Who Lost Russia, Again?


Michael McFaul, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018)


May 9 is Victory Day in Russia, commemorating the Nazi surrender in the Great Patriotic War (known elsewhere as World War II). This year, Columbia and New York Universities marked the occasion by hosting a rollicking professorial debate on “The New U.S.-Russian Cold War: Who is to Blame?

The event title – not to mention the proceedings themselves – encapsulated some of the most popular themes of today’s rejuvenated Western Kremlinology. The rather small-ball question of whether to label current U.S.-Russia relations a “new Cold War” has engaged a surprisingly august list of foreign policy intelligentsia, both in favor and opposed. The more portentous question of who is to blame (“Kto Vinovat?”) defines a more significant fault line among Western policymakers and analysts. Is the sorry state of affairs mainly a result of Vladimir Putin’s thuggery and intransigence? Or of America’s unique blend of missionary liberalism and obliviousness to other states’ national interests?

Taking the latter position in the recent debate in New York was Stephen Cohen, emeritus professor of history at New York University and Princeton. Cohen’s credentials as a scholar of Russian affairs are sparkling, but in recent years he has been better known as one of America’s stoutest defenders of (some would say apologist for) Vladimir Putin and his grievances against American foreign policy. The litany of complaints is, indeed, impressive: repeatedly expanding NATO all the way to Russia’s borders, supporting controversial economic reforms in the 1990s, supporting Boris Yeltin’s re-election effort in 1996, bombing Serbia without U.N. authorization, withdrawing from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty, invading Iraq under false pretenses, supporting “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine, and so on.

Two recent books by prominent scholars have leveled similar lines of critique against U.S. policy toward Russia in the wake of the Cold War. In The Cold War: A World History, historian Odd Arne Westad accuses both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush of allowing “post-Cold War triumphalism” to blind them to the need to integrate Russia into European institutions like the European Union and even NATO. Political scientist Richard Sakwa echoes this judgment in his book, Russia Against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order, arguing that “Europe could not be ‘whole and free’ if Russia was effectively excluded.”

On the other side of the debate in New York was Michael McFaul of Stanford University. McFaul has a unique and rarefied view of the subject, as a career academic and Russia expert who became President Barack Obama’s top Russia policy advisor (2009­-2012) and then U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation (2012-2014). In the first of these roles, he was the chief architect of the Obama administration’s alternately celebrated and derided “reset” policy. While acknowledging some American failures and mistakes over the past 30 years, McFaul defends U.S. policy as, for the most part, pragmatic, principled, and pursued in good faith.

Those interested in these debates will find much to chew on in McFaul’s new book, From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia. A highly readable blend of policy analysis, history, and memoir, the book is a useful first draft of the history of the reset and U.S. policy toward Russia under Obama, as seen from the inside.

The early chapters on the 1990s and early 2000s cover some of the same ground as Angela Stent’s The Limits of Partnership, but are leavened with stories of McFaul’s personal experiences in the Soviet Union and Russia as a student and democracy activist. He lived in Moscow as a Fulbright scholar and volunteer with the National Democratic Institute in the transformational time of the early 1990s. Like many Westerners then, McFaul concluded that the historic events of those years showed that, “to paraphrase Martin Luther King Jr., the arc of Russian history was at last bending toward justice, freedom and democracy.” But he follows this comment with a rueful phrase that recurs throughout the book: “. . . or so I believed at the time.”

Russian democracy’s path in the 1990s, of course, turned rocky. In one small but telling sign of reform’s halting progress, McFaul wrote an op-ed after Russia’s 1996 presidential election that was given two different titles in two different publications. In the Moscow Times, it was “A Victory for Optimists.” In the Washington Post, it was “Russia: Still a long way to go.” By the time of Vladimir Putin’s ascendancy to the presidency in 2000, reform was in retreat, together with the promise of a close U.S.-Russia partnership.

McFaul presents Putin’s hostility toward the United States as evolutionary: rooted in a competitive world view and a KGB career, but stoked over time by perceived insults and arrogance. Putin’s frustration finally burst into full view in his infamous 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, where he decried America’s hegemonic pretentions and “almost uncontained hyper-use of force.” McFaul emphasizes that Putin felt even more aggrieved about the Iraq invasion and the U.S. role in Georgian and Ukrainian color revolutions than about the 2002 withdrawal from the ABM treaty and the 2004 round of NATO expansion (to include the Baltic states). Later, Putin was similarly alarmed by the Obama administration’s readiness to dismiss the legitimacy of Bashar al-Assad in Syria, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, and Muammar Gadhafi in Libya. American-supported regime change, more than anything else, preoccupied Putin.

Critics of the reset – which McFaul began to formulate as an adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign – saw in it too much conciliation and even naiveté toward a Russian government fundamentally opposed to American interests and impervious to liberal democratic reform. In some small ways, McFaul hands his critics some ammunition on these points. He says equivocally that “Putin is mostly wrong, but maybe a little right, in blaming us for promoting democracy and defending human rights in Russia.” And he is unapologetic about his career-long work to promote democracy, at one point sounding more like one of his undergraduate students than a hardened policymaker. “I always get excited on election days in democracies, no matter where they take place. There is something magical about citizens choosing their own leaders.”

More fundamentally, however, McFaul makes a strong case for the pragmatism and limited expectations with which the reset was designed. He emphasizes that improved relations were not the goal of the reset, but rather the means to better pursue U.S. interests. And on promoting democracy, he argues, the reset sought marginal improvements, not radical reform. “. . . I believed that Obama’s personal engagement with [President Dmitry] Medvedev might nudge him in the right direction. I also believed that we had little to lose in trying, and no other option. Through sanctions or other coercive instruments, we were not going to pressure Russia into democratizing. We had neither the means nor the desire to do so.”

McFaul enumerates the reset’s achievements, which included negotiating strategic arms reductions through the New START treaty, securing Russian support for new sanctions on Iran, and expanding the Northern Distribution Network for U.S. and NATO operations in Afghanistan. In the economic realm, Russia finally acceded to the World Trade Organization, and bi-lateral trade and investment saw new growth. But McFaul is also forthright about the reset’s ultimate demise. Like the rest of the book, his judgment on this point mixes the strategic and the personal:

[M]y life’s work of trying to bring our two countries closer, of trying to integrate a democratic Russia as a responsible and important stakeholder in the international community of states, seems like a failure.

McFaul’s story is punctuated by amusing bits of trivia. We learn, for example, that Kremlin operative Vladislav Surkov has a portrait of Tupac Shakur in his office, and that McFaul himself was a key player in the notorious mistranslation of “reset” in Hilary Clinton’s first meeting with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. More substantively, his main arguments revolve around three closely related themes: the primacy of Russia’s domestic politics in determining its foreign policy, the importance of individual leaders, and the limits of American agency.

On the first point, McFaul places particular emphasis on Putin’s newfound vulnerability in advance of his 2012 reelection campaign. The economy was faltering and Putin’s presumed return to the presidency from his time as prime minister “under” President Medvedev had generated much less enthusiasm and more public protest than Putin had expected. By McFaul’s reckoning, this led to an even greater focus in the Kremlin on demonizing foreign threats in general and the United States in particular. McFaul himself became a target in Putin’s information campaign, which accused him of helping foment the popular protests. More broadly, McFaul links the degree of confrontation in U.S.-Russian relations throughout the post-Cold War era with the fortunes of the ongoing tug of war between authoritarianism and reformism among Russian elites.

Second, McFaul believes in the decisive influence of individual leaders – not just structural, political, or economic factors – in shaping the course of events:

Relations between the United States and Russia were not determined by the balance of power between our two countries, or by innate forces such as economic development, culture, history, or geography. Where others see destiny, determinism, and inevitability, I see choices, contingency, and opportunities, realized and missed.

He admires Gorbachev and Reagan in this regard, but perhaps the book’s most valuable contribution is its detailed contrast between the outlook and behavior of Medvedev and Putin. McFaul attributes much of the reset’s accomplishments to Medvedev’s desire to foster cooperation – and his surprising degree of independence in doing so. By the same token, he locates the “beginning of the end” of the reset with Putin’s unprecedented public disagreement with Medvedev over the latter’s 2011 acquiescence (by way of abstention in the U.N. Security Council) to Western military intervention in Libya.

After Putin’s return to the presidency, cooperation was ever harder to achieve, even before Russia’s seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014. Over time, McFaul reluctantly came to believe that Putin’s paranoia about U.S. designs to overthrow him was genuine, not merely politically expedient.

If there is a silver lining in this cloud, it is the prospect – however uncertain – that the regimes that follow Putin need not inevitably hew to his pronounced antagonism toward the West. One of the many imponderables of the current era of Russian history is whether Putin is best seen as an archetype of a great power leader, an archetype of a distinctly Russian leader, or something unique and therefore potentially transient. McFaul does not take on the question directly, but does conclude that, over the long term, “I find it hard to believe that Russia will defy the odds of modernization.”

Whatever the future may hold, what about the lessons of the past for U.S. policy now? Did the United States do too much or too little? Was it too aggressive or too weak? McFaul believes that U.S. policy has struck a reasonable balance between these extremes, or at least has failed in the process of trying to do so. Indeed, it seems that for every critic who accuses the Obama administration of having exacerbated U.S.-Russia tension by being too forward-leaning on democracy in Eurasia and the Middle East, another levels charges of coddling Russia on issues like missile defense, arms control treaty violations, and military support for Ukraine. McFaul does acknowledge some policy missteps to which he contributed. For example, he calls the 2009 rollout of a new European missile defense architecture a “complete disaster,” regrets relying too heavily on Russian diplomacy in Syria, and was caught off guard by the vigor and effectiveness of the Kremlin’s anti-Western (and anti-McFaul) propaganda campaign.

But for the most part, he rejects any notion that there was some pristine alternative policy path that would have simultaneously met U.S. interests and fundamentally altered Putin’s views. And for those wondering who “lost” Russia, McFaul’s main message is this: “Those who blame the United States grossly overstate American influence. . . Despite the Kremlin’s propaganda claims, the Obama administration, including me, mostly just watched from the sidelines.”

Skeptics will likely think that the ambassador doth protest too much. But every U.S. president since the end of the Cold War – and they are a diverse group – has sought a new, superior formula for solving the Russian riddle. None has succeeded. Whatever else one thinks of McFaul’s record, future attempts at building a better policy will need to reckon with his story.


Michael Fitzsimmons is Visiting Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Image: State Department