The former United States ambassador to the Russian Federation — only eight days out of office — told reporters on Friday that the White House is taking the right steps in responding to the crisis in Ukraine, saying the threats to impose sanctions on Moscow are working to change the situation in the immediate term.
In a press call from Palo Alto, Ambassador Michael McFaul told reporters that the Obama administration’s threat of economic punishment for Russia’s incursion into the Crimea peninsula were having a result in the minds of ordinary Russians and the highly influential Russian business community. “The threat of medium and long term action that are designed to create pressure for a negotiated solutions — and I think that’s working by the way,” McFaul said. “I can tell you that the specter of particularly banking sanctions, just in my interaction with Russians — and I’m interacting with Russians everyday, both government officials and people in the business community, and just friends of mine — there’s not a lot of enthusiasm for not being able to have bank accounts, not being able to trade in dollars, having the worry your assets might be frozen.”
“That’s causing a lot of anxiety in the business community in Russia, there’s no doubt in my mind about this,” he continued. “And if you’re a multibillion Russian corporation this has got to look like a total distraction and just not in your interests. I’m thinking of Severstal, for instance, a very well-respected steel company, has lots of investments in the United States and all over the world. This can’t be great news for you.” McFaul made clear he didn’t know where the sanctions were going specifically, which haven’t been imposed against individuals yet despite the White House announcing the legal framework on Thursday.
McFaul also raised the possible economic disaster that the United States could wreak upon Russia if Washington chose to take the same route it did in sanctioning Iran. Since blocking Iran from the world’s financial markets, the international community has persuaded Tehran to come to the negotiating table over its nuclear program. If similar sanctions were ever be applied to Russia, he said, that would have devastating consequences on the Russian economy. “In the immediate run, just having people think about that is important,” he said. At the end of the day, McFaul said, it is quite possible that Russian president Vladimir Putin “will be ready to make those economic sacrifices if he feels he wants to go forward with this annexation strategy.”
From his own standpoint, he said, the State Department’s efforts to put together a compromise package is the correct path to take. “There’s no way that as a result of statements from Western leaders Putin will have his soldiers go back to the barracks,” he said. “There has to be something that shows he has a better outcome from Russia’s national interest point of view as the result of his actions.” He suggested the now lapsed Feb. 21 deal in Ukraine could provide a framework for such a package, including guarantees of protections for ethnic Russians and amending the Ukrainian constitution to have a more federal system. He did worry, though, that chances are slim that will work, particularly after next Sunday’s vote in Crimea on potentially joining the Russian Federation — which he believes will not be free and fair. “Once that’s done will create some very sticky facts on the ground,” McFaul said, adding that he fears it will create an “ambiguous sovereignty of Crimea that could last for a long time.”
McFaul also vigorously defended the “reset” policy with Russia that he helped put together and conservatives have panned in recent weeks. The policy at its core, he said, was never about perfect relations with Russians but instead about engaging with Russia to seek agreement on common interests without compromising our allies in the region and without compromising our values. That strategy has paid off, McFaul argued, running down a laundry list of successes including the New START treaty, keeping open supply lines into Afghanistan, and U.N. Security Council resolution 1929 imposing multilateral sanctions on Iran. “Over time, obviously, it became more difficult to find common interest with Kremlin,” he said, something that he said had almost everything to do with internal changes in Russia and little to do with the Obama administration’s policy.
The narrative that Putin invaded Ukraine because he believes President Barack Obama is weak is completely wrong, McFaul said. Instead, Putin believes that the United States is far stronger than it actually is, to the point of paranoia, he insisted. “Putin still assigns more power to our administration and our government that I think we actually have,” McFaul said. The former diplomat also noted that historically speaking, American presidents have not had a great track record in repelling Russian incursions into their neighbors’ territory. “Now is the right time for diplomacy,” he said, pointing out that there is much greater unity on the Ukraine issue that existed in 2008 during the Russian invasion of Georgia.
Putin’s dream of a Eurasian Economic Union as a counter to the European Union counted on Ukraine for its success, McFaul said, and at the outset now former president Viktor Yanukovych’s decision to reject strengthening European Union ties was seen a victory for that dream initially. His removal after months of protests was a major blow to Moscow and so “the move into Crimea was a tactical counterpunch by Putin to slow down what in his view was a victory of anti-Russian forces,” McFaul argued, calling it “impulsive.” The result thus far has been scaring Russia’s neighbors, assuring NATO members in the region that they made the right choice to join the defense organization, and a Ukrainian interim government that has accelerated their push to have greater ties to the West.
No matter what the outcome is in Ukraine, McFaul said, the cooperation between the U.S. and Russia on their shared interests will likely continue. Both are highly involved in the process of removing Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile from the country and are members of the P5+1 negotiating group discussing Iran’s nuclear program. But on whether he can foresee a possible expansion of Russia’s aims beyond Crimea and into eastern Ukraine, he hedged. “Is Putin planning an invasion of eastern Ukraine? I don’t know. I would be surprised,” he said. “But could I put together a scenario where it happens? Of course. To say that it’s not possible — that would be irresponsible, so yeah, I’m deeply worried about it frankly.”