Michael McFaul: Putin believes that time is on his side: that the West will become disinterested and Ukraine will fail with reforms

14 May 2015, 14:02

U.W.: When western policymakers were trying to democratize Russia, why did they overlook – intentionally or not – the rise of the regime that Russia has today?

The first thing that I would say is that outsiders have very limited influence on democratic processes internally, especially in big countries. So, the influence of the West was always very marginal in Russia. And it should never be overestimated. The biggest difference of Russia compared to more successful democratic transitions in the post-communist region was that there was a division between those who wanted to move forward and become more democratic and those who did not. In other countries, such as Poland or Estonia, there was more consensus from the very beginning. So they had a better start.

The second thing is that old institutions of the Soviet system, such as the KGB, remained in place. And we didn’t pay enough attention to them, whereas they totally collapsed in other places.

RELATED ARTICLE: Vytautas Landsbergis: "Ukrainians are now undergoing a long endurance test"

The third thing we generally know about democratic transitions is called the ‘resource curse’ in the Western academic literature. It says that if you get the majority of revenues from natural resources, you are not dependant on tax payers to raise money for the government. If you are dependent on the taxpayers to raise revenues, then you have to listen to the taxpayers. And there is a lot of research that shows that countries, which are heavy oil and gas exporters around the world, not just in Europe, tend to be more autocratic than democratic.

I also think the failure for Russian democracy to consolidate was very contingent. One can imagine just a few facts being different that might have changed the trajectory. The Russian people did not select Putin. Yeltsin did. There is no way that Putin would have become the President of Russia, if Yeltsin hadn’t selected him. He had never won an election at any level before 2000. So it was not inevitable, that whoever came after Yeltsin would stay in power for fifteen years. Had he chosen Nemtsov, who was one of other candidates at that time, Russian political history could have been very different.

People often forget that, but I think it’s an important point. There is some assumption that it was inevitable, that Putin would be the next leader after Yeltsin. I think that’s not true. It was an accident of history.

U.W.: The U.S. used to consider Russia as regional leader. Has this vision changed? If so, what country or a group of countries is considered to be a potential strategic leader in Eastern Europe now?

There have been periods in the U.S.-Russia relations after the Cold War, when we cooperated very closely on big important issues. One was in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The beginning of the Clinton Administration was certainly like that. There was still a high degree of cooperation with the Bush Administration after September 11, then during the “reset” in the early years of the Obama Administration. It’s not true today. We are now in a much more competitive environment with Russia. Therefore, those who are competitive with Russia are like our allies. So without question Ukraine is a very important country right now for not just this part of the world, but for the entire world – because of the norms that were violated with Russian intervention into Ukraine. It’s not just about Ukraine, it’s about the international system that is being challenged by what Russia is doing.

RELATED ARTICLE: Edward Lucas on what it would take Europe to defend itself

U.W.: Going back to the “reset policy”, why do you think it has not brought forth the expected results?

It had delivered lots of results in the beginning. We got a new START treaty, sanctions on Iran, new supplies to our groups in Afghanistan, and we got Russia into the WTO. Those results were and remain good. The change then happened in Russia internally. Putin had a different view about America, so our ability to work with him diminished. The “reset” was really over in 2012.

U.W.: Now we see that Putin is winning more and more allies in the West among the EU countries. Do you think there is a way to restrain him somehow?

I believe that to maintain unity is No1 foreign policy challenge for the United States. I’m really nervous about it. I think the allies in NATO need to remember why the alliance was created in the first place and to reaffirm solidarity to it. It has been the most successful alliance in modern history. What comes to the EU, of course we are not a member of it, but we have an interest in seeing the EU succeed. And you are right, Putin is challenging that. I think it is really a new drama that we have not experienced for many-many years, when Russia is trying to peel away allies and to peel away members of the EU. It is a very serious question.

U.W.: Can the supply of arms to Ukraine be approved before the presidential election in the U.S.? Under which circumstances?

It all depends on Putin. If Putin escalates the military campaign in Eastern Ukraine, that will lead to more weapons for Ukraine. If he doesn’t, then I don’t expect the Obama Administration to send new weapons. I do however think there could be changes after the election in the United States.

RELATED ARTICLE: How Russian troops entered Donbas on August 23 

U.W.: What do you see as the future scenario for the Donbas and Crimea?

I’m not optimistic. I think Putin has made a decision to pursue aggressive policy and he has explained to his people that he is fighting NATO, Nazis, and evil. That already describes it. It’s hard to negotiate with Nazis, it’s hard to negotiate with the devil. How does he then reverse his propaganda and say: “Well, now we’re going to negotiate with these very evil people”? That would be hard to do in domestic terms.

Ukraine and Ukrainian partners in the West should continue to try to negotiate and seek a settlement. War serves nobody’s interest and there have been so many needless, totally tragic, unnecessary deaths in Ukraine already. But I’m not optimistic.

U.W.: If a new political leader comes to power in Russia?       

It all depends on who will come to power. But I do think that would create a moment for change, like it does in all countries.

In the long run, however, I’m actually optimistic about Russia. When people become economically rich they demand a more representative government. It happened in Europe, Asia and Latin America. And I have no reason to believe that Russia will somehow be unique in that respect. Russian leaders today talk about how unique and different Russia is, but I met a lot of Russians when I lived there and they didn’t seem that unique to me. They seemed like they cared mostly about their own financial situation, the future of their children, and wanted to live peacefully and free of corruption. They did not seem too interested in supporting the revival of the Russian empire, supporting a war, or securing some special place for Russia in the world.  Maybe people who think this way are not in the majority right now, but I expect that those people will define foreign policy twenty years from now.

U.W.: How much does the future of the Donbas and Crimea depend on Russia now?

It’s mostly about Russia, unfortunately, because I don’t see the will of the international community to use coercive power to change the situation in either place. There would be a change option theoretically, in terms of capacity, but I don’t see one in terms of intentions. There are very few people who want to go to war with Russia over Crimea of the Donbas in my country. My guess is that the same is true in most of Europe. I do believe, however, that there are many people in the United States who want to help Ukraine to defend itself. I am one of them. That debate is still ongoing.

In the long run, however, Ukraine’s economic and democratic success is crucial for reunification. Ukraine is not the first divided society. Other countries have endured this kind of occupation and division. Success stories after the division are those where it was clear that one side lived better than other. In Germany, for instance, the attractiveness of West Germany’s model helped bring about reunification.  

RELATED ARTICLE: Adrift in Washington: The reasons for American inaction

U.W.: You mentioned earlier that big decisions in politics are often made based on emotions rather than logic. Do think that Putin is acting based on emotions? How would you describe his psychological portrait as a politician?So in the long run that’s a very important thing for the Ukrainians to remember that they need to make their country a much more attractive place to be part of, compared to the alternative of living in Russia or some ambiguous zone of sovereignty like the Donbas right now. People in the Donbas should clearly understand that Russia is not helping them. Putin is just using them to weaken Ukraine, not actually thinking much about their wellbeing or future; he is deliberately keeping it ambiguous. If I were living there and were thinking about how I am going to raise my kids in a place that is ambiguous in terms of sovereignty, I would want to leave.  Are people in the Donbas better off today than they were two years ago? The answer is no? Why are they worse off?  Because Putin’s proxies showed up and seized power. Someday, I hope they will understand the source of current economic despair and seek a return to normal life.

I see Putin more as a tactical leader, not a strategic one, and making emotional decisions. There is no question on my mind that that’s what happened with Crimea. When it was cheap to take Crimea, he became tempted to go further. That was unfortunate. Annexation should have been more costly to him. That could have helped to prevent the future aggression.

The other thing I would say is that he believes that time is on his side. He believes that the West will become disinterested. He believes that Ukraine will fail with its economic reforms, that it will not be able to recover economically and that would lead to political unrest and division again. They are waiting for the day when there will be massive protests against the government in Ukraine because of the new prices for energy or something like that. So Putin can be patient. He does not need a settlement; he can let things go for a very-very long time.

RELATED ARTICLE: The reasons for Russia's aggression on Ukraine ▪   

U.W.: What do you see as factors hampering reforms in Ukraine, in addition to war?

The main criticism and worry in the West about reforms in Ukraine is about corruption. In Washington, Brussels, and throughout the West, when Ukraine is mentioned they talk about the oligarchs and corruption with energy pricing on a massive scale. Tackling that in a serious way, especially right now, when there is enthusiasm for change in the society, as you said, may be the most important thing.

Some people say that criticism is not fair: “What about Russia? Russia is corrupt too”. But it’s not about fairness, it’s about reputation, it’s about trying to rehabilitate Ukraine’s image in Europe. Ukraine should become a normal, democratic, boring European country. That’s what we all aspire to see: just a normal, boring, democratic country. Not so much excitement any more. You had enough of excitement.


Michael McFaul, born in 1963, served as US Ambassador to Russia in 2012-2014.  Before that he worked for the U.S. National Security Council as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs. After resignation from the ambassadorial position in February 2014, Mr. McFaul returned to Stanford University as a Professor of Political Science

This is Articte sidebar