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Michael McFaul: ‘We Hope that We’ll Have a Normal Relationship’

On May 25th Michael McFaul, US Ambassador in Russia, professor at Stanford University, gave an open lecture to the students of the Higher School of Economics.

‘I cannot believe that there are this many people here on Friday at 6 o’clock. That would not happen in Stanford University. That either means that you have nothing better to do, or that you have a very serious institution’, said Michael McFaul, starting his talk to the HSE students. A professional academic and political scientist, Mr. McFaul for many years has studied social and political processes in Russia and other post-Soviet countries. As a researcher he is very well known in the Russian academic community, and has been working with professors and graduates of the HSE since the 1990s.

Michael McFaul was appointed as the Ambassador to Russia by the US Senate only in December 2011, but he is considered to be one of the architects of the ‘Reset’ policy in Russian-American relations, set out by Barack Obama soon after he was elected President (prior to his ambassadorial appointment, McFaul was Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director of Russian and Eurasian Affairs).

At the beginning of his lecture Michael McFaul reminded the audience about the situation in Russian-American relations three years ago: ‘It was certainly one of the worst moments in US-Russian relations. In fact, when President Obama met with President Medvedev the first time, in April of 2009 in London, he said that there had been a “dangerous drift” in US-Russian relations over the last several years’. According to the Ambassador, the situation was exacerbated by the US operation in Iraq, the Russian-Georgian conflict, the gas conflict between Russia and Ukraine which lead to a lack of heating in European homes in winter, and frequent cyber-attacks. In the economic sphere, the threat of protectionism and investment limitations had been growing.

How did Michael McFaul and the American administration see the ‘reset’? Firstly, the American side proceeded from the fact that, despite all the contradictions, the U.S. and Russia share many common interests. At the same time, the American administration rejects the concept of a ‘zero sum game’. ‘We are going to try to develop multiple dimensions of our relationship’, Mr. Ambassador continued, ‘If all we talk about with the Russians for the next four years are nuclear weapons, we will have failed in resetting relations’.

The U.S. planned several methods of achieving the tasks of the reset. The first one is ‘engagement’ – establishment of closer and more fruitful contacts both with the Russian government and wider society. It was decided to engage representatives of the civil society in the work of the bilateral presidential commission working on 20 areas of joint activities (from cultural relations to nuclear security and from agriculture to space). But these meetings between American representatives and the Russian civil society activists and opposition leaders led to a strongly negative reaction from the Russian government: we only have to remember that Michael McFaul himself was persecuted by Nashi activists.

The US administration when it initiated the ‘reset’, expected to leave behind the policy of ‘exchanges’ based on the ‘quid pro quo’ principle. ‘We believe that the reset tasks can be achieved without compromising our relations with other countries, particularly Georgia, Estonia and Ukraine’, Michael McFaul said, ‘In my country this is perhaps the most controversial principle in the reset. We seek to pursue all of our objectives without linking issues together that are unrelated’. In practice, this approach was demonstrated, for example, when the U.S. supported Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO) without any ‘non-related’ conditions. The American administration, according to Mr. McFaul, just believed that Russia’s membership in the WTO would positively affect trade relations between the two countries as well as global trade as a whole.

What results has the reset in Russian-American relations brought? To begin with, Michael McFaul talked about the military aspects. Firstly, the two nations succeeded in agreeing and signing the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction) Treaty, which came into effect in February 2011. In addition to that, Russia has provided air space and territory for the transit of U.S. cargo and personnel to Afghanistan. Over 40% of all supply cargo for the U.S. army in Afghanistan today is shipped through Russia.

Michael McFaul specifically talked about the use of the Manas airbase in Kirgizstan which was widely discussed in 2009. ‘It was the first crisis that I had to deal with as a new U.S. government official’, Michael McFaul said, ‘Back in 2009 Russia put a big bribe on the table to basically pay Mr. Bakiev to kick us out of Kirgizstan. And guess what? We tried to put on a bribe too, about ten times smaller than the bribe that your government offered. And it didn’t work out very well.’

‘When President Obama met with President Medvedev in April 2009’, the Ambassador continued, ‘he said: “I don’t understand this phrase that you use – this ‘privileged sphere of influence’… And I especially don’t understand when it relates to Kirgizstan and Manas”. Because what are we doing in Manas? We are not playing some great game of influence over the government of Kirgizstan; we are doing something very concrete. We are flying our soldiers (by the way, almost every single soldier that goes to Afghanistan goes through Manas). What do they do there? They don’t play the great game of Central Asia, they don’t march around and try to have more influence than Russia. That’s not what they do there, I’ve visited the base. They have showers, have hot meals, they get a good night sleep, and then they fly to Afghanistan with their guns. Now what do they do in Afghanistan? They try to kill bad people that hate us and try to kill us and they also hate Russia and want to kill Russians. They are the same people who want to fight you and us. How is that not part of your national interest?’

But the Manas crisis is in the past. A new (NATO-operated) transit base for the supply of Afghanistan operation is opening in Ulyanovsk. ‘I think you’d be surprised if you looked at the details of how much training and exercise we do together’, Mr. McFaul added. For example, a Russian Black Sea task force took part in NATO drills over the Spanish coast: it was the first time a Russian submarine has participated in any NATO exercise; Russian Air Force pilots will take part in a joint U.S.-Russian military exercise for the first time; and information exchanges on training and intelligence data in terms of counter-narcotics cooperation, terrorism and other threats are developing.

Certain progress has been achieved in coordinating positions on the Iran nuclear problem (Russia has supported UN Security CouncilResolution 1929 and cancelled the sale of S-300 missile systems to Tehran and North Korea). As part of counter-terrorism cooperation, the ‘Vigilant Eagle’ exercises were held in 2010 and 2011, and in May 2012 Russian paratroopers took part in an exercise at Ft. Carson, Colorado – for the first time-ever in the U.S. Cooperation on cybersecurity and the lock down of nuclear materials, as well as the NATO-Russia partnership is also developing.

In terms of the economic results of the reset, there is the completion of the 18-year-long process of Russia’s accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which ‘creates permissive conditions for expanded trade and investment between Russia and the U.S.’, as well as signing the ‘123 Agreement’ which will facilitate technology exchange and direct contacts between U.S. and Russian researchers in the nuclear power industry.

The volume of U.S.-Russian trade in 2011 has achieved an all-time high of $42.9 billion. Large American companies, such as Ford, General Electric, Coca-Cola, John Deere, Cisco and others, continue to invest in Russia and launch new manufacturing facilities. Direct Russian investment in the USA, while dropping due to major divestitures of the Russian steel companies, was $4.4 billion in 2010. And at the end of 2009, Russian companies owned $17.4 billion in U.S. assets.

During Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, Russian-American cooperation in the innovation sphere has developed. Michael McFaul reminded the audience of Medvedev’s visit to the Silicon Valley in June 2010 and a ‘return’ visit to Moscow by a delegation from American technology companies, headed by Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Governor of California.

‘Today in cooperation on innovation there are more promises and ambition than real outcomes’, Michael McFaul admitted, ‘but we think that in the long-term this is one of the most promising things that we can do together. I read your press and I know about the skepticism that people have about Skolkovo. I can say that there are a lot of unintended consequences that come out of big state-run operations. And in my country the best example is our space programme. I don’t know who really needed to put a man on the Moon. But the side effects of what we did included the creation and strengthening of Stanford University and Silicon Valley’.

Another result of the Reset policy, according to Michael McFaul, is the development of social, cultural and academic ties, as well as tourism. They have also led to change in attitudes between Russian and American society. The survey data shows that the share of Russians with a favorable attitude towards the U.S. increased from 17 percent at the end of 2008 to 62 percent in November 2010. American attitudes towards Russia over the same period changed from negative to positive. And among U.S. citizens under 50 the share of those considering Russia a friendly country or even an ally has reached 70%.

Summarizing the achievements in U.S.-Russian relations, Michael McFaul said: ‘It’s an incredible record of achievement. It’s twenty, it’s not two. We hope that it’s such a record of achievement that in the next 5-10 years we’ll no longer have to count up the records of achievement, because we’ll have a normal relationship. That’s the goal of the Reset’.

However, when he came to Moscow as an Ambassador, Mr. McFaul felt that the Russian side and some parts of Russian society did not look that positively at the results of the Reset. Pro-government media, activists, officials and deputies, in the context of the growing opposition movement and rallies, actually launched a campaign against Michael McFaul which accused him (and the State Department) both of financial support for the opposition, and the preparation of ‘revolutionary’ scenarios.

Anti-Americanism was one of the four most important factors complicating the U.S.-Russia relations at the beginning of 2012 (when Mr. McFaul officially took office). ‘There used to be a day when no matter where I went – are there any representatives from Nashi here? – I used to meet with them, and sometimes we chatted and it wasn’t so diplomatic. But now they have disappeared’. According to the Ambassador’s evaluation, the tone of TV commentaries has also changed.

Another sticking point is the disagreement over Syria, and, according to Mr. McFaul, this is a fundamental analytic disagreement about the future of Syria. Russian military and policy analysts believe that Bashar Assad’s regime is the only stabilizing factor in Syria which can help avoid the more disastrous scenarios including extremism and national and confessional conflicts as in Libya. American experts, on the other hand, believe that the longer Assad stays in power, the more likely there will be civil war, state breakdown and extremist groups will come to power. As of today, Russia and the U.S. have agreed over the means for regulation, suggested in Kofi Annan’s plan.

The third factor influencing the bilateral relations at the beginning of the year was related to the transitional political process in Russia: Vladimir Putin’s return to the Kremlin. But after the elections, the U.S. side received signals from the Russian top officials about the ‘continuity of the Reset, not discontinuity’, so they are expecting to carry on with this process.

The fourth problem is the contradiction over the missile defense system launch. The U.S. administration believes that dialogue and cooperation in this area are not only desirable, but doable and in the interests of both countries. ‘But even if we cannot do that, the lack of cooperation will not undermine strategic stability for two reasons. One: we have no intention to undermine the strategic stability. And two: even if you don’t believe us, we have no capabilities to undermine the strategic stability’, Michael McFaul said.

The U.S. foreign policy will be built on the principle of overcoming Cold War stereotypes and on the ‘priority of different values’. The U.S. Ambassador explained: ‘My country firmly believes in the concept of sovereignty. We are a hard force when it comes to defending our sovereignty. We’ve noticed that Russia and its leadership is interested in its sovereignty too. The question is – what priority does that have? There are the other values that we have – what we call ‘universal values’ – democracy, human rights and the rule of law. How we manage that is a central challenge of keeping the momentum of the Reset’.

Michael McFaul’s presentation was ended with the quote ‘Let’s keep talking’ (Mr. Ambassador blogs on Twitter, Facebook and LiveJournal), and the HSE students hurried to follow this claim and ask some sharp questions. The first one was about the death of the lawyer Sergey Magnitsky and the future approval of the so-called ‘Magnitsky List’ by the U.S. Department of State.

‘What happened to Mr. Magnitsky was an awful tragedy, in my opinion and in our government’s opinion’, Michael McFaul answered, ‘And therefore we, as a government, looked at the situation extremely closely. I personally was the coordinator of the inter-agency effort (back when I was living in Washington) on that process. It is already in our laws and in our Presidential Directives we had in force that we are obligated, if we find somebody who has robustly violated the human rights of another individual, to deny them entry in the United States. That already exists. Moreover, because President Obama cares deeply about these sensitive issues, last August he strengthened our powers to do this. Two important things: this is not just about Russians and it’s not about just one case in Russia. There is already a list, it exists. There are also people from your country on that list who have nothing to do with Magnitsky. And there are also about three million people from other states, I should verify that figure if you’re interested, but you would be surprised about how many people cannot get a visa to come to the United States of America. So we believe, as an administration, that we have responded to that situation in an appropriate way’.

Another question was about the U.S. operation in Afghanistan: how and based on what evidence do the American military define who from the Afghan population are those ‘bad people’ the Ambassador previously mentioned? The Ambassador suggested remembering ‘who killed whom first’: ‘We didn’t go to Afghanistan looking for enemies. On September 11th, 2001, we were attacked, and we responded. That’s why we are in Afghanistan. We try to make a distinction between terrorist organizations and others in Afghanistan. We are not there to kill Afghanis. I want to be honest: war accidents and really awful things happen in Afghanistan, that’s a tragedy and I’m not going to defend that. We are trying to stop and control that and, as you know, President Obama is trying to get out of Afghanistan, like when he came to power promising to get out of Iraq, and he did that. We are trying to get out. But to get out, we are trying to distinguish between those political forces in Afghanistan that want to negotiate on political subjects and those that don’t. Even within the Taliban there are those who want to negotiate. At some point, there has to be a negotiated settlement, and the moderates sit down and negotiate, and radicals have to be silent – that’s what we are seeking to try in Afghanistan’.

But how does the United States choose their partners? Is it possible to set democracy through violence? And isn’t there a conflict between the universal values supported by the USA and the practical interests of U.S. policy and the economy?

‘Our perspective, and I want to speak for the Obama administration now, is that in the long-term the advance of democracy around the world is in our national interests’, Mr. Ambassador answered, ‘So this separation between values and interests, we think, is artificial. At the same time, these things are not always in harmony with each other. We need to supply our troops in Afghanistan. And if you look at the countries that surround Afghanistan – they are not the most liberal democracies in the world. The question is how we maintain momentum on both the long-term interests that we have and the short-term’. At the same time, Michael McFaul emphasized that the U.S. is not promoting ‘American democracy’. The universal values that the U.S. supports do not have an ‘American copyright’ on them.

However, a considerable part of Russian society and administration sees this picture in quite a different light, commented Yaroslav Kuzminov, Rector of the HSE. ‘Hardly anyone would say that there is a serious threat to the sovereignty of the USA or EU countries’, he believes. ‘And the sovereignty of some of Russia’s neighboring countries is attacked, and the Russian government cannot ignore this. In addition to that, we have seen a lot of cases of direct violation of sovereignty in the name of the defense of universal values. Iraq and Libya are only the most controversial of such cases. Today’s Russia is not against universal values, but it is against the existence of a members’ club for the interpreters of those values. It turns out that Russia is not allowed into that club, and has no vote in this case. Yes, the West has much more developed democratic mechanisms than Russia today, but Russia is on the same path.

‘Russia is a democratic society with a free press’, Yaroslav Kuzminov continued, ‘I understand that most of the audience does not like what I’ve just said. You know, I also don’t like the situation in our media and, first of all, the television, but we have free media. I lived in the Soviet Union, and cognition comes through comparison. And there is no such thing as abstract, clear, not related to any political or financial forces, freedom of the press anywhere in the world’.

The HSE Rector called the recently changed civil society in Russia a new factor which is able to influence Russian-American relations. Political and civil activity among both opposition and government supporters ‘enlivened’ the country, and the fact that citizens have started to be interested in problems beyond their own families, ‘can only be welcomed’. In addition to that, while in the 90s, non-commercial organizations and unions, new social, cultural and educational initiatives could start working and survive mostly thanks to foreign charity funds and grants, today their share of NGO support has decreased many times. The Russian civil sector has become much more independent and organized.

‘Our society will pay less attention to whether there is anyone willing to “sit in the driver’s seat”’, Yaroslav Kuzminov said. ‘And to eliminate the mutual suspicion, to establish a Russia-U.S. dialogue on the problem of universal values is possible only in the context of active interaction between universities, business and citizens of our countries. The governments will not be able to solve this task on their own. Speaking about governments, we cooperate effectively when we see common threats. While for the U.S. the main threat in Afghanistan is related to terrorism (however, many experts believe that the nest of terrorism has moved to the neighboring Pakistan long time ago), for Russia this is the threat of narcotics. Speaking about international terrorism, here we can focus on common threats and in the end strengthen our mutual trust’.

In turn, Michael McFaul suggested looking at the problem of sovereignty protection from the positions of global society and the global economy. He reminded the audience that some Russian officials saw the opening of McDonalds’s in Russia as a threat to Russian traditions and culture. Google’s victorious march throughout the planet was also accompanied by pessimistic comments about the partial loss of sovereignty. Does that mean that the multi-billion deal between ExxonMobil and Rosneft on the development of new deposits should be considered in the context of partial sovereignty loss?

The presence of U.S. charity funds is really notable in many countries. But does the audience know, the Ambassador asked, that hundreds of foreign foundations work in the USA: Japanese, Russian, Chinese and so on? In addition to that, the U.S. law legally allows lobbying, and many foreign companies, including Russian ones, use that opportunity. ‘This is a delicate issue’, Michael McFaul said, ‘I’ve just had a meeting with Garry Kasparov. I had to complain to him about his intervention in our internal affairs. Mr. Kasparov – can you believe it? - wrote an article in one of the most intellectual papers in America, the Wall Street Journal, and called for the introduction of the Magnitsky Law. Interesting! How many American political people are over here lobbying Mr. Vorobiev to pass those kinds of laws?’

The U.S. Ambassador added: ‘I hope that we can get out of this silly argument about giving money to the opposition. Let me say for the hundredth and ten thousandth time: we do not give money to Mr. Navalny or anybody in the opposition, that is not our policy.’

Oleg Seregin, HSE News Service

Photos by Nikita Benzoruk



Declaration of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs due to the statements by Michael McFaul, US Ambassador to Russia


The Russian Foreign Ministry was exceedingly perplexed with the statements made by Michael McFaul, U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, during his speech on 25 May of this year for the students of the Higher School of Economics.

His assessments of the Russian-US cooperation in their form go far beyond the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette and are in fact a deliberate distortion of a number of facts of the Russian-US dialog.

In particular, the Russian government has never used the term “preferential spheres of influence”. We have talked and are talking about countries with which we share mutual preferential interests. We do not use the notion of “spheres of influence” deeply rooted in the US in practical policies, including in relations with Kyrgyzstan. As for the Manas Airport, MacFaul knows better who Washington had to bribe. We can only say that about a decade ago George Bush administration declared the need to use the Manas Airport for one or two years. We realize that Washington now has a different administration which does not however eliminate the problem of predictability and transparency of US actions in Central Asia. The Ambassador should at least be able to explain the discrepancies between words and actions.

MacFaul’s statements regarding certain “tie-ins” Russia allegedly makes in discussing pressing international topics also sounded unprofessional. To declare that we offered to change “Iran for Georgia” and “human rights in Russia to North Korea” means to know nothing about the stance of Moscow in which fundamental matters including non-distribution of nuclear weapons are an absolute priority and are not subject to any bargaining.

It is also hard to understand why such supporter of the freedom of speech as MacFaul decided to cast a shadow on highly professional activities of Russia Today television channel in the USA. He should seemingly be pleased that the US audience has additional sources of information.

This is not the first case when MacFaul’s statements and actions on such responsible position cause confusion. In our understanding the task of ambassadors is to promote sustainable development of bilateral relations between countries based on profound knowledge of the facts rather than replicating angry tales in the media space. This situation is all the more regrettable since from the very first days in office MacFaul has had access to representatives of executive and legislative authorities in Russia and should have had an idea of Moscow’s actual position on the above matters.

28 May 2012

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