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Ex-Envoy 'Not Very Optimistic' on Russian Pullback in Crimea

The former ambassador to Russia says the world should focus on the long game.
Image: Tensions Grow In Crimea As Diplomatic Talks Continue
Armed men believed to be Russian military stand outside a Ukrainian military base on Wednesday in Simferopol, in Ukraine's Crimean peninsula.Dan Kitwood / Getty Images

It’s worth trying to forge a deal to get Russian President Vladimir Putin to reverse his invasion of Ukraine, but it probably won’t work, the recently departed U.S. ambassador to Russia said Wednesday.

Ambassador Michael McFaul, who left the job just last month, said the world must focus on keeping Putin in check in years to come. Sanctions are unlikely to persuade him to pull his troops back in Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula anytime soon, he said.

“I’m not very optimistic that the West has those instruments available at this time,” he said. “Tragically.”

McFaul did lay out a longshot plan that might save face for the Russian leader and be acceptable to the fledging government in Ukraine, where pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych was ousted in February.

That plan has four parts:

  • A coalition government in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, that guarantees a voice for both the pro-European western part of the country and the pro-Russian eastern part, including politicians sympathetic to Yanukovych.
  • Free elections and a political system that features a stronger Parliament and a weaker presidency. Yanukovych lived at a lavish compound and infuriated some Ukrainians by suddenly turning away from a European bailout plan and embracing a loan from Putin.
  • A system of federalism enshrined in the Ukrainian Constitution that gives the eastern part of the country greater power over its economy. The pro-Russian east is Ukraine’s industrial heartland, and economically vital to the rest of the country.
  • Guarantees of minority rights for ethnic Russians, who make up most of the east. Putin used the pretense of suppression of ethnic Russians as a justification — a baseless excuse, according to the West — for his invasion of the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea.

McFaul, now an NBC News analyst, said that the window was still open for a deal but that Putin would probably not agree to it.

“He’s too far dug in now,” the former ambassador said.

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul gestures during his meeting with deputies of the United Russia party at Russia's State Duma, lower house of parliament, in Moscow, in this May 25, 2012 file photo.SERGEI KARPUKHIN / Reuters

He spoke as Ukraine’s acting prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, made the rounds in Washington, meeting with President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry before speaking to the U.N. Security Council on Thursday.

The former ambassador stressed that he was speaking only for himself. He said he believed personal sanctions were the right move — not because they will persuade Putin to pull back in Crimea but because they might work in the long run.

“It’s Russia against the world. There has to be a cost for that action.”

The United States has already revoked some visas and threatened sanctions against Russians interfering with what Washington recognizes as the legitimate government in Kiev. European foreign ministers will discuss sanctions against Russia on Monday.

“I don’t anticipate sanctions compelling him to leave Crimea right away,” McFaul said of Putin. “This is more of a long-term, and by long-term I mean years, process. A debate internally in Russia is sparked, and people see that there are economic trade-offs.”

In the meantime, world leaders must focus on “containing further Russian aggression,” he said, meaning a further incursion into eastern Ukraine or a Russian threat against other former Soviet republics.

“For the U.S. and the rest of the international community, and I want to stress that, it’s Russia against the world,” he said. “There has to be a cost for that action. It’s illegal by any definition, any norm or treaty that Russia has signed up to.”

Among those treaties is a 1994 agreement in which the United States, Britain and Russia guaranteed Ukraine’s borders in exchange for Ukraine’s giving up nuclear weapons left behind from the Soviet years.

The Ukrainian Parliament invoked that treaty on Tuesday calling on the United States and Britain to “take all possible diplomatic, political, economic and military measures” to end Russian aggression.