"Sometimes we just try to pursue them too many times on too many issues hoping they're going to help us, and then they don't," says former Amb. Michael McFaul.
Why can’t we just ignore Russia?
Between Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine, the Kremlin’s attempts to interfere with the 2016 U.S. election or the mysterious poisoning of a former spy in the U.K., our constant focus on Russian activities across the far corners of the globe can seem to crowd out consideration of other key geopolitical issues.
“Generally speaking, I actually we should ignore Russia a little bit more than we have been recently,” he says. “Sometimes we just try to pursue them too many times on too many issues hoping that they’re going to help us, and then they don’t.”
Case in point, McFaul explains, was the Obama administration’s pursuit of Russian support for political solutions to de-escalate the Syrian war, when he and other U.S. officials spent months “chasing the Russians all over the world hoping that they would help us do some kind of deal.” Besides an agreement to remove and destroy most (but definitely not all) of Syria’s chemical weapons, those efforts came to naught.
As opposed to pursuing friendly relations with Russian leaders in the hopes that doing so will unlock broad policy cooperation, McFaul says the U.S. should start by identifying its core interests — say, supporting democracy in Ukraine or safeguarding U.S. elections from Russian interference — and then pursue those goals regardless of the Kremlin’s protestations.
“I always tried to cross out any language that President Obama used about being friends or hoping for favors from Putin. I just don’t think the world works that way in diplomacy. I don’t think anybody does anybody any favors — whether they’re friends or allies. And I think we have a tendency to think in those terms. Instead, I think we need to look for outcomes with the Kremlin that are win-win — that they’re doing not as a favor to the United States, but because they think it’s in their core national interest as well.”
Some win-win issues could include fighting terrorism or negotiating a new arms control agreement, and McFaul says he hopes President Donald Trump finds time to sit down with Putin for direct talks — “I think that is legitimate and part of the job.”
And despite the recent polarization of Russia within American politics, McFaul says Trump should be able to pair diplomatic engagement with cautious containment of Russia’s more destabilizing actions — a balancing act pulled off by past U.S. presidents.
“I think Ronald Reagan was brilliant at doing this. He called the Soviet Union the ‘evil empire,’ he was not afraid to be tough on them with respect to issues of respect for democracy and human rights. And at the same time, in parallel to that, he would engage with Soviet leaders on issues that were in our national interest…I think you can walk and chew gum at the same time and I think that’s a good strategy moving forward for how to deal with Putin.”
Engaging with Putin on issues like nuclear arms control is not just crucial, McFaul argues, it might even be possible. But the U.S. still needs to keep a watchful eye on threatening Russian behavior across a range of other domains. That means monitoring the militarization of the Arctic (“I see clashes there”) to Russian influence campaigns in the Balkans (“we have some NATO allies there that are vulnerable”) or the increasing threat posed by Russian cyber-weapons.
“Whatever cards Putin has, he’s shown recently that he’s not afraid to use them,” McFaul says.
And therein lies the challenge of ignoring Russia. It may be wise to do so, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Use the audio player at the top of this post to listen to or download our full interview with Amb. Michael McFaul.
- “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia” by Amb. Michael McFaul
- Michael McFaul’s website
- McFaul’s 2017 essay, “How Trump Can Play Nice With Russia, Without Selling Out America”
“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas at U.N. Headquarters in New York.