Trump in Name, Obama in Content: McFaul on U.S. Russia Policy
28 September, 2017

The first eight months of Donald Trump’s presidency have been a turbulent time for U.S.-Russia relations. Trump campaigned promising better ties with Moscow, and many other politicians and officials worried he would be soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin.

However, facing accusations of collusion with the Kremlin, Trump has not broken with the broader political consensus against Russia and in support of Ukraine. Still, much remains unclear.

Hromadske spoke with former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul on the sidelines of the September 14-16 Yalta European Strategy forum in Kyiv to get his perspective on Trump’s Russia and Ukraine policy.  

“The rhetoric has been about rapprochement and about new relations with Russia,” McFaul said. “But the actual policy looks a lot more like the Obama policy toward Russia.”

Ambassador, how do you see the US-Russia relations under the Trump administration?

I think it’s too early to tell. President Trump, of course, wants to have a more close relationship with Vladimir Putin; he said that many, many times as a candidate and now as President. Fortunately, in my view that others around him have a different view, they’re much more skeptical about Vladimir Putin, they think they need to push back on him. And so does the US Congress, because the US Congress passed a new legislation on sanctions that make it very difficult to lift sanctions now. The reality is that the rhetoric has been about rapprochement and about new relations with Russia. But the actual policy looks a lot more like the Obama policy towards Russia.

How do you think the US should react to Russia’s meddling in the elections and the hacking?  What should be the proper action?

I supported what President Obama did, in terms of his kicking out Russians and new sanctions, but I would have gone farther. I think we should have gone farther with more sanctions. And now we need to wait until the investigations are done. And if the findings of those investigations show more evidence of meddling, and every week we learn something new, then there needs to be a tough response because we cannot allow this to happen again in the future.

Do you think that RT and Sputnik and media like them should be registered as foreign agents in the US? And what is your take on that?

It’s a very complicated question because we do have a very strong 1st Amendment right. But at the end of the day, I believe those organizations are instruments of Russian power, to project the Kremlin power. So I do think they should be registered. Now that doesn’t mean they should be closed down, I want to be very clear about that. People confuse that. I think they should be allowed to broadcast. I just want Americans to know who is the owner of that information that is being propagated, and most Americans don’t know that right now.

Ukrainians we were always concerned about Mr. Trump, due to a number of reasons that people in the US are, in particular regarding Russia. Now they’re trying to build some connections with President Trump. To what extent is it necessary and is it possible to trust what you get, particularly from his administration and him, if we know that there is some kind of difference? How to trust?

That’s a hard question and I don’t have an easy answer.  I do know that for him it’s all about personal relationships.  So meeting with him and having meetings with him, as your president has done and will do in the future, is the right thing to do. And secondly, I do trust his team; I know many of the people on his national security team.  And I trust their instincts with respect to Russia. So work with those relationships too, especially in the Pentagon and in the White House.

To what extent is Ukraine is a question for the US Administration, while they are dealing with Russia? There are talks about providing defense lethal weapons.  I asked Mr. Volker if there would be a provocation, and General Mattis, and they said, ‘You can’t provoke, you are not an aggressor.’ But you know the Russians, don’t you think that would bring some kind of escalation? And also, what kind of concessions could be done also on the American side regarding Ukraine and the conflict in the east, while trying to maintain good relations with Moscow?

Those are, again, very hard questions. I don’t have simple answers. With respect to lethal weapons, I personally believe that countries should have the right to defend themselves. But, my opinion doesn’t matter. My sense is that there is strong support for the provision of lethal assistance, except for one person, and he happens to be the President of the United States. Where that debate ends, I don’t know. With respect to Donbas, I’m not optimistic that there’s going to be an easy solution there. I’m skeptical about this new idea of peacekeepers that Mr. Putin has floated. At the end of the day, Ukraine is a sovereign country, and the decision about whether there should be peacekeepers or not in your country fundamentally should be a decision for Ukrainians not for the UN Security Council, not for Russia and the United States.