Soviet-era jokes are fashionable once again in Russia. Thus: a man walks into the headquarters of the Federal Security Service — the FSB, successor to the KGB — and says, “My pet parrot is missing.” An agent responds, “Why are you wasting my time? Complain to the police or animal control!” Man adds hastily, “Sorry, I told them already. I’m informing you because, if they find my parrot, I want you to know that I do not agree with its view of President Vladimir Putin”.
That Russians should once again have to worry (and joke) about the consequences of the state discovering their true feelings about their leader speaks volumes about the status of domestic politics in Russia today. And although Michael McFaul’s new memoir From Cold War to Hot Peace has a great deal to say about Moscow’s foreign policy, it is ultimately Russia’s domestic politics that the author blames for the decay in relations with the US. The central irony and tragedy of this book, of which the author is all too painfully aware, is that McFaul, a senior policymaker both hugely knowledgeable about and admiring of Russia, found himself personally presiding over that decline as the US ambassador to Moscow between 2012 and 2014.
Revisiting this relationship is particularly worthwhile now, given the present whiplash-inducing nature of US attitudes to Russia. While President Donald Trump frequently praises Putin, his top aides promote sanctions and confrontation instead, prompting the Russian president to rattle nuclear sabres in response — all while an investigation grinds on into alleged election collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow. It is a far cry from the high watermark of US-Russian co-operation at the end of the cold war, and McFaul makes for an expert guide down the path of decline from then until today.
‘My life’s work of trying to bring our two countries closer together . . . seems like a failure’. Even worse, ‘I am now persona non grata in a country I love’
McFaul gained his extensive knowledge of Russia as a student at Stanford, as a democracy activist in Russia and as a professor of politics. At the urging of his friend Susan Rice, a future US national security adviser, he joined Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign. In office, Obama rewarded him with a spot on the National Security Council and then the ambassadorship in Moscow.
Now back at Stanford as a scholar, McFaul laments that “my life’s work of trying to bring our two countries closer . . . seems like a failure”. Even worse, “I am now persona non grata in a country I love.” Not since George Kennan, his long-ago predecessor, has a former US ambassador been banned from returning to Russia.
In analysing what went wrong, McFaul does an impressive job of self-criticism, owning up to US mistakes both big and small. But the main causes of the decline in relations, he finds, lie in Russian domestic power struggles in general and Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012 in particular. The Russian leader had promoted his protégé Dmitry Medvedev into the presidency in 2008, which meant that Medvedev could potentially have had a second term as well. Witnessing Medvedev’s willingness to work with the west, Putin — who had never given up ultimate authority — snatched back the reins.
McFaul emphasises ways in which the US after the end of the cold war, undermined those like Medvedev who were open to co-operation with the west by losing interest in Russian sensitivities. He rightly points out that Washington, over time, ceased to worry about hard questions such as “Would Putin tolerate more Nato expansion?” Or: “How would Putin react to President George W Bush’s decision to pull out of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty? The answer to each of these questions was Who cares?” because “Russia was weak.” McFaul laments that “there was an alternative outcome available” if engagement with Moscow had been a higher priority.
He also believes that the US, with its military involvement in Libya, unintentionally helped Putin. Washington had convinced Medvedev to have Russia abstain from a UN Security Council vote on a Libyan resolution in March 2011: “Medvedev understood perfectly well that an abstention on this vote meant war,” McFaul writes, but did so anyway.
The resulting military action by the US and its allies led to an “emotional outburst” from Putin, who criticised the intervention as based on a “totally false pretext”. When Medvedev then made public remarks contradicting Putin, McFaul was shocked. “Something big was going on internally in Moscow,” he concluded: a struggle over whether Medvedev would get a second term. Putin decided that if Medvedev was going to allow western military crusading, he had to go. Hence, “US military intervention in Libya, which helped to topple Gadhafi, also inadvertently might have helped remove Medvedev from power in Russia.”
Similarly McFaul realised, after moving to Moscow as ambassador, that his appearance “was like manna from heaven for the Putin election effort”, as the Kremlin campaign specialist Vladislav Surkov assured him. McFaul became a highly useful foil for Putin, who had announced his run for a third term as president to replace Medvedev — and was horrified by the street protests that followed. Having witnessed mass protests in East Germany as a young KGB officer in 1989, Putin was not about to let Russian protests get similarly out of control. (He also blamed Hillary Clinton, secretary of state in the first Obama administration, for the protests, McFaul writes, thus motivating Putin’s attack on her 2016 presidential campaign.)
When, on his second day in Moscow, McFaul met democracy activists, he instantly became a handy enemy for the Putin campaign. Russian television, controlled by the Kremlin, used images of the meeting to portray the US ambassador as an enemy of the state, plotting revolution from the start. Soon cyber attacks began, including fake tweets under the twitter handle @McFauI (with the “l” replaced by a capitalised “i”, unlike his real account) and claims that he was a paedophile.
McFaul recounts all of these events in accessible prose, writing from “the sometimes competing perspectives of scholar, policymaker, diplomat and Montanan”. He concedes that he goes overboard on details of policymaking, noting that even his mother will probably skip the section on arms control telemetry (the technical data generated during missile tests). Yet his book remains essential reading, not least for its account of the final breaking point just before McFaul’s unhappy departure: Putin’s 2014 decision to use force in Ukraine and annex Crimea (a decision, McFaul guesses, that the president made “all pumped up on nationalism” during the Sochi Winter Olympics).
Given current domestic politics in Russia, McFaul sees hope for improvement in relations with the US only in the distant future, once Putin leaves office. For now, his book convincingly shows that the outlook for the US-Russian relationship is bleak and frightening — not least because today’s domestic currents are treacherous in Washington too.
From Cold War to Hot Peace: the Inside Story of Russia and America, by Michael McFaul, Allen Lane RRP£25, 528 pages
Mary Sarotte is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of ‘The Collapse: The Accidental Opening of the Berlin Wall’