The Putin Factor: Russia, America and the Geopolitics of Ukraine

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President Obama came into office promising a “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations. Six years later, the reset, for all intents and purposes, is dead.

What went wrong? We asked the architect of the administration’s reset policy, Michael A. McFaul. A scholar of Russian history, McFaul served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to February 2014. Today, he is a professor of political science at Stanford University. Here’s what he had to say.

Can you help explain the worldview of Vladimir Putin. What exactly does he want for Russia?

He wants a strong Russia that is economically vibrant, militarily secure and a major player in the international system. I don’t think his strategy for achieving that is the correct one. That’s my own view. But I think that if you were to articulate what he thinks he’s doing, and most certainly what is important for him, those would be the top-line things.

Maybe I would add one more — he wants a conservative Russia. … He would like to see Russia move that way internally and also be a leader of that particular ideology internationally. …

How does Ukraine play into that vision? What’s his endgame there?

His strategy on Ukraine has changed radically in the last several months. When I was ambassador, for instance, it was very clear to me and to our government watching this, that his main foreign policy objective for the region was to establish and strengthen something called the Eurasian Economic Union. This was his answer to the [European Union]. This was his way that Russia was going to be the economic hegemon of an economic region. Whether it was coercive or cooperative that’s a matter of dispute, but that was most certainly his focus. And key to making the Eurasian Economic Union viable was to have Ukraine as a member, and all of Ukraine not just Crimea. …

“Putin is undermining and challenging the basic international rules of the game. You have to go back a long time to remember a respected member of the international community annexing territory from a neighbor.”

When the Yanukovych government fell, then he reassessed his option and decided that — I think correctly by the way — that the Eurasian Economic Union was no longer viable. And that’s when he changed strategies. That’s when he changed what he sought and that’s when he went into Crimea.

I don’t see the action in Crimea as a long thought-out strategy, a long thought-out aspiration of Putin that he’s been dreaming about for decades. I don’t see any evidence of that … and that means, in my view that he doesn’t know what his ultimate objective in Ukraine is after this. He’s happy with the way Crimea happened – they did it with pretty minimal negative reactions from the west or from Ukraine itself. But moving forward, I think he’s much more [ambiguous] about his ultimate objectives.

One of his arguments has been that he needs to protect Ukraine’s ethnic Russians from fascists and Nazis. Where does that come from?

Well first of all, lets be clear. No ethnic Russians were under threat in Ukraine until Putin acted. Not a single Russian in Crimea was ever threatened, to my knowledge, let alone killed. This was completely fabricated. … People were living very peacefully in that part of the world until very recently. So it was his actions that created the threat to ethnic Russians, not the other way around.

What he’s doing to justify this internally is to characterize these leaders in Ukraine as fascists. It’s completely absurd in my view. He just throws around these words — “fascist” — to describe anybody that disagrees with him. But of course it resonates with a society where fascism was a real enemy, and so to characterize the current threats as somehow having an ideological affinity to the old threats, that’s politically very useful to him. …

Obviously this has put some serious strains on U.S.-Russia ties. It seems safe to say that any ambitions for a “reset” with Russia are gone. What went wrong there?

Putin decided it wasn’t in the interest of Russia the way he defines it. That’s what went wrong. …

[The reset] was a very simple concept, which was that we have a number of national security objectives in the world, and in many of them we thought that a Russia cooperating with us would make it more likely that we would achieve our objectives, than a Russia that was not cooperating with us. That’s the essence to reset. It achieves things that I still believe were in America’s national interest, and today are still in America’s national interest. So the achievements of that earlier period are still making us safer — whether that’s the START Treaty; whether that’s sanctions against Iran; whether that’s the northern distribution network that supplies our troops in Afghanistan and now will be a critical route for getting out our troops, our soldiers and our materiel from Afghanistan. Those are all things that we did during the reset that I still think are good things for today.

But when Putin came in and decided for domestic reasons — remember he ran for president at a time when tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of Russians were protesting against the Russian regime. And they were nervous. And so they decided that they needed a new strategy, and they needed a new enemy, us, to rally his electoral base until election, and to discredit the opposition, to characterize them as being puppets of the United States. And when I was ambassador that was a theme of Russian television almost every day. …

I would add also historically, we had a big disagreement with the Russians about Syria, and how to proceed in terms of how to resolve the bloodshed there. That also was a pretty major contributor to reducing cooperation before the elections. But once the elections happened all bets were off.

Where does this leave U.S.-Russia relations? Can they be fixed or is this the start of Cold War 2.0?

I don’t think it’s just a hiccup in U.S.-Russia relations. … I do think it’s a turning point. And it’s a turning point because Putin is undermining and challenging the basic international rules of the game.

You have to go back a long time to remember a respected member of the international community annexing territory from a neighbor. It demands a different strategy by the United States and the west and you see that already unfolding, and I think it’s the right strategy. It’s done out of tragedy and remorse. We would be much better off with a more cooperative relationship with Russia [like] we had in 2009, 2010, but I think Putin’s actions have made that impossible. …

You’ve met Putin. You’ve worked with him on several occasions. On a personal level, what’s he like to interact with? 

Well I should qualify that I’m always an observer to his meetings with President Obama or Secretary Kerry, I’m never meeting him one-on-one. Although I’ve been in very small settings with him where he’s addressed some of the issues he’s had concerns with to me personally.

“Russia has proven it may be a regional power, but it’s willing to use force and very aggressive tactics in its region. And that region happens to be a place where we have alliances with many countries.”

He’s a sophisticated guy, he’s been in power for a long time so it’s not like he doesn’t know the issues that we’re discussing. I think that he knows them well. He’s very blunt, and I say that mostly as a compliment — you never come out of a meeting with Putin not knowing his position, and that makes him an interesting interlocutor for officials.

And he also has some very flawed theories about the world and American foreign policy. The biggest flawed part of his analytic framework is believing that the United States is constantly looking around the world to overthrow regimes we don’t like.

And so he ascribes a tremendous amount of agency to the United States and to the CIA for events that we had nothing to do with. What comes to mind first and foremost is the Arab Spring, where he thinks this is all just some master plan, and that’s just not true, but also Ukrainian politics and Russian politics, where he thinks somehow we are behind everything. It’s somehow hard for him to believe that citizens in these countries might actually take action because of their own grievances and not because of some instruction from Washington. …

You’ve started to answer my next question, which is how do you think he views the U.S.?

… He tends to think that the U.S. works just like his country. So he doesn’t really believe that there’s a free press here. He doesn’t really believe that there’s really a constraint by the legislative branch. He tends to dismiss those things and ascribe a lot of power to the intelligence community, because guess what? The intelligence community in his government, in his country, has a lot of power. So he does that mirroring a lot. And I think it’s distorting.

But he also understands the world enough to know that — although this is changing with this current crisis — Russia has national interest in working with the United States government and American business.

So he’s not so anti-American that he doesn’t want to see American investment, for instance. The joint venture between Rosneft and ExxonMobil is, in his view, one of the most positive achievements of U.S.-Russian relations in the last decade. And so he can keep those two thoughts moving in tandem together. On one hand the United States is out to overthrow regimes, and on the other hand we can cooperate in certain limited areas.

Then the last thing I would say on his view [is that] he just has a fundamentally zero-sum way of thinking about most issues. If it’s good for America, it must be bad for Russia. …

President Obama, for his part, has dismissed Russia as a “regional power.” Is that the right way to view it?

I think it’s analytically correct. I think in the back of his mind he was comparing present-day Russia to the Soviet Union, and in that respect, on several dimensions, present-day Russia is more of a regional power than a global power.

The most important distinction is that for much of the Cold War, Moscow and the Soviet Union was the leader of a worldwide political movement: communism. And that had appeal not just in the countries next to Russia but all the way to Nicaragua and Angola. That’s different.

Russian ideology, Putinism today, does not have the appeal anywhere outside of maybe pockets of eastern Ukraine. And I say pockets deliberately, not all of eastern Ukraine, pockets of eastern Ukraine.

Second, in terms of military power, Russia today does not have the international reach that the Soviet Union had, but the caveat I would add to that analytic statement is Russia has proven it may be a regional power, but it’s willing to use force and very aggressive tactics in its region. And that region happens to be a place where we have alliances with many countries, NATO.

I don’t think that gives you any kind of great comfort that they’re just a regional power. Yeah they’re regional, but in a very important region. And that I think is truly a major challenge. I think how to deal with this revisionist Russia will be for many years to come a central issue for American foreign policy leaders and European foreign policy leaders.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin speaks during a meeting on the development of transport infrastructure, in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, Russia in 2008. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)
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