Former special advisor to President Barack Obama and US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul is now a professor at Stanford University. In an extensive interview with The Insider he explained why Joe Biden is not going to be friends with Vladimir Putin, how the new US president will act towards the post-Soviet countries and what will happen to the treaty START-3.
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– After the electors finally recognized Joe Biden's victory, Vladimir Putin congratulated him. Putin recalled that there are disagreements between the two countries, but at the end of the letter he stressed that «for his part, he is ready for interaction and contacts» with the new US president. In your opinion, is Biden ready to deal with Putin?
– I used to work with President-elect Biden when he was in the White House. I was at his last meeting with Prime-Minister Putin – it was a long time ago, in 2011. I remember we travelled to Moscow and met Putin, Medevedev and others. And I know what kind of presidency it will be.
Number one: he will have no ambition to try to be friends with Putin. The policy pursued by President Trump will end with Biden. From my point of view, the United States did not achieve anything from Trump's attempt to be friends with Putin. Some may think otherwise but I can't think of anything concrete that was done good for the United States. So that will end.
Number two: generally speaking the new president will bring morality and values back into American foreign policy unlike President Trump. And it will have concrete repercussions for how he deals with Russia. We read the investigations, including in the Insider, that now there is overwhelming evidence that the Russian government tried to kill Alexey Navalny. That will have consequences.
Number three: Biden really knows the region – more than any previous president. He's been many times to Ukraine, to Moldova (there I was with him). So it will change the balance of interest and attention from Moscow to the rest of the region.
Number four: the new Administration will follow a strategy of containment of Putin's belligerent behavior abroad and at the same time, when it is in America's interests to do so, I think we will have concrete engagement on issues that Russia and the United States share.
And at the top of that list for me will be arms control…
– You said that Alexei Navalny's poisoning would affect bilateral relations. How exactly?
– President Trump for years to the best of my knowledge has never raised any issues of democracy, human rights and rule of law with respect to Russia. That hasn't been part of his agenda. That will change. It already changes. As vice-president and candidate Biden and his team were already speaking about these things.
I suspect there will be new sanctions. We have the Magnitsky law that empowers the President to sanction individuals that violate human rights. I fully expect that there will be some activity after January with the new Administration.
I personally will go further and do other things. I think for instance Russia should be suspended from the Interpol. Interpol helps law-abiding countries cooperate to arrest criminals. The Russians made it clear that they use Interpol for political purposes, especially against Bill Browder. They do not respect the rule of law in their own country. So why should Russia be a member of Interpol? I think that will be another important signal that it's not business as usual.
- Let's say Biden won't try to make friends with Putin. But since it became clear from the Bellingcat and The Insider investigation that the FSB was directly involved in the poisoning of Navalny, and, therefore, Vladimir Putin is behind this crime, the question is not even about friendship ... How will this affect the relationship between the two presidents?
– I think it will. Biden has no illusions about Putin. He knows him. Нe has been around for a long time. There's going to be no “resets”, no attempt to befriend him.
The last time Biden was in the government back in 2009, it was a different era in Russia and different president. President Medvedev had a very different worldview. And the ‘reset’ between Obama was with Medvedev – not with Putin. Once Putin came back in 2012, the ‘reset’ was over. He didn't want to cooperate with the United States. That didn't change – he is still in power. I think that the Biden`s team doesn't want to escalate the confrontation. Nobody wants to go to war with Russia. Avoiding a war case scenario is an important part of diplomacy. Sometimes diplomacy is most important with your adversaries not your allies.
Biden`s team is very sober-minded with respect to damage wreaked by the belligerent policies that Mr. Putin is pursuing abroad. And by the way I would invoke Tony Blinken who's been nominated as Secretary of State. He is an old personal friend of mine. We have known each other for 30 years. He is also very sober-minded about what is the Russian government under Putin and the limits for cooperation with it.
– You mentioned that Biden will pay special attention to human rights, including in Russia. You were ambassador to Russia, so you know first hand the problems there concerning human rights. What would you advise the new president on this issue?
– It's difficult for outside powers including even the United States to have influence with respect to human rights when the respective country’s leadership doesn't want to do it. So I think we need to be humble in what outsiders can achieve and realise that at the end of the day things will only change inside Russia if the Russians themselves change things, not outsiders. But there is something that the USA can and should do. First, to speak truthfully about violations of human rights. When I was ambassador, or when I lived in Soviet Union many-many decades ago, that was what human rights activists wanted. They wanted the West not to help them but to speak the truth about those who were hurting them. That's the most important thing to do.
Independent media is important. That's why I`m now talking to you, The Insider. I think Russia has fantastic independent journalists, many of them are living in exile. The United States should help improve an infrastructure of a global independent media.
And when there are gross violations of human rights, the USA should use the Magnitsky Act to continue to sanction people. Some people would argue: sanctions don't work, the wrongful behaviour still continues. But I think you have to do something. And I also can witness that when I was the ambassador to Russia Magnitsky Act had a very big effect on economic elites not wanting to be associated with Russian government for fear that they may be not able to go for vacation in Italy and France, that they may not be able to go to the Carribean because sanctions will be chasing them around the world. So I think it's important to continue to use that mechanism as well.
– The legislation on the so-called ‘foreign agents’ is being tightened now in Russia, and it will primarily concern human rights activists. Will this be taken into account?
– I have a strong view about that. Speaking generally, not only about Russia, because of these new laws the US State Department should not directly fund NGOs in other countries. Almost by definition it means that it taints those NGO. It does more damage than good. Instead there should be more support for global infrastructure for independent media and NGO foundations that provide that kind of support as opposed to the direct funding from the US government.
– What will support for the countries in the so-called post-Soviet space look like? As you suggested, Biden will pay more attention to them.
– I know that the Biden team is figuring that right now. I don't think they decided yet. My sense is that generally there will be more diplomatic engagement with countries that were neglected during the Trump era. At the top of the list is of course Ukraine. President Trump tried to leverage American assistance to Ukraine to help his reelection efforts. He politicised our bilateral relationship with Ukraine. It really damaged this relationship. Ukraine has become a most politicised and polarised issue in America. It used to have bipartisan support. So Biden will try to be more engaged with Ukraine. And I think he should. The developments inside Ukraine are troubling. We should pay attention to them: democracy needs more work in this country.
But not just Ukraine. In Georgia, Armenia, Belarus too. There are some very important things happening right now in Uzbekistan. And I think just showing up will be a good signal both to those governments and societies, but also to Putin that we are not giving up this part of the world.
– Svetlana Tikhanovskaya said she was ready to come to Biden's inauguration. Do you think she will be a welcome guest? And how the USA can help the Belarusian people in this situation, which may turn into a humanitarian catastrophe?
– I think Biden should meet with her. And I believe the United States and Europe should be more engaged in trying to resolve the stand-off in Belarus because the situation there is as dire as you said. It would be difficult but not impossible to try to help find a way forward in Belarus.
– But Tikhanovskaya and other Belorussian opposition leaders say that they hear many words of support from the West which do not turn into concrete deeds …
– I agree with that, tragically. I think there needs to be more pressure including sanctions. There are lots of companies that will not do well inside Belarus with new sanctions. But one also needs diplomatic engagement – to try to involve Europe, and maybe even Russia to resolve a transition forward that allows a new government to form without Lukashenko. There is no going back. Lukashenko will never rule with any legitimacy inside Belarus. The sooner they can get on with that the better. I think the negative possibility of worser outcomes should also be remembered. It still may go for a longer period of time. People can suffer, maybe people get killed. We know from experience of other countries that it sometimes happens. So it is better to be engage now than wait for more negative consequences later.
– Another important topic that you also mentioned at the beginning is the START treaty. Do you agree with the official position of the outgoing administration that Russia violated it? What obstacles the two countries should overcome in order to finally sign a new treaty?
– I think the Biden Administration should extend the START treaty before it expires in February next year. In my view they should extend it for five years – not just one or two years. You may remember Ronald Reagen used to say: ‘Trust but verify’. When I was in government I amended it: ‘Don't trust. Only verify’. In my view the verification mechanisms in a new START treaty are extremely valuable to the United States. I assume they are valuable to the Russian government too. To lose them will be very destabilising. That's why it should be extended for five years first. But then you begin a new round of strategic stability talks. In those discussions there need to be broad negotiations about new delivery systems – nuclear and non-nuclear (because Russia had modernised them) and, I think, non-strategic nuclear weapons too. The US and Russia have them. I think this set of negotiations needs to begin and it will take a long time. I think it will go on for years. But I think it's a necessary next step.
– Putin often mentions the Baltic States and Poland in a very negative context. On the other hand, Joe Biden has extensive experience in dealing with Central and Eastern Europe. Will the new president strengthen relations with these countries? If so, will this add additional tension to relations with Moscow?
– You are absolutely right. Vice-President Biden and before that Senator Biden spent an enormous amount of time engaging in Eastern Europe for many-many decades. There really has never been a president that has known this part of the world better than Biden on day one of the presidency, not even close. Biden has a very strong team around him – people I know well. They also know that region well. So I think we will see an upgrade of relations and more attention to it.
There is a caveat to that: Mr Orban in Hungry and also the government in Poland moved away from liberalism and democracy. I think this is going to be a central challenge for the Biden administration. Trump never did anything about it because in some ways he agreed with Mr Orban on many things. They have the same political orientation, same ideology. That will change with Biden.
I think we will see more attention to NATO. We will not have all the fighting and bickering that we had within NATO during the Trump era. More credible commitment to NATO will help to reduce uncertainty with respect of Moscow. Strong NATO decreases the possibility of conflict with Russia. It's the ambiguity of the last several years that made everyone nervous. So I suspect there will be a new engagement there. And I think Hungary and Turkey will present a real challenge within NATO for the new administration.
– Frankly speaking, Putin spent a lot of time splitting Turkey from NATO…
– I think it's one of the biggest issues that doesn't get very much attention in my county right now. But if I had to predict places there might be a serious crisis that the Biden Administration will deal with, bilateral relations with Turkey would make my list. I am very nervous about what is happening there. I think Putin has a strategy as you pointed out. And he's been successful with it. And the USA didn't figure out how to manage it. We know that we are in an amazing situation when we are sanctioning our ally because it buys S-400 anti-aircraft systems from Russia.
I don`t know if it's true or not but there were reports in the news that the US still stores nuclear weapons at the Incirlik air base in Turkey. That's an incredible situation! I don't have big answers, but if these weapons are really there they should be removed. It's my personal view. I also think that the Biden`s team needs a much more sophisticated strategy before re-engaging with Ankara because we didn't have it recently.
– NATO started implementing its new Black Sea strategy. Do you think there is a chance that the new administration will try to persuade the European allies to give Georgia a Membership Action Plan for joining the Alliance?
– I travelled to Georgia and Ukraine with Vice-President Biden in September 2009. It was right after Obama had gone to Moscow to meet Medvedev. And it was Biden`s assignment to assure our friends in Tbilisi and Kiev that a reset with Russia did not mean a diminishing of our bilateral relationship with those two countries. If one talks about the Vice-President’s speech at the Munich Security Conference in February of 2009, everybody focuses on the word ‘reset’ when he talks about Russia, but everybody forgets what he said about Georgia which is: ‘We will never recognise the changing of the borders that Russia did when Russia invaded Georgia’. I think Georgia had a big friend in Vice-President Biden. I was with him. I know he takes the sovereignty of Georgia more than seriously. I can't predict what he will do in terms of a Membership Action Plan but I fully predict that Georgia will get much more attention than during the Trump administration.
– Summing up, should Moscow expect ‘Reset 2.0’?
– No, there won't be any ‘reset’. The conditions for the «reset» in 2009 are not present in Russia today. There is nobody on the other side who wants to cooperate. Vladimir Putin has made it very clear. Since 2009, Putin has done many things in the world and in his own country to make himself less attractive. He annexed territory in Ukraine. This violates one of the fundamental norms of the international system. He intervened in Syria, killing many innocent people there. He violated our sovereignty in 2016 during the presidential elections. He tried to assassinate his enemies abroad - and in Berlin this attempt was successful.
Domestically Russia has been much more autocratic in this new Putin era. And most recently there is overwhelming evidence that the Russian government tried to kill Navalny. Together, all those conditions make a ‘reset’ with Russia impossible today. But that doesn't mean that the Biden administration should not try to cooperate when it's in America's national interests. We did that during the Cold War, but we never checked our values out the door. And we have never tried to pretend that our relations were somehow improving.
I am considered the author of the ‘reset’, people blame me for this word. I was there at the very beginning. But to be clear the «reset» was not designed to improve relations with Russia. It was needed to sign a new START treaty, to get new sanctions on Iran, to open up supply routes to the international forces in Afghanistan through Russian territory, to get Russia to join the World Trade Organisation. It was about very concrete things that were in America's national interests. And we presumed that Medvedev would not do them if it were not for his interests as well. And I think that this kind of sober strategy is the right one for moving forward. But today the list of issues that we can possibly cooperate on is much shorter than it was back in 2009.