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Why can’t the US make any progress in relations with Russia?

Trump's Helsinki summit with Putin doesn't look great from history's vantage point
Aku H'yrynen/Lehtikuva via AP
Mike McFaul’s experience as ambassador to Russia doesn’t bode well for the Trump-Putin summit.
By Max de Haldevang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Michael McFaul has been optimistic about US-Russia relations before. In the heady days of the fall of the Soviet Union, he was a technocratic activist, advising many in the halls of power on what they hoped would become Russia’s transition into a democracy. It ended with disappointment; president Boris Yeltsin’s government spluttered through eight years of chaos, until Putin took over. He quickly began curtailing freedoms, ushering the country into the autocracy it is now.

Nearly 20 years on in 2009, McFaul found himself with much more power to mend relations: As Obama’s Russia chief on the National Security Council and then ambassador in Moscow, McFaul was the architect of a diplomatic “reset” between the two powers. As he writes in From Cold War to Hot Peace, a memoir published in May, the rapprochement worked for a while; just over a year after the reset’s launch, Obama and then-president Dmitry Medvedev were drinking champagne together in Prague. They had agreed to reduce nuclear arms, were collaborating on pressuring Iran to do the same, and both committed to the war in Afghanistan.

But despite Trump’s avowals of friendship—and allegations of Trump associates’ collusion with Russia around the US presidential election—today’s relations are far colder. How did we get from that heady day in Prague to a nadir of acrimony and sanctions that matches the depths of the Cold War?

Put crudely, McFaul’s argument boils down to two words: Blame Putin. “Our policy towards Russia did not change,” he told Quartz in a phone interview. “It was Putin that moved to a different policy; him that decided we needed to be portrayed as the enemy, to shore up his supporters, and marginalize his detractors.” The shift was spurred, he argues, by the pro-democracy protests that exploded in Russia’s big cities when Putin decided to return to the presidency in 2011. These ratcheted up the Russian president’s paranoia, as he became convinced that Washington was behind the demonstrations.

Ultimately, McFaul, a political scientist at Stanford, concludes that his career courting Russia as a policy-maker has been a “failure.” Having spent his adult life pushing for greater engagement between the US and Russia, he says that, “tragically,” America’s Russia policy should involve “a large dose of containment and then small doses of engagement and isolation or indifference.”

His book is an insider’s account of a tempestuous relationship, which blends the acuity of one of America’s foremost Russia analysts with the wide-eyed rapture of a Montana boy who still can’t quite seem to believe he was in so many gilded rooms. A crucial study for Russia wonks, the combination of memoir, thriller, and political analysis makes an engaging read for even those with a passing interest.

McFaul spoke to Quartz about his book, about how the US should deal with Russia now, and how to describe Trump’s Russia policy. The following took place over two phone calls in May, and has been edited for length and clarity.

Quartz: How would you describe the Trump administration’s strategy towards Russia?

McFaul: I would say there’s two foreign policies toward Russia right now. On the one hand, you have the Trump administration that in many ways has continued the policy of the Obama administration, in terms of trying to contain Russia, deter Russia, and in some ways has gone even farther by arming the Ukrainians, for instance, and some of these sanctions. But at the same time, the president himself doesn’t seem to support the policy and oftentimes contradicts it—and most certainly his intuition is different than that. It’s clear as day that he thinks that if he could just get to know Putin better and engage with him, that would be a better strategy. So that tension has lingered to this day.

If you were asked to help design a strategy for Russia now, what would you push for?

Tragically—for my book is a book of tragedy about wanting a different relationship—but tragically, today, I think that policy involves a large dose of containment and then small doses of engagement and isolation or indifference. What do I mean by that?

I think on many foreign policy issues, the strategy should be to check negative influence or behavior by Vladimir Putin. It’s kind of a status quo strategy, I call it strategic stalemate. It’s not to seek to change his behavior in a positive way by bringing him into international clubs like the G8 or other things like that. That’s the old strategy; that doesn’t work to change him in a positive way.

But I also think idea of promoting regime change in Russia is also foolhardy right now. I just don’t see us having the means to do that. So, my strategy is one of ‘contain bad things and lock in for a long period of time.’ But within that larger framework you should look for pockets of cooperation; we did that in the Cold War, there’s no reason we shouldn’t do that now. Particularly, on arms control, I would say.

Then, third, just isolation: I think sometimes we Americans we believe that engagement is right, engagement for engagement’s sake and let’s have a better relationship. Sometimes just less engagement might be a better thing for everybody, and to stop creating symbolic reasons to engage—and just engage when it’s in America’s national interest.

In your book, you argue that “better relations” is never a good strategy unless you have a clear goal for those relations. Do you think it’s fair to say that’s been a problem with the Trump administration’s Russia policy?

I think that’s exactly right. I don’t know what the objectives are of the Trump administration’s policy towards Russia. I think that mixed signaling makes it look like they’re not strategic; that they’re kind of flipping back and forth, maybe reacting to domestic pressure—with the sanctions for instance.

Generally, I support increasing pressure on Russia for their occupation of Ukraine; that’s the one area that needs to be dynamic, and not static—that the longer you stay the more costly it should be. But the way they instituted sanctions, they just put a laundry list of all kinds of bad things that Russia has done, and then put together a list that was pretty hard to understand the logic of who was on that list and who was not. Therefore you don’t set up a process by under what conditions would you begin to withdraw sanctions. If you’re not setting it up to change particular behavior, it’s just a kind of general negative Russia policy. Then the next day that it’s put in place, the president himself contradicts it. So, you do send really mixed messages with that—not only to the Kremlin, by the way. I think those things send mixed messages to the Russian people as well.

Having celebrated with champagne in the Kremlin after Trump won the election, how do you think they feel about him now?

Initially there was champagne being popped and Trump’s approval rating in Russia at one point was double what it was in the United States—upwards of 70%. Fast forward to today, I think there’s been a lot of disappointment, because president Trump has not delivered on the things he pledged during the campaign. I think there’s a lot of concern that he’s a weak president, that he’s incapable of delivering on these things, given what they call this “deep state” that constrains him. That is an imagery, and an analogy that when I was in government, listening to Putin talk to president Obama, he invoked even back then. In meetings we would have with him, he would talk about the “deep state,” the CIA, the Pentagon controlling things. That’s a theory that they now see with Trump being validated.

That said, I still sense, watching state-controlled or state-sympathetic television, listening to people around the government—and even Putin himself on occasion will say this—they’re still holding out the possibility that Trump might get through this crisis and investigation, emerge stronger and that if they could just engage him directly without the filters of the deep state that is anti-Russian, that they might be able to turn things around. So, I think the optimism is low, but it hasn’t gotten to zero yet.

My very broad understanding of your argument for why relations with Russia got so much worse under Obama, is essentially that this is largely down to Russian internal politics. Have I got that right?

To state it another way, our policy towards Russia did not change. We had a policy that got labeled the “reset,” we engaged with them to achieve concrete outcomes: the START treaty, Iran sanctions, supply routes to Afghanistan, WTO membership. Because Putin came back when there were demonstrations in Russia, we didn’t say, ‘Ok, now we’re going to move to a different policy.’ It was Putin that moved to a different policy, it was him that decided we needed to be portrayed as the enemy to help him domestically, to shore up his supporters, and to marginalize his detractors.

It’s different from other periods in history…. When you look at other impasses and breakdowns it’s oftentimes the result of some foreign policy action of one side or the other—oftentimes the United States: the bombing of Serbia in 1999, NATO expansion, the Iraq war. These were all things that we did that had negative consequences for our bilateral relationship.

What’s unique about this period in 2012 to 2014 was that we didn’t do anything; there was no major war, no major initiative that we took in foreign policy. It was really Putin’s reaction to what other people did—whether they were Libyans, or Egyptians, or Syrians, or Russians—and later Ukrainians.

That’s not Putin’s view, to make sure his voice is heard here: his view is that we were involved in all those things. That we were supporting these various movements.

You maintain optimism for Russia in the future. As far as I understand, your arguments for that are that there’s a correlation between economic development and democratic development, plus a faith in the young Russians who protested in 2011/12 and may be silent for now, but could return. Is that a fair assessment? 

I’m more pessimistic today than I have been in 30 years about that prospect. I was on the very optimistic side probably in the 90s—I’m sure critics would say the naïve optimistic side—believing that there’s nothing about Russian culture or history that prevents them them from building markets and democratic institutions. So, I’m more pessimistic because of what has happened in the Putin era.

But in the long run, I just don’t see how that system of government survives beyond Putin. It’s based on his charismatic personality, it’s not based on a political party, it’s not based on the military…. We know, comparatively, that personalistic regimes are the most likely to collapse after the leader steps down or passes away—research has shown that.

I think Americans who haven’t spent much time in Russia have a pretty simplistic view of that society. I think it’s a very complex society with lots of different pockets of ways of thinking, and very educated people in certain places—and people that want basic preferences that people in all countries want.

What is the more fanciful prediction: That Putinism will be around in 30 years, or that there will be some kind of transition away from Putinism in 30 years? I think the first prediction is the naïve, wild one, compared to the second one.

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