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What kind of threat does Russia pose to the U.S.?

January 12, 2017 at 6:45 PM EDT
President-elect Trump has said he would like to improve relations with Russia. But his choice for defense secretary, Gen. James Mattis, views Russia as America’s number one threat. What’s the reality of the White House-Kremlin dynamic? Steve Inskeep discusses with Evelyn Farkas, a former Defense Department official, and Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia.
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STEVE INSKEEP: Now, President-elect Trump has said he would like to improve relations with Russia. His choice for defense secretary views Russia as America’s number one threat.

Let’s listen to Gen. James Mattis at his hearing today.

GEN. JAMES MATTIS (RET.), Secretary of Defense-Designate: I would consider the principal threats to start with Russia. And it would certainly include any nations that are looking to intimidate nations around their periphery, regional nations nearby them, whether it be with weapons of mass destruction or I would call it unusual, unorthodox means of intimidating them.

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, let’s talk about this with Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia for the United States from 2012 to 2014. He is now a political science professor at Stanford University and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution.

We’re also joined by Evelyn Farkas, who served as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia from 2012 to 2015. She’s now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, which is a Washington security think tank.

And welcome to you both.

And, Evelyn, let’s start with you.

Is Mattis right, Russia is the number one threat? It’s not China, it’s not North Korea, it’s not ISIS?

EVELYN FARKAS, Former Defense Department Official: Nope, it’s not the others.

Actually, what is interesting is, he mentioned Russia by name. He didn’t mention the others by name. The second category he gave, of course, could have included Russia.

STEVE INSKEEP: Countries threatening their neighbors.

EVELYN FARKAS: Country threatening using unorthodox means, like cyber-attacks, cyber-operations, strategic communications, fake news, et cetera.

But it also could have included and probably does include North Korea, as well as China and other actors, so other actors that decide to emulate, to copy Russia. But Russia is the biggest one, because they’re really trying to rewrite the rules of the international order far more than China, although China is pushing the envelope as well.

STEVE INSKEEP: I want the bring Ambassador McFaul into the conversation, but first let’s hear a contrary view here, what sounds like a contrary view.

We know that the president-elect seems to want Russia as a friend. President Obama arguably has not wanted to say that Russia is that great of a threat. He doesn’t seem all that worried about them. And let’s listen a little bit of the president in December.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Russians can’t change us or significantly weaken us. They are a smaller country. They are a weaker country. Their economy doesn’t produce anything that anybody wants to buy, except oil and gas and arms. They don’t innovate. But they can impact us if we lose track of who we are.

STEVE INSKEEP: Ambassador McFaul, that’s your former boss. Is Russia really that dangerous?

MICHAEL MCFAUL, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia: Well, I think Russia is dangerous, not a superpower. I know what the president is trying to say. I worked for him for five years, not just two.

He doesn’t want us to overreact. He doesn’t want to go back to the Cold War and some superpower competition. But my own view, and I think General Mattis stated something similar today, is that Russia is a challenge for the United States. It is a threat to some of our allies.

And what means they have, they’re prepared to use them. That’s the big difference. Take cyber-capabilities. We have way more cyber-capability than they do. We could intervene in their elections easily. We choose not to do so because we’re a different country. That’s what Obama was trying to say.

The means that Mr. Putin has, he’s not afraid to use them.

STEVE INSKEEP: I’m remembering the word asymmetric, which we all had to learn after 9/11, when we heard about asymmetric threats, that al-Qaida wasn’t that large, not conventionally powerful, didn’t control territory, but they found new ways to project power that were extraordinarily dangerous.

Is this an asymmetric situation with Russia, where they are a relatively weak country in many ways, but they have found new ways to strike out at their neighbors and at the United States?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: I believe so, I think in a couple of instances.

Number one, I just mentioned cyber. They have kinds of capabilities. They use those capabilities in different ways, political ways, than we’re prepared to do so. With respect to their military, of course they don’t have the military means at all compared to the United States of America.

But they were prepared to use their military to annex territory on their neighbor and then intervene in Eastern Ukraine. We’re not prepared to do that. And then, number three, I think something that’s really understudied and misunderstood is their use of information.

They are very bold in the world of information, propagating their ideas, using companies like R.T. and Sputnik to do that. And, again, they don’t play by the same rules. What we call news, fact vs. fiction, they’re a lot more loose in terms of those definitions. And that has a greater effect, therefore, because they play by different rules.

STEVE INSKEEP: Evelyn Farkas, the Republican critique here is that Russia is in a weak situation, but has been emboldened by a weak response from the United States, that in Ukraine, that in other places, the United States has not stepped forward.

Is there some justice in that view?

EVELYN FARKAS: I regretfully say there is some justice in the view, because the only thing that the Kremlin, this cadre of people supporting Vladimir Putin, and Vladimir Putin himself understand is strength, is resolve.

And they will not stop until they are given the sense that the costs will be too high and they will have gone too far. The other part of this is that Putin himself is a bit of a risk taker, so the invading Ukraine, in the east in particular — Crimea was risky, but then the east was risky. And actually then he didn’t pull it off completely.

And then Syria was very risky. Both these operations, as Mike pointed out, were using their military, but they actually didn’t use their whole military either. They were pretty much economies of force.

But I think, yes, of course we need to be stronger. We need to deter the Russians. We need to show resolve, which is why cooperating with them on the other hand can be more difficult.

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, let’s talk explicitly about Russian President Vladimir Putin and President-elect Trump.

President-elect Trump talked about Putin at his news conference yesterday. Let’s listen to a little bit of that.

DONALD TRUMP (R), President-Elect: If Putin likes Donald Trump, I consider that an asset, not a liability, because we have a horrible relationship with Russia. Russia can help us fight ISIS, which, by the way, is, number one, tricky.

STEVE INSKEEP: And I want to add one other thing, Ambassador McFaul, because Donald Trump sent out a tweet the other day. I’m sure you noticed it.

He said: “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing. Only stupid people or fools would think it was bad.”

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Felt that was directed at me.

STEVE INSKEEP: You think it was directed at you?

What’s wrong with having a good relationship with Russia?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, first, two things. I want to be clear that when you mention the Republican critique of President Obama, that is not President-elect Trump’s critique, right? So you have a real clash within the Republican Party, and I think within the Trump administration, about how to develop policy toward Russia.

But here’s what I would say to that tweet: It should never be the goal of U.S. foreign policy towards any country to have a — quote, unquote — “good relation.” Then what? What do we get out of that? We get — Trump is helping the approval ratings amongst Russians. How does that advance American national security interests?

I think you have got to flip it around. He has got to define what he seeks to achieve with Russia, and then use diplomacy and sometimes coercion to achieve those ends. Right now, aside from this fight with ISIS, which I would just underscore, you know, the Obama administration has been trying to fight ISIS with Russia for several years now.

There’s no disagreement there. They just have not been useful, because the Russians don’t want to fight ISIS in Syria. They want to leave that to us. Aside from that, I don’t know what are the objectives that Mr. Trump seeks in having a good relationship with Mr. Putin.

STEVE INSKEEP: Well, that leads to one more point, Evelyn Farkas, because in the Senate hearing today, Senator John McCain said Russia is not going to be our friend. In fact, he said Russia wants and needs to be our enemy.

EVELYN FARKAS: Right.

STEVE INSKEEP: And they’re not going to cooperate even on ISIS.

So, what can the United States achieve, then?

EVELYN FARKAS: I mean, we can try to get them to cooperate on ISIS, but, as Mike pointed out, we spent months in the administration trying to get them to cooperate on terrorism, actually starting with the Sochi Olympics, where it was on their territory. You would have thought they would have wanted to cooperate.

And I think you pointed to a very important point we need to bear in mind, which is the Russian domestic situation. In 2018, Vladimir Putin will be up for reelection, and he has shifted his whole political strategy inside of Russia from one where he promised the Russians pretty much a chicken in every pot, a better economic way of life.

He’s now nationalist. And what he does is, he tells the Russian people, OK, you may have a little less chicken in your pot, but I’m making Russia great again. Look what we’re doing all other the world. Everyone is paying attention to us. And Russia is a great power, on par with the United States and others.

And he — and the anti-Americanism is rampant in Russia right now. He can tone it back. He’s going to have to tone it back if he wants a good relationship with Donald Trump, but he’s going to have to probably shift back to that again, because the Russian people are not going to be interested in having a guy give them a raw economic deal for another term.

STEVE INSKEEP: Ambassador McFaul, is there just one thing you can name that the United States could deal with Russia on?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, of course we can deal with them on counterterrorism. We have and I think we are right now. That’s easy.

I think in other economic and trade issues, under the right conditions. And, again, I guess I want to really emphasize this point. Vladimir Putin knows exactly what he wants from this relationship. In return for good relations, he wants lifting of sanctions, ratification, approval of his wars in Ukraine and Syria, and his dream of dreams, an acknowledgment of his sphere of influence in Ukraine and the former Soviet Union.

That, to me, is a bad deal. Once he understands that we’re not going to take that deal, then we can move on to these other things, but, first and foremost, he wants to test that proposition. And he’s waiting to see what President Trump will do when given that deal on offer.

STEVE INSKEEP: Michael McFaul is a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. Evelyn Farkas is a former Pentagon official here in our studios.

Thanks to you both.

EVELYN FARKAS: Thank you very much.

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