Former Amb. McFaul: U.S.-Russia Relations at Lowest Point Since Cold War

Architect of ‘Russian reset’ won’t fault Obama administration for emboldening Russia

Michael McFaul
Michael McFaul / AP

Michael McFaul, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia, said Tuesday that relations between the United States and Russia are "worse than at any time since the Cold War."

McFaul, who was a chief architect of the Obama administration’s so-called "reset" with Russia, told lawmakers on Capitol Hill that one would need to look deeply into the Cold War in order to find a time as confrontational between the United States and Russia as present day.

"It’s a tragic moment in U.S.-Russia relations," McFaul said during a hearing before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which also featured testimony from Jack Matlock, former U.S. ambassador to the U.S.S.R., and Leon Aron, an expert on Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

McFaul would not fault the Obama administration for what critics say has been an insufficient response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea, military intervention in Syria, and other actions. The United States "has not had good options" for deterring military threats from Russia, McFaul said.

Rep. Ed Royce (R., Calif.), the committee chair, said Obama’s lack of action toward Russia has only emboldened President Vladimir Putin.

"Putin has repeatedly calculated rightfully so that the administration’s response to his aggression will be lackluster," Royce said, adding that Obama’s refusal to provide antitank weapons to Ukraine "can only be interpreted in Moscow as weakness."

Royce also alleged that the administration’s rush to forge diplomatic agreements with Russia has convinced Putin that the administration "will concede a great deal for very little in return."

"We must negotiate from a position of strength," he said.

Republicans and Democrats urged Obama to support Ukraine with lethal aid after Russia intervened militarily in Crimea in 2014. The president has also been criticized for failing to stand up to Putin as the Russian military has bombed U.S.-backed rebels in Syria and buzzed American ships and jets in the Baltics.

McFaul, who left his post in 2014 citing family reasons, did not criticize the administration’s approach to Russia and made a point to emphasize the "period of cooperation" he said was achieved following the reset in 2009.

"We got a lot done that was in the American national interest," McFaul said, mentioning the New START arms treaty, sanctions on Iran, and Russia’s support of U.N. security council resolutions on Libya. He later described these movements as "smart diplomacy."

U.S. nuclear arms inspectors have found that Russia has been violating the New START treaty, the Washington Free Beacon recently reported. Russia has also resumed doing business with Iran following the lifting of international sanctions on the regime due to last summer’s nuclear deal.

McFaul told committee members that the deterioration of U.S.-Russian relations had much to do with Putin replacing Dmitry Medvedev, now prime minister, as president in 2012. Putin, he said, has always held the "suspicious view" that U.S. foreign policy hinges on overthrowing regimes it doesn’t like.

"I do think we made a few mistakes in the Obama administration," McFaul added, though he "radically reject[ed]" the argument that America is to blame for the current situation with Russia.

"We didn’t annex any territory. We didn’t support any revolution against him," McFaul stated, adding, "Especially in Europe, we cannot allow annexation to become a policy that does not have a response."

McFaul, now a professor at Stanford, served as Obama’s top adviser on Russia policy before being nominated to the ambassadorship by the president in 2011. McFaul played a significant role in attempting to improve relations in Russia, which began in 2009 when former secretary of State Hillary Clinton presented a "reset" button to Russia’s foreign minister.

The reset deteriorated over Russia’s decision to harbor NSA leaker Edward Snowden and other disagreements.

Tuesday’s hearing was timely given Russia’s emerging confrontation with NATO as the alliance has increased deployments in the Baltics. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg announced Monday that the alliance plans to send four battalions to the Baltic states and Poland in order to deter Russian aggression in the region and protect member states.

The United States, Britain, and Germany have committed to each commanding one of the battalions, which are part of larger NATO deterrent expected to be approved at the alliance’s summit in Warsaw beginning July 8.

Russia has accused NATO of threatening its security and has begun to build up its own forces on its western frontiers.

McFaul said Tuesday that he supports the U.S. and NATO allies boosting their military strength to deter Russia. "I support everything that we are doing up until the Warsaw summit," he said.

McFaul said he remains optimistic about improving relations with Russia in the long run. "I am a giant optimist about Russia," he said, citing Russia’s rising middle class and the desire of most Russian people to be "incorporated" into the world.

"I just don’t know how long the long-run is," he added.