From Cold War to Hot Peace: Looking Back and Forward in the U.S.-Russia Relationship
May 23rd, 2018 5:00PM -6:30PM
(Photo by Gary Reyes/ Bay Area News Group)
Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul joined the World Affairs Council and the Jackson Foundation on May 23 for a timely discussion on the course of the U.S.-Russia relationship—looking back at the Yeltsin years that saw Putin’s rise from obscurity to “the reset” during Ambassador McFaul’s years with President Obama to Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Ambassador McFaul’s best-selling new book From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin's Russia offers rare insight into the turbulent course of U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.
From the start of the conversation, Ambassador McFaul noted that he found the U.S.-Russia relationship to be a story of tragedy—the relationship did not need to be adversarial and yet continues to reach new lows.
Ambassador McFaul offered anecdotes on his experience as both a senior adviser to President Obama on Russia and as U.S. Ambassador to Russia. He lauded President Obama’s relationship with then President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev, highlighting the 2010 New START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). This treaty managed to reduce 30 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons, a significant step in nuclear disarmament.
Yet despite Obama’s willingness to listen President Putin’s concerns of American overreach, McFaul found that Putin and Obama never got to the kind of relationship that Putin had with Bush—but the U.S.-Russia relationship still faced significant challenges in the Bush presidency, including Russia’s invasion of Georgia in 2008. McFaul described Putin as becoming increasingly nativist and nationalist, especially after the 2011-2013 mass protests in Russia, that surprised Putin (and indeed the West even as Putin blamed the United States for launching and sustaining the protests). Putin is seen as having a worldview that is convinced of American deep-state activities across the globe. This behavior locked him into an ideological struggle with the United States, as Russia’s national interests, as Putin perceived them, were increasingly confronted by actions from the West seen as hostile—including the expansion of NATO, the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Ukraine’s move to sign an association agreement with the EU.
Ambassador McFaul explained to the audience that he never was a cold warrior and sought to promote cooperation where Russia and the United States had aligned interests. To that end, he found the diplomatic corps to be an important mechanism to try to maintain a healthy relationship with Russia. The closure of the Russian consulate general in Seattle was a step he would have advised against. Kicking out spies is one thing but to limit a diplomatic mission for political points was, in his view, ill advised. Ongoing exchanges, including economic exchanges of the kind Boeing undertakes with its business in Russia, as well as keeping a line open in diplomacy, is what prevents miscalculations and miscommunications in relationships. While skeptical about the short term prospects for an improved relationship, Ambassador McFaul remains fundamentally hopeful that the U.S.-Russia relationship will improve with time.