As former United States Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul tours the country to promote his latest book – From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia – his comments help Americans understand the roots of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s effort to bring Ukraine back under his autocratic thumb. At the same time, his remarks offer only tantalizing hints about the all-too-willing participation of one Donald John Trump in the process.
During McFaul’s Oct. 24 visit to California State University, Northridge, where he delivered the Richard W. Smith Lecture in Cultural Studies to an audience of several hundred faculty, students, alumni and local residents, he explained the reasons behind Russia’s quest to annex Ukraine and bring it back under Russia’s sphere of influence.
Those reasons are two-fold, McFaul said.
The first is political. As Putin sought to retake the Russian presidency in 2012, he became increasingly concerned that Ukraine was aligning too closely with Western powers. Such an outcome would weaken Russia’s influence in the region and boost democratic governance in the former Soviet republic.
Putin viewed the Arab Spring events of 2011, when millions demonstrated for democracy across the Mideast – including in Russia, where 200,000 citizens gathered in Moscow to demand free elections and call for Putin’s removal – as a clear and growing threat to his control.
The second reason is economic. Heading into the 2012 election, Putin had been working to establish a Eurasian Economic Union to prop up a stagnant Russian economy driven almost solely by its failing-to-flourish oil industry. He’d convinced Belarus and Kazakhstan to join the union, but he needed Ukraine – the largest regional market for Russian goods and services – to make the union succeed.
To win over an increasingly dissatisfied Russian populace and win his election, Putin needed an enemy. He found it in the United States – and Michael McFaul.
As McFaul arrived in Moscow in January 2012 to begin serving as the U.S. Ambassador, Putin launched his anti-America propaganda war. He accused America of funding the Russian protests and argued that McFaul had been sent by President Barack Obama not to serve as a diplomat, but to foment revolution in Russia.
So when pro-democracy demonstrators massed in Kyiv, Ukraine, in fall of 2013 in opposition to the pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, Putin repelled U.S. efforts to negotiate a solution and blamed the CIA and “deep state” American actors for Russia’s troubles, before facilitating Yanukovych’s flight to Russia on Feb. 21, 2014. Russia’s assault on Ukrainian sovereignty was underway.
And McFaul found himself on a list of Americans Putin sought to question about passage of the Magnitsky Act – a request that the Trump administration openly considered granting in July 2018.
But why Trump?
So why has Donald Trump been such an enthusiastic supporter of Putin’s efforts in Ukraine?
Asked by this reporter if he believes that, in both a political and an economic sense, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was right to tell Trump, “all of your roads lead to Putin,” McFaul switched into diplomat mode while responding.
“If you look at outcomes, it’s striking how many of [Trump’s] foreign policy positions have been to the benefit of Putin and not to the benefit of the United States…in Syria, in the Ukraine…[those positions] have undermined our interests and benefited Putin.”
“In business,” he continued with a wry grin, “when you do a deal, both sides get something. But when Donald Trump deals…he pulled the rug from under [Ukrainian President] Zelensky.”
Alluding to the deeper question – whether Trump has financial ties that bind him to the Russian autocrat – McFaul then said, “I was surprised that Mueller had so little to say [regarding] financial interactions between Trump and Russia – maybe it’s classified, maybe they quit looking, maybe they found nothing.”
“But,” he said, “Putin uses money as an instrument of power all the time…[he] does secret deals that make the person beholden.”
And, McFaul added, “The Ritz Carlton Moscow is a great hotel. I stayed there in 2009 along with Barack Obama. When we stayed there, for private conversations with the President, we built a ‘submarine’ with two-foot-thick walls and its own power source in one of the suites. Because everything that happens at the Ritz Carlton doesn’t stay at the Ritz Carlton.”
“Whatever happened with Donald Trump there in 2013, they know.”
McFaul declared Putin’s support for Trump “purely logical. He plays Trump. He’s KGB….a trained intelligence officer. He doesn’t respect Trump, and definitely doesn’t see him as his equal. The U.S. withdrawal from the world, and polarizing and exacerbating tensions here in the U.S., are both good for Putin.”
Even while responding to a later question by saying President Obama had been wrong and Trump right to deliver weapons to Ukraine, McFaul quickly insisted, “But it was wrong to politicize and instrumentalize our support. He used those weapons – paid for with your money – to try to benefit his own electoral prospects. He was wrong,” McFaul re-emphasized. “I don’t know if that’s impeachable, but it undermined democracy in the Ukraine.”
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