WASHINGTON — Plotting a U.S. response to Vladimir Putin’s land grab in Ukraine requires an understanding that the Russian leader operates without a clear-cut foreign policy and out of “dual impulses” of asserting Moscow’s power while courting Western approval, according to an American diplomat who observed him up close for five years.
Michael McFaul, who until last month was the U.S. ambassador to Moscow and before that oversaw Russia and Eurasian matters on the White House National Security Council, told journalists in a wide-ranging briefing Friday that examining Putin’s motivations is crucial for crafting a realistic countermove to his internationally condemned occupation of the Crimea region of Ukraine.
McFaul’s impressions of Putin, gleaned from years of academic and diplomatic work in the region, portray a shrewd leader who wants to show the world a modern, new Russia but too often operates out of what the ambassador called an “exaggerated” sense of U.S. power in the world.
“If you listen closely to President Putin, he is not describing the world in a way that he thinks President (Barack) Obama and his administration is weak. On the contrary, he has a theory about American power that is quite paranoid,” McFaul said.
From Putin’s point of view, McFaul said, the United States is “fomenting instability and revolution in the Middle East, in Russia and, now, Ukraine.”
McFaul argued that the current crisis comes from Russia’s internal politics rather than fears of U.S. and allied machinations to wrest Ukraine from its traditional Russian fold. He said that Ukraine was always the keystone of Putin’s overarching foreign policy goal to create a Eurasian Economic Union as a counterweight to the European Union.
McFaul said that Moscow’s joy over Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an agreement with the EU was replaced by disappointment and frustration with his failure to quell the resulting demonstrations — the protests would grow into the uprising that forced him from power. Yanukovych was replaced by an interim authority that quickly downgraded the Russian language in Ukraine and made it clear it intended to work closely with the West.
“That was a major blow and a major frustration for the Kremlin and for the Russian government in general,” McFaul said. “And so the move into Crimea, I think, was a tactical counterpunch by President Putin to slow down what would’ve been, from his perspective, the inevitable victory of anti-Russian forces throughout all of Ukraine. This was an impulsive move to stop that.”
McFaul said there’s still room for diplomacy to defuse the crisis, though it’s a slim prospect now that a referendum on the Russian occupation is looming and the United States and its allies have taken steps to impose sanctions against Moscow that already go far beyond Western actions during Russia’s brief 2008 war with Georgia over separatist territories.
Most likely, McFaul said, the Obama administration is putting together a “compromise package” that would offer concessions to Putin if he withdraws from Crimea. It would have to include face-saving points for Putin — perhaps reviving parts of a now-defunct Feb. 21 agreement on Ukraine governance, offering international monitors to guarantee protections for ethnic Russians and amending the Ukrainian constitution to grant more autonomy to individual regions.
McFaul said it appears from his statements that Putin is willing to continue work with the West on other issues, such as the removal of Syria’s chemical weapons and negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program. He said that Putin is striking the same tone as he did when Washington was incensed over Moscow’s decision to offer refuge to Edward Snowden, the fugitive National Security Agency leaker.
“Just get over it, we’ve got bigger issues, you know, we’ve got to talk about trade and investments and this shouldn’t get in the way,” McFaul said, describing Putin’s thinking.
But the wild card this time, McFaul said, is the Crimea referendum that’s scheduled for March 16.
“Once that happens — and we all know what the results of that will be — that will create some very sticky facts on the ground by which President Putin will start to say, ‘You know, I’d like to talk to you about these compromises but we have to respect the will of the people,’ ” McFaul said. “I fear, unfortunately, that that will create an ambiguous sovereignty in Crimea that could last for a long time.”
McFaul sounded personally disheartened at the collapse of the Obama administration’s much-touted “reset” with Russia.
On Friday, McFaul, the main architect of the policy, referred to it in past tense even as he rattled off what he considered achievements of the strategy: the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty, improved supply lines for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Russian help on U.N. Security Council resolutions on Iran and Libya, and Russia’s entrance into the World Trade Organization after 18 years of negotiations.
“It was very simple, which is: We are going to engage with Russia, with Russian leaders, to seek agreement on common interests. The idea was the lack of engagement does not allow us to realize what are common interests,” McFaul said.
“In parallel, we’re going to do that without compromising relations with other partners and allies in Europe or elsewhere, and without compromising our values, and our commitment to democracy and human rights,” McFaul continued. “That’s the reset. That’s what it was.”