22 Dec 2020

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul: The new U.S. president will not seek friendship with Putin

Michael McFaul

Michael McFaul
Courtesy photo

Michael McFaul, a former U.S. Ambassador to Russia, a prominent representative of the Democratic Party in the United States and currently professor at Stanford University, in an interview with Interfax correspondent Ksenia Baigarova talks about relations between Moscow and Washington President Joe Biden, explains what is happening inside the United States, and predicts stabilization of the situation with regard to arms control.

Question: Could you please give your opinion on what is happening in the United States right now? Why is U.S. society so divided? It seems that that civil war is coming to the U.S., which it has never experienced before. What is the historical reason for this? Why now?

Answer: Well, that's a big hard question. It's a complex question. Everything I'm going to say is a simplification. But I do think that for a long time there were trends in our economy that made a big chunk of our society disaffected and disappointed with what was happening. Wages were flat for 30 years for a lot of working people in America, and candidate Trump, President Trump tapped into that anger. And even though he wasn't an active person in the Republican Party, he won the nomination for the presidency, and then he fueled that division between those disaffected and the rest of the country for several years. And that I think has been a driver of polarization, number one.

In addition I think you have to look at gerrymandering and the fact that we elect to our U.S. Congress people who don't have to compete for the median voter, the medium middle voter, they just compete for the extremes. And that's on the Republican side and the Democratic side. So that's led to more polarization in our Congress.

Then, third, you have to look at our media. Our media has become more polarized, Fox vs MSNBC. Social media has donated as well. So, that's another source of polarization.

Finally, I would say there is a deeper identity division that is probably even more important than the economic one. And that is both parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, are not just making arguments about economics in a class-based identification, workers vs. capitalists, we all learnt that a long time ago. They are making arguments about identity and in particular ethnic identity, and so the Republican Party is becoming more and more white, and the Democratic Party is making arguments based on non-white ethnic identity, and that creates another source of polarization.

And then a final thing I would say is if you look at the most important thing, if you could ask a person one question, only one question, about whether they would vote for the Republican Party or the Democratic Party, the number one question you need to ask them is do they live in a city or do they live in the country. The rural-urban divide – one of my colleagues at Stanford wrote a brilliant book about it – that there is a much bigger divide than red states and blue states. So, here in California, where I live, most people who live in San Francisco voted Democratic, but an hour away, literally just one hour away, the people who live in those small towns, they all voted for Donald Trump.

I would personally say – I am from the state of Montana, that's where I was born and where my family is from – so even the cities in Montana voted for Biden, but the countryside, they all voted for Trump. Those are the divisions.

I want to say one more thing on this. The American people are not as divided as the American elites, political and media elites, on policy issues. The American people are much more purple than they are red or blue on policy issues. It's only because the elites are the ones polarizing, that there are only polarized choices. So, these are some of variables that have led to this moment.

Q.: Now on U.S.-Russia relations. What do you think we should expect under Biden? What do we have in common right now? Definitely it's arms control. But what else?

A.: There will be some changes of course with President Biden vs. President Trump. Number one. President Biden will not be seeking to be friends with President Putin. Trump really wanted to be Putin's friend, he genuinely did, and that didn't work out. That was something he spent a lot of time and energy on, that personal relationship. Biden won't do that. The last meeting Biden had with Putin - actually I was in that meeting, it was in 2011, he was vice-president and Putin was prime minister – and he won't do that.

Number two. Biden will speak more about democracy and human rights issues with respect to Russia and many other countries by the way, not just Russia, in a way that President Trump did not. So, that will be a change, too.

And number three, I think that is probably the most important change. Biden and his team – they are all people who are very close friends of mine – they are going to spend a lot more time on developing bilateral relationships with countries in Russia's neighborhood, with Moldova, with Ukraine, with the Caucasus, with Central Asia. They are going to be much more involved because they have a lot of experience, and Biden himself has a lot of experience. I personally travelled with Biden to Georgia, Ukraine, and Moldova. No other president of the United States has been to all those countries. So, there will be changes for sure.

I also think there is a possibility for a much more stable and rational relationships with Russia in the Biden administration, because two things will be different. The Trump administration was very divided about how to deal with Russia. President Trump had one view and everybody else in his administration had a different view. That created a lot of miscues, and signals, and volatility, up-and-downness. That won't happen in the Biden administration, they are all going to agree. There is not going to be a big fight over the Russia policy. And number two that you alluded to, I think that there will be a real revitalization in the agenda around arms control. It will start with extending the New START Treaty, that's easy.

Q.: Do you think it will be easy?

A.: I hope it will be. I think they should extend it. They should extend it for five years, not just one. I think it would be a mistake to try to cleverly just do a year.

But once you do that there is a big agenda of many other issues that we have not been talking about. What to do with non-strategic nuclear weapons? What to do with new delivery vehicles? The multilateral piece of that, how you bring in China, or not.

Q.: What about the INF Treaty?

A.: The INF will be harder to bring back. I think that was a mistake. I was a supporter of trying to extend that. But I do think it would be prudent to begin what will be a very, very long negotiation, multilateral negotiation about both delivery vehicles and nuclear weapons. I support the idea of China, and Britain, and France being a part of that. That is not a popular view.

Q.: How is it possible technically? If China doesn't want it, how would you force, push it to make an agreement? The Trump administration said we are going to have talks with Russia on the New START Treaty only if China joins. But it is impossible to force China to join.

A.: Let me be more precise in what I think, and I'm obviously just speaking for myself, not the Biden administration. New START should never have been tied to bringing in the Chinese. I completely disagree with that. And I thought there is the stunt of having seats for the Chinese delegation with their flags. That was a very unprofessional view. That was in my view not a very wise strategy.

So, on New START, that’s just got to be done with Russia and it should be done quickly and we should not try to tie it to new issues. And then, once that's done, then you can try to begin a multilateral conversation.

Q.: It is exactly what Russia wants.

A.: Yes, I know. That is why I am saying that. I agree with the Russian position on this. It will be complicated, it will be long, it will take years, and I'm not optimistic there will be any treaty at the end of that, but I think a multilateral conversation is a good idea.

Q.: Under the Trump administration the whole arms control system was dismantled, the INF Treaty is dead, the New START Treaty is dying, the Treaty on Open Skies... Do you hope that under the Biden administration it is possible to restore all of them?

A.: There is hope. I want to be clear, I cannot predict it. It will for a large part be determined by who has what jobs, and we are still waiting to see the whole team filled out, but I know that President Biden believes in arms control. He led our New START ratification process in the Senate - and I was there with him, that day I drove over to the Senate with him and I watched from the galleries how he got votes for that treaty, and he was in charge of it. His nominee for the Secretary of State is Tony Blinken, and Tony Blinken is a big supporter of this.

Q.: The relationships of the U.S. with its traditional allies, like NATO and the European Union, seem to be improving under the Biden administration. How do you think this could affect the U.S.-Russia relations?

A.: First of all, I think there is no question that President Biden will take restoring confidence and solidarity within NATO as a top priority. He's always valued NATO, he has always been a big trans-Atlanticist. He goes to the Munich Security Conference often. And there is going to be a great euphoria over the return of the United States to participating as a cooperative partner within NATO. That, I know, will happen.

I actually think this is good for the U.S.-Russia relations. This is good for Russia's relationships with NATO, because I think ambiguity is dangerous. I think ambiguity of our security commitments, for instance to our NATO allies closest to Russia, can create instability, and I think that a little more clarity will be good for everybody. My view is that NATO is a defensive alliance, it's never had a strategy to attack Russia, it's never been a part of its mission statement. Its strategy is to defend NATO allies, so if you are not planning to attack any of those allies, NATO doesn't threaten you. I think, paradoxically, strengthening NATO might make it easier for U.S.-Russia relations and, I would say, for Russia's relationships with NATO.

Q.: You mentioned post-Soviet countries like Moldova, Ukraine, and others. Biden is known for his close ties with and good understanding of post-Soviet countries. So, what in your opinion will be U.S. policy towards the post-Soviet countries under Biden? And speaking specifically about Ukraine, is it possible that the United States will give arms to it?

A.: The broad thing is that you are right to underscore that Biden has a lot of experience in Eastern Europe. Like I said, he's been to Georgia many times, he's been to Ukraine many times, he is the most senior U.S. official to ever go to Moldova – he went in 2011 and I was on that trip with him – he has deep relationships with the Baltic countries, so he knows the region probably better than any U.S. president ever.

Number two. I predict that he will appoint people at the White House, at the Pentagon, at the State Department, who also have deep experience in that part of the world. That is something you haven't seen in the Trump administration.

And number three. I just think that showing up will be a change of [pace]. The Trump administration did not pay much attention to that part of the world. Even making statements on what is happening in Belarus, the Biden campaign has already been more vocal about Belarus than the Trump administration. And now that will continue. No doubt about that.

What I think on Ukraine, I think they continue arms shipments that have been made. But I don't think that's a big issue. I think there is way too much attention about these Javelins that never have been used and stored in Eastern Ukraine. That's all symbolism. What really matters is we have disengaged from the reform process inside Ukraine, on economic reform, on political reform, on helping to negotiate a settlement in Donbas. President Trump just made our assistance policy towards Ukraine, he just tangled that all up with his reelection efforts, and as a result of that he was impeached, we all know that, but as a result of that we have been disengaged, we are not engaged in pushing Ukraine towards what I think are necessary reforms, and I think there's been a dangerous drift in Ukraine as a result of that. I cannot predict but I would hope that the Biden administration would be much more engaged very practically in those economic and political reforms.

Q.: Let's look at what is happening in post-Soviet countries, Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, how could you explain the processes there? Many people in Russia, and probably you on Twitter, believe that the United States and Michael McFaul personally organized all the revolutions. What could be the attitude of the new U.S. administration towards the events there? And how could you explain the reasons behind these processes that happened simultaneously?

A.: First of all, I never sought to foment color revolutions anywhere. It is important for people to know that I didn't do that. I wrote about it as an academic. And I certainly was not sent to Russia to organize a revolution there.

Secondly, I would say a couple of things. You know, because the United States has been disengaged from the region, I just think that is a statement of fact that Vladimir Putin has played a much greater role in the region compared to before. And whether it is good or bad that is a different matter, but, you know, he was involved in ending the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. We were completely AWOL, we weren't there, even though the Minsk Group should have been engaged. We were not there. I did nothing with respect to what happened in Kyrgyzstan with the upheaval there, and we've been pretty absent with respect to what is going on in Belarus, whereas Vladimir Putin is engaged in both those processes very directly. And with respect to the frozen conflicts in Georgia and Ukraine, we are not engaged. I see Vladimir Putin is very engaged. And in Central Asia generally I would say – and I used to work with Central Asia as well when I worked at the White House – I can tell you from my conversations with leaders in those countries, they also miss the American presence. We've been disengaged from Central Asia. So, I think that just showing up again will be good for all of those countries, so that they feel they are not so dependent on Russia. That's not about color revolutions or not, it's just about balance with respect to those countries.

Q.: But Russia takes that very seriously. It is very sensitive about U.S. showing up in those countries. In your opinion, what is more important for the U.S. - to have stable relations with Russia or to do something in the post-Soviet space?

A.: I don't see it in zero-sum terms. Let me end with an anecdote. The first time President Obama met with Medvedev that was April 2009 in London. Right before that meeting the president of Kyrgyzstan had been to Russia and he met with Prime Minister Putin, his name was Bakiyev. After he met with President [sic] Putin he announced that he was going to pull us, make us close our airbase in Kyrgyzstan. It was called Manas. We were using that airbase to fight the war in Afghanistan. And right around that time Medvedev said something like 'Central Asia is a privileged sphere of interests of Russia.' And Obama explained to Medvedev 'look, we have that military base there. It's not against Russia. We don’t have influence over the country of Kyrgyzstan. It is there to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. And if we were not fighting those terrorists in Afghanistan, you would have to fight terrorists in Afghanistan. Because they hate you just as much as they hate us given your long history in Afghanistan. So, explain to me why we have to think of that in zero-sum terms.' And I always remember that story because I think that's a good lesson, that we can have good relations with Uzbekistan and Russia can have good relations with Uzbekistan, and it need not be a zero-sum game. That doesn't mean that won't become that, but I think in the 21st century we would do well to look for places where it's good for America and good for Russia, as opposed to always framing things where it has to be good for Russia and bad for America, or good for America and bad for Russia.