently spelled out in the president’s speech.