Web Video: Debating how the U.S. should respond to Moscow’s military moves in Crimea

Sep. 03, 2014 AT 5:59 p.m. EDT

How damaging is Russia’s recent activity in Crimea to Russia’s long-term relationship with the West? Is the current tension adding momentum toward “a new Cold War divide”? Gwen Ifill gets two views from Stephen Cohen of New York University and Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia on the build up to Russia sending troops into Ukraine and how the U.S. should react.

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Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

GWEN IFILL: With all eyes now on Russia, administration officials are trying to determine how far Vladimir Putin will or will not go.

For that, we get two views, starting with Michael McFaul, who stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia just last week.

Ambassador McFaul, you know Vladimir Putin or have been the senior official who’s known him the best recently. Are we misreading him? Is he a bully or a pragmatist in this?

MICHAEL MCFAUL, Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia: Well, he’s a frustrated leader is what I — the way I would describe it.

He had a vision for the Eurasian economic union, as he called it, where he would reunite in an economic union the former pieces of the Soviet Union, in parallel to the European Union. And he thought he had achieved a great victory last fall, when President Yanukovych of Ukraine decided not to sign up to an accession agreement with the European Union and instead to start negotiations with Russian.

But that fell apart when President Yanukovych lost power a few weeks ago. And when I was just — I still was working with the government just last week meeting with senior Russian government officials. They were extremely frustrated with the weakness, in their view, of President Yanukovych and how he fled and why he didn’t stay to represent their interests.

And so what I think you have seen from President Putin in Crimea is his counterpunch. It’s tactical. I don’t think he knows where he’s going with this in the endgame, but it’s a way to put on notice to the people of Ukraine and to the rest of Europe that he’s not just going to give away, in his view, Ukraine.

GWEN IFILL: When the president says to him, as we’re told he said in their phone conversation — or at least he said today — that he’s on the wrong side of history, what leverage does the U.S. have to enforce that — that notion?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, you just heard Tony outline it. I think it was — he very eloquently outlined it.

President Putin has made his move here, but there are now costs. The specter of the economic cost has already been seen in how people are responding in the market today in Moscow. I have lots of friends, business friends, who are panicked about this, because they have a different vision of Russia.

They also want Russia to be a great power, but they want it to be a great economic power. They want it to be a country that’s respected in the world. I just spent — I just was in Sochi just a few days ago, and Russians were incredibly proud of the new Russia, as they called it, that was on display there. This action in Crimea is wiping all that away.

So, I can’t predict how long and whatever. I do think it’s important to emphasize what Tony did, that right now is the moment for diplomacy. It’s still a time that can — Russia can back down, call the troops back, and let the Ukrainians decide how they should govern themselves as a sovereign country.

But if it does go that other way, there will be costs. And this is different, therefore, than Soviet interventions in ’56 in Hungary or Czechoslovakia in ’68, when Russia was — the Soviet Union was isolated from the world economy. Now it’s integrated. That does create leverage.

GWEN IFILL: From what we have seen over the past several days, the idea that they will simply pull back and send the troops back to the barracks seems more and more remote. What do you think are the chances that…


GWEN IFILL: … that Eastern Ukraine will become involved now?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Well, I agree analytically that it’s becoming more and more remote, but my diplomatic hat, I guess, from just a few days ago says that we need to use whatever chance there is to make that happen.

With respect to the rest of the East, of course, President Putin has put everyone on notice that he will defend them from this alleged phantom threat that is there, because, of course, there has been no threat.

And I’m worried. I will be very honest with you. I’m very worried that this could spiral out of control. The last thing that Russia needs, that Ukrainians need, that Europe needs, or the United States is armed conflict in a country of 50 million people in the heart of Europe.

GWEN IFILL: Is there also a possibility that there it will be long-term damage to U.S.-Russia relations?

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Without question.

I mean, the damage is already done. We’re in a different phase already with Russia. And if it persists, yes, of course, especially if you talk about sanctions, because one thing that President Putin always emphasizes in every meeting that I have been listening to him, speaking with the president, speaking with Secretary Kerry, speaking with the vice president, is how we need to focus our attention on trade and investment between our two countries.

This action over the last few days makes that virtually impossible to develop that dimension of our bilateral relationship.


MICHAEL MCFAUL: And I think — I find that very tragic.

GWEN IFILL: Of course, Secretary Kerry heads to the — to Kiev tomorrow.

Ambassador Michael McFaul, thank you.

MICHAEL MCFAUL: Thanks for having me.

GWEN IFILL: And now we get the perspective of Stephen Cohen, a professor of Russian studies and history emeritus at New York University and Princeton University.

What — why are — why are we in this position tonight, Professor Cohen? What is Putin’s endgame here?

STEPHEN COHEN, New York University: I don’t know where to begin, because I have just listened to two statements of the official American position, the position about where we are today and how we got here.

I think they’re fundamentally wrong. What we’re watching today is the worst kind of history being made, the descent of a new Cold War divide between West and East in Europe, this time not in faraway Berlin, but right on Russia’s borders through Ukraine.

That will be instability and the prospect of war for decades to come for our kids and our grandchildren. The official version is that Putin is to blame; he did this. But it simply isn’t true. This began 20 years ago when Clinton began the movement of NATO toward Russia, a movement that’s continued.

And even if we just go back to this November, just a few months ago, when the protesters came into the streets in Ukraine, Putin said to Europe and Washington, why are you forcing Ukraine to choose between Russia and Europe? We’re prepared with Europe to do a kind of mini-Marshall Plan to bail Ukraine out. Let’s do it together.

And that was refused by Washington and Brussels. And that refusal led to the situation today. And one last point. The worst outcome, you asked Michael, and he didn’t say, but he said what he didn’t want. The worst outcome, because we hear this clamor in Washington and we hear it in Europe, is a movement in response to what Putin’s done in Crimea to move NATO forces to the Polish-Ukrainian border.

We do that, Putin will certainly bring troops in from Russia itself. The troops in Crimea seem to be troops that were based at the naval base, not the troops in Russia. I’m not sure.

STEPHEN COHEN: And then you will have a real confrontation.

GWEN IFILL: Is this something that Putin has already made up his mind to do, or is there room for a negotiated settlement, a go-between, perhaps Angela Merkel from Germany?


I mean, Merkel is a key player in this, because Putin doesn’t trust Obama, doesn’t consider him a strong and resolute leader. He likes Merkel. They have got their problems. He speaks German together. They speak German together.

But, I mean, the fundamental issue here is that, three or four years ago, Putin made absolutely clear he had two red lines. You remember Obama’s red lines in Syria. But Putin was serious. One was in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. NATO and NATO influence couldn’t come there.

The other was in Ukraine. We crossed both. You got a war in Georgia in 2008, and you have got today in Ukraine because we, the United States and Europe, crossed Putin’s red line. Now, you can debate whether he has a right to that red line, but let’s at least discuss it. Let’s discuss it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, that’s kind of the question. That’s kind of the question, isn’t it?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, let me turn it back to you, because it — what I hear is in the American commentary is, Russia has no legitimate national interests abroad, not even on its borders, as though we don’t care what happens in Canada and Mexico.

I mean, if you come to that point — and we never said that about the Soviet Union, by the way. We recognized the Soviet Union had national interests. If the position is, there are no legitimate national security interests that Russia can defend, then we are where we are. If we acknowledge those interests, there are ways to negotiate out of this crisis, though I’m not sure Obama can do it.

GWEN IFILL: Well, can Kerry do it?


GWEN IFILL: That’s the one who is headed tomorrow to Kiev.

What should he be trying to do at the meeting?

STEPHEN COHEN: Well, I don’t think Kerry is going to Kiev for the reason he’s giving. He says he’s going to find out what this so-called government in Kiev wants.

It’s an extremist government with no constitutional or international legitimacy. It’s unelected. I think what Kerry is doing is going to Kiev to chill out that government, which has been issuing provocative anti-Russian statements. What Kerry and Obama should do is beg Merkel to keep talking to Putin, because he trusts her, for better or worse.

GWEN IFILL: Why is any of this important to anyone who is not in Russia or Ukraine?

STEPHEN COHEN: I told you at the top. I mean, you and I are old enough to have lived through divided Europe in Berlin.

And we were lucky, they say, that we survived it. Now imagine that on the borders of Russia. I mean, just imagine what that means, the possibility of provocation, the possibility of misunderstanding.

And let me mention one other thing. You want to talk about Russia’s ties to Ukraine? There is simply much more primary. Tens of millions of Russians and Ukrainians are married. They are married. They are conjugal. They have children together.

You want to divide — put a new Iron Curtain or whatever you call it right through that biological reality? This is madness. It’s gone too far.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Stephen Cohen of the NYU and Princeton, thank you very much.


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