Russia expert tells Morning Forum why U.S. reset didn't last


Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul’s Dec. 3 presentation at the Morning Forum of Los Altos, “An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” focused on the changing relationship between the U.S. and Russia since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

McFaul is a scholar, policymaker, diplomat, media analyst for The Washington Post and NBC News, and author of the book “From Cold War to Hot Peace.”

Raised in Montana, McFaul said he grew up “scared to death” that the Cold War would lead to nuclear war. He said he knew from the time he was in high school that he wanted to help reduce tensions with the USSR. As a freshman at Stanford University in 1982, he enrolled in Russian and international relations classes, and the following summer traveled to the Soviet Union to get to know the Russian people and improve his Russian skills.

Since then, he said, “I have spent the better part of my life trying to improve relations between Russia and the United States.”

In 2010, as one of President Barack Obama’s Russian advisers, he thought he had contributed to that 30-year dream – seeing a reset of the relationship between the two superpowers as they cooperated on goals that achieved mutual interests. He described the excitement of meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in Prague to sign a new nuclear weapons reduction treaty, convinced that the U.S. and Russia were beginning a new era of cooperation.

Putin’s ‘zero-sum game’

Yet by 2012, the achievement of that dream proved to be short-lived. McFaul offered several explanations for what happened between “that great day” in Prague and the hostile atmosphere he faced two years later when he arrived in Moscow as the U.S. ambassador and Russia was once again vilifying the Americans.

While McFaul conceded that other explanations – for example, missteps on the part of the Americans, natural shifts in power – contain some elements of truth, he argued that the “main drivers” to the end of cooperation stemmed from domestic factors in Russia and the return of the KGB-trained Putin to the presidency in 2011.

Unlike Medvedev, who saw Russia benefiting from cooperation with the U.S., Putin saw it as a competitor and a fomenter of regime change. Putin “didn’t believe in win-win diplomacy,” according to McFaul, and believed “everything is a zero-sum game.”

Putin was convinced the U.S. was behind the Arab Spring in the Middle East, and he blamed American influence for the demonstrations that broke out in Russia soon after he reassumed the presidency, with many in the middle class demanding fair elections and “a Russia without Putin.”

To marginalize the demonstrators, McFaul said, Putin filled the state-controlled media with false claims that “America was trying to overthrow the Russian regime,” McFaul was “a pedophile” and Obama supported ISIS.

Ideological struggle

Comparing the Cold War with our current “hot peace,” McFaul noted both the good and the bad. The ideological struggle between communism and capitalism is over, as are the proxy wars and the nuclear arms race.

However, McFaul said, now Putin portrays the U.S. and other Western democracies as the  “decadent West,” while he promotes Russia as “the last bastion of conservative values.”

McFaul added that the U.S. never before had to worry about its Cold War adversaries interfering in its elections or threatening the country with cyber warfare. 

The comforting news, McFaul said, is that we’re not destined to remain in conflict with Russia forever. He is confident that other Russian visionaries will eventually emerge. But he also acknowledged that “Putin will be around for a long time.”

Meanwhile, McFaul said, the U.S. must isolate Putin and do far more to safeguard its elections. McFaul also warned of the challenge of fighting disinformation from both foreign powers and the White House.

“It troubles me,” he said, “that facts don’t matter anymore, and national security has become for the first time a partisan issue.”

McFaul ended his talk on a more hopeful note: “I love the Russian people and its culture. I hope to see the day we can re-engage with a democratic Russia,” to work together on common interests.

The Morning Forum of Los Altos is a members-only lecture series that meets at Los Altos United Methodist Church, 655 Magdalena Ave. Subscriptions are open to new members. For the list of speakers and more information, visit


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