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How does the U.S. make the case for its interests in Ukraine?

July 5, 2014 at 7:17 PM EDT
Reporting from the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, Hari Sreenivasan interviews the former American Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, in a conversation focused on the crisis in Ukraine and its impact on U.S.-Russian relations.

JOHN LARSON: As we said, Hari Sreenivasan has been at the Aspen Ideas Festival. He interviewed the former American Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul. Their conversation focused on the crisis in Ukraine and its impact on U.S-Russian relations

HARI SREENIVASAN: For someone watching right now, what’s happening on the ground there? We’re seeing these pushes from the Ukrainian government to try to quell the unrest. We saw a cease fire, now were seeing the end of that cease fire. What is President Poroshenko trying to do?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well the first thing that’s happening there is a giant and needless tragedy and I want to start with that because we sometimes quickly get in. We talk about the conflict and kind of rating the conflict. This is one that didn’t need to happen. Ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians have lived side by side for long a time.

This was all fabricated by bad leadership and bad decisions and now you have hundreds of people dying in a place that had been peaceful for a long time. That’s frustrating to me for somebody who worked on the effort to try to make Ukraine and Russia better with the United States.

But where we at now is Poroshenko is also frustrated. He had an overture of a cease fire plan. He then called for a cease fire and he didn’t get the response he wanted. Maybe externally the response was better than the one from the rebels or terrorists inside Ukraine.

So now he’s decided to go after them and we’ll see where it ends.

HARI SREENIVASAN: What about Russia’s support for these rebels or terrorist? The steady stream of people that are coming from Russia into these parts of the Ukraine and obviously military support in the way of ammunition or of some of the weapons that are coming out?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: We don’t have this insurgency without Russia support. It doesn’t mean they control them, doesn’t mean Putin is on the phone every day talking to the commanders. It’s not that kind of control. But particularly the open border and the public support for them as well as the military assistance, the hardware. Those three components are there and if Putin wanted to shut it down he could by disrupting those three components.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Are we misunderstanding President Putin’s motivations? Because right now there’s this idea that Crimea was the first and there are going to be other parts of Ukraine and he wants to recapture the glory days of the Russian empire.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: I don’t think that’s true. I do not think that this is a second phase in a grand strategy. I do believe he went into Crimea because the government fell in Kiev. He was pissed off, it was an emotional, tactical move and he took advantage of weakness in Kiev to do that. Then he experimented in Eastern Ukraine, right. So he didn’t try to stop it, he wanted to see where it went. He gave them some public support for a time, but now I see him as deciding this is not going to lead to popular uprising in Eastern Ukraine to join Russia, and so he’s looking for a way to distance himself from those fighting on the ground. By the way you see it with their own statements from time to time of frustration is that Putin is not doing more from them.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So what are the options for the United States when it comes to the Ukraine and when it comes to Russia?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: The biggest, obvious point, you know, fork in the road for Ukraine is to end the violence. If Poroshenko or some configuration of international leaders helped end the violence, then Ukraine has a chance as a state as and economy, as a democracy and that should be the first and foremost objective, is to help stabilize the economy and to make the democracy function.

That’s the way you deter further aggression and further problems in Ukraine — looking forward, but a pre-condition to make that happen is to end the violence in eastern Ukraine.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Does the stance that America takes on Ukraine have a ripple effect in other parts of foreign policy between the United States and Russia?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Yes, I think it does. Particularly in the way that Putin now views us as this sinister agent trying to deter and contain and confront Russia. That’s the way he thinks about it, he says this publicly, very vocally and therefore if you need trust for cooperation with Russia then you’re not going to have it. I think personally trust is over-rated in diplomacy in general. I think people talk about it a lot.

In fact I didn’t see a lot of it when I was in the government, but more certainly  if that is a requirement for issues on x, y or z, we’re not going to have that as part of the equation. But there’s a lot of things that we can do that doesn’t require trust that just requires our interest to be in alignment.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So how does the United States make the case for aligning our interest when it comes to Ukraine?

MICHAEL MCFAUL:  Well I will just go back to the argument that we made when I was still in government, which was before the violence. We said to Putin and to the rest of his government. Look we do not see this in zero sum terms, right. This is not a game over — is Ukraine going to be in the west or the east. We think that a prosperous Ukraine is good for Russia and good for Europe and good for the United States by the way. And I, in our negotiations would talk about this when I was still ambassador I would say, we have trade arrangements with all kinds of countries. As long as they’re consistent with each other it could be mutually beneficial. Unfortunately that’s not the way Putin saw that particular set of events.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Michael McFaul, thanks so much for your time.

MICHAEL MCFAUL:  Thanks for having me.