The following appeared in the Newsletter of the UC Berkeley Institute of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, Spring/Summer 2018.
Michael McFaul, President Obama’s “Russia hand” on the National Security Council from 2009 through 2011, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia from January 2012 to early 2014, has written a compelling, readable, and self-reflective memoir of his long engagement with Russia. His special focus is the failure of the policy with which he is most closely associated – the so-called “Reset” in U.S.-Russian relations from 2009-2011. As McFaul bluntly admits, that policy led not to engagement, cooperation, and even partnership, as he and his colleagues had hoped, but to today’s “hot peace.” “What went wrong?,” he asks, and more particularly, “What had I gotten wrong?” (xi).
As a comparative political scientist at Stanford with an interest in empirics and public policy, a long list of academic and non-academic publications, and years of experience in Russia, McFaul has an excellent command of the facts. His record of offering prescriptions with real-world consequences also accounts for his emphasis on contingency and uncertainty; indeed, much of the book is preoccupied with counterfactuals – the “what-might-have-beens” had different choices been made in Moscow or Washington. And he uses contingent, probabilistic language intended to persuade, not “prove.”
I agree with much of what McFaul writes, but dissent from his explanation for the failure of the Reset, the core argument of the book.
The post-Cold War relationship between Russia and the United States has had its ups-and-downs, but the overall trend has been negative since at least the mid-1990s. NATO expansion, Russia’s 1998 economic meltdown, Moscow’s wars in Chechnya, the 1999 U.S.-led NATO military operation against Serbia, the 2003 Iraq War, the U.S. decision to withdraw from the ABM treaty and its ballistic missile defense development and deployments, and the Bush administration’s efforts to bring Georgia and Ukraine into NATO helped turn a cooperative relationship into an adversarial one. Then came Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in August 2008, which McFaul argues “changed everything.” (76). As a result: “By the time the Bush administration ended, American and Russian were barely talking to each other” (75).
McFaul goes on to describe the origins of the “Reset” during Obama’s presidential campaign, highlighting in particular a “major working paper” that he helped write. (He had been advising Obama’s campaign team since early 2007.) He and his co-authors concluded that U.S. interests would be served by a détente with Russia, but they worried about domestic political fallout from appearing weak, especially after Russia’s invasion of Georgia. To square the circle, the Reset would be framed as serving particular American interests, not as an end in itself. As the working paper put it: “Improved relations with Russia should not be the goal of U.S. policy, but a possible strategy for achieving American security and economic objectives in dealing with Russia” (79). The strategy, in short, was to seek cooperation on issues of mutual interest while downplaying areas of disagreement, including deeply rooted ones such as NATO expansion.
McFaul narrates the twists and turns of the Reset after Obama took office, arguing convincingly that it helped achieve many American foreign policy objectives. Payoffs included a new strategic arms control treaty (New START); increased sanctions on Iran; Russian acquiescence to an expanded Northern Distribution Network through Central Asia to support the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan; Russian accession to the World Trade Organization; more efficient visa processing by both sides; increased trade and investment; cooperation to defuse a political crisis in Kyrgyzstan; and Russia’s abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing a limited use of force by the United States and some of its allies in Libya.
Despite these successes, McFaul makes clear that the Obama White House did not expect the Reset to lead to another U.S.-Russian “honeymoon.” Washington would work with the Russia it had, not the Russia it wanted. The relationship would be transactional – cooperate where cooperation was mutually beneficial. Meanwhile, the United States would continue to strengthen the NATO alliance, support democracy and state sovereignty throughout Europe and Eurasia, reduce Russia’s energy leverage in Europe, promote human rights and liberal democracy, and, tellingly, “reach out to the Russian people to promote our common values” (80).
Over the longer run, the McFaul and his colleagues hoped that Russia’s objections to U.S. policies – notably NATO expansion, NATO military activities near its borders, U.S. missile defenses, and Washington’s promotion of liberal democracy, “colored revolutions,” and “regime change” in Eurasia and elsewhere, including Russia itself – would pass into history. Its political elite would realize that participation in a U.S.-led “liberal international order” was a win-win outcome that served Russia’s interests better than confrontation, suspicion, and an imagined security threat from NATO. Meanwhile, points of disagreement were “manageable hiccups, bumps in the road of cooperation” (415).
McFaul placed special hopes on Russia’s “modernization” prospects during the presidency of Vadim Medvedev (2008-2012). Medvedev, he argues convincingly, was committed to the success of the Reset, as well as to measured liberalization and democratization. And he emphasizes the personal rapport between Medvedev and Obama, arguing that Medvedev “wanted Obama’s respect’” (420) and “wanted Obama to believe that he too was a progressive – a new, young, post-Cold War leader.” (421)
In McFaul’s telling, the key driver for the failure of the Reset was Vladimir Putin and his return to the presidency in 2012. Putin’s decision to serve a third term, coupled with the mass demonstrations that broke out after electoral fraud in the December 2011 parliamentary elections, meant that “Putin needed the United States again as an enemy” (416). He explains:
To be elected a third time as president of Russia in 2012, [Putin] needed a new argument. In the face of growing social mobilization and protest, he revived an old Soviet-era argument as his new source of legitimacy – defense of the motherland against the evil West, and especially the imperial, conniving, threatening United States. Putin, his aides, and his media outlets accused the leaders of Russian demonstrations of being American agents, traitors from the so-called fifth column. We were no longer partners, but revolutionary fomenters, usurpers, enemies of the nation (418).
The implication is that had Putin retired from the scene in 2011, there would have been no mass demonstrations by the opposition at the end of the year, no crackdown at home, no “pivot” away from the West, and no end to the Reset. U.S. and Western policies may have contributed to the pivot, but “only at the margins.”
I have two main objections. First, I disagree, at least in part, with McFaul’s explanation for why Putin pivoted after 2011, and second, I think he underplays the explanatory weight of U.S. and Western policy in alienating the Russian political elite in general and Putin in particular.
As noted, McFaul’s explanation for Putin’s pivot after 2011 emphasizes perceived self-interest. In the face of the mass demonstrations of late 2011, Putin concluded he had to save his presidency by playing the nationalism card. And that meant playing up fears of an external enemy, the United States, even as he cracked down on dissent at home to prevent a “colored revolution.”
There is, however, a different explanation for Putin’s actions that I think is rather closer to the truth. I suspect that Putin’s decision to return to the presidency, as well as his 2012 policy pivot, were the product of his understanding of Russia’s — and not simply his own — interests. In my view, Putin, and indeed most of the Russian political elite, genuinely believe that the United States, and the West broadly, pose a threat to Russian political stability and security. They are convinced that Western democracy promotion, and the West’s public embrace of “universal values,” are hypocritical smokescreens masking U.S. ambitions to remain the world’s sole superpower and geopolitical hegemon. They also are convinced that the changes advocated by Western democracy promoters would produce chaos at home and weakness abroad, not prosperity and strength. And they understand the tolerance entailed in liberalism as incompatible with traditional Russian values and Russian “civilization.”
McFaul is aware of this Russian worldview, and indeed one of the many strengths of the book is his fair-minded summarizing of it (as well as the views of critics of the Reset at home). Nonetheless, his explanation for the failure of the Reset attaches no obvious weight to Russian beliefs. Instead, the argument is that Putin pivoted toward illiberalism, authoritarianism, and confrontation with West simply to preserve his own power.
We cannot be certain about what motivates Putin, let alone the Russian political elite, but I believe it would be a mistake for Western policy makers to accept McFaul’s explanation for the 2012 Putin pivot. The core of Putin’s political project is certainly regime stability, and after his return to the presidency that meant keeping himself in office. But there is a difference between leaders who believe they are serving the state from those who serve only themselves. One takes personal political risks on behalf of the state; the other doesn’t.
Moreover, explaining the pivot as a product of Putin’s self-interest risks misleading Western policy-makers into assuming that Russia’s challenge to the West comes from Putin and Putin alone, not from Russia’s political elite broadly (and, less clearly, from the Russian public). Were Putin to pass from the scene, it’s very unlikely that we would see a return to the policies of the Medvedev era, let alone rapid liberalization, democratization, and partnership with the West. Russian decision-makers see the world, and Russian interests, very differently, and that they will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.
My second objection is that McFaul underweights the role of Western policy in producing the “hot peace.” He argues that “American foreign policy decisions, both real and perceived, cannot be cited as the source of our current conflict with Russia for one major reason – the successful cooperation between Russia and the United States during the Reset, from 2009 to 2011” (414). He goes on to claim that U.S. policies pursued during the Reset to which Moscow objected – the Magnitsky Act, U.S. missile defense deployments in Europe and elsewhere, the “mission creep” of the U.S.-led intervention in Libya, and U.S. criticism of Russia’s “antidemocratic behavior (415) – were not determinative, and were instead the “bumps in the road of cooperation” noted above.
Again, there is another possibility that is consistent with the facts and probably closer to the truth. This is not the place to rehash debates over NATO expansion and U.S. unilateralism since the end of the Cold War, but suffice it to say that the Russian political elite, including those few who are still relatively well-disposed toward liberal democracy, have cause to believe that while the United States insists that other states comply with the rules of the “liberal international order,” it acts as if it, and it alone, has the right to violate those rules. Most are likewise unconvinced by Western arguments about NATO expansion, U.S. military exercises near Russia’s border’s, and U.S. force posture. For them, these are not benign efforts to promote stability and democracy in Central Europe or ensure American security. Rather, they are directed at containing Russia, subverting Russian interests, and projecting American power. And they are a threat to Russian national security.
For these and other reasons, by the time the Obama White House launched the Reset, not just Putin but most of the Russian political elite were deeply suspicious of Western intentions. Support in Moscow for the Reset was accordingly very thin, as McFaul himself suggests. He may have hoped that Russia would follow the path advocated by Medvedev, but he was well aware that Putin was the power behind the throne. And while Putin was willing, up to a point, to let Medvedev preside over the Reset, he was also very skeptical that it served Russian interests. McFaul writes, “[H]ardliners in Moscow – the silovikias they are called in Russia – were not very present in most of our meetings with Medvedev. As we would later learn, they were watching carefully their new young president as he embraced our new young president, and they are doing so not with enthusiasm but anxiety” (204).
If so, it is very possible that U.S. and Western actions during the Reset had a tipping effect on the Reset’s failure, analogous to the tipping effect that Russian meddling may have had on the U.S. presidential elections in 2016. That is, U.S. and Western actions from 2009 to 2011 may have been necessary though not sufficient conditions for today’s “hot peace.”
McFaul’s narrative lends support to this interpretation. He characterizes, for example, the Arab Spring and the civil war in Libya as marking “the beginning of the end of the Reset.” Putin and the bulk of Russia’s political elite were convinced that Western democracy promotion helped account for the revolutionary upheavals that shook the Arab world beginning in 2011. And they felt vindicated when their warnings about the consequences of political destabilization and colored revolutions were followed by disastrous civil wars in Libya, Syria, and Yemen, and the failure of “democratic breakthroughs” most everywhere else.
The most important precipitant of the Reset’s failure, however, was probably the U.S.-led military intervention in Libya in 2011. As McFaul makes clear, Medvedev took a considerable political risk when he decided that Russia would abstain from a U.N. Security Council Resolution authorizing the use force to prevent a bloody assault by Qaddafi’s forces on opposition-controlled Benghazi. Since Soviet times, Moscow had objected to the use of force against sovereign states for humanitarian purposes. McFaul recalls that some of his White House colleagues felt Russia’s abstention “marked a major turning point in the evolution of national security norms and institutions” (224). But Putin publicly criticized the intervention, and by implication Medvedev for ordering Russia’s UNSCR abstention, referring to the operation as “a crusade.” (225) Medvedev responded, also in public, that it is “inadmissible to say anything that could lead to a clash of civilizations, talk of ‘crusades,’ and so on.” (225). McFaul recalls that he found this “public sparring” shocking, and that he “worried that Putin’s comments signaled an end to his patience with Medvedev” (226).
The Putin-Medvedev exchange took place shortly after the Security Council’s use of force authorization. The political costs to Medvedev would increase dramatically after the intervention went well beyond the letter of the Security Council’s mandate. A sustained air campaign led not to stabilization but to a prolonged civil war, regime change, and the death of Qaddafi at the hands of a mob — this despite the fact that Obama had assured Medvedev that the United States would not use Security Council authorization to bring about regime change. McFaul doesn’t explain how this “mission creep” happened or how he felt about it, but he does make clear that Medvedev felt betrayed by Obama. When Medvedev met Obama on the sidelines of a G-20 summit that May, McFaul writes that he had “never seen him [Medvedev] so upset.” And he speculates, in something of an understatement, that Medvedev “may have felt that his special relationship with Obama was not longer an asset but a liability” (227).
In retrospect, U.S.-Russian cooperation on Libya may have been both the height of cooperation in the Reset era, as well as the beginning of the end of the Reset. Years later, in defending his annexation of Crimea, Putin said as much, arguing, ‘You know, it’s not that it [the Reset] has ended over Crimea. I think it ended even earlier, right after the events in Libya.’ U.S. military intervention in Libya, which helped topple Gadhafi [sic], also inadvertently might have helped remove Medvedev from power in Russia (227).
I agree with McFaul’s assessment, and with Putin’s. I suspect it was the Arab Spring, and Libya in particular, that led Putin to lose confidence in Medvedev and his foreign policy, indeed to the extent that he no longer felt Medvedev should serve as president. Instead, Putin would return to the presidency to save Russia from the West. The result was the so-called “castling maneuver” whereby Putin again became president with control of foreign and security policy, while a much weakened and doubtless much less pro-Western Medvedev became prime minister.
If so, then the Reset failed before the Putin-Medvedev castling and before the mass demonstrations of late 2011 and 2012. The key precipitant was not the oppositional mobilization of late 2011 and 2012. Rather, it was the Arab Spring and Libya, which served as final nails in the coffin of Putin’s willingness to tolerate Medvedev’s efforts to seek cooperation with the West. And I suspect that Russia’s mass oppositional demonstrations later that year only reinforced his conviction that the West was simply incapable of refraining from destabilizing non-democratic regimes, and that Russia, sooner-or-later, would be in its crosshairs. That in turn suggests why Putin would then authorize a concerted Russian assault on Western democracy, a risky project that goes well beyond demonizing the United States and its allies at home. For Putin, Russia is simply doing to the West what the West has been doing to it. And he intends to win the “meddling war.”
In writing this, I should make clear that I do not share Putin’s understanding of Western motivations, even if I believe many Russian grievances and criticisms are credible and understandable. Even less do I agree with Putin’s understanding of Russian interests or his policies at home and abroad. Rather, the point is to get Putin, and Russian decision-making, right. And that, in my view, means not turning them into straw men. It also means a frank and clear-headed assessment of how U.S. and Western policies have contributed to today’s “hot peace.”