Why Putin Turned Against the U.S.

Former ambassador Michael McFaul on what really motivated Russia to invade Ukraine

ASPEN, Colo.—One major divide in international relations, as well as in other social sciences, is between those who believe in structure and those who believe in agency. Members of the first group say leaders are just representations of cultures and nations, subject to long-running political dynamics; their counterparts insist, no, individual leaders make decisions that can change the course of history.

Discussing whether Vladimir Putin's actions in Ukraine herald a new or resurrected Cold War between Washington and Moscow, former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul placed himself firmly in the agency camp: He thinks the current crisis is a direct result of Putin's actions and personality. But while he didn't put it exactly this way, he suggested that Putin's worldview is shaped by the fact that the Russian president is a structuralist. McFaul made the comments at the Aspen Ideas Festival, which is hosted by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute.

"Is this a new Cold War? There are certain similarities. This is the greatest moment of confrontation since [the time of Soviet leader Mikhail] Gorbachev," McFaul said. For example, he noted that not even in the depths of the Cold War was the Kremlin chief of staff subject to economic sanctions, which is the case today. "It’s a deeply tragic moment. It makes me wonder, and I know the president wonders, were we naive to try to think about a different relationship with Russia?"

There several ways of thinking about the recent crisis. One favorite frame, especially among Russian experts, is that this is simply the way Great Powers behave and the way they've behaved for centuries. Russia is a rising power, and it's only natural that it would seek to control more territory. That can't be written off entirely, McFaul said, but he doesn't see it as the main factor. First, he explained, if Russia had made a faster transition to democracy and markets—like, say, Poland did—the situation might be different. And second, he noted that Russian policy up until late February of 2014 was far more accommodating.

"I don’t think [Putin] was sitting as a kid dreaming about putting back the Russian empire," McFaul said. The lavish Sochi Olympics and the decision to release imprisoned Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky were the actions of a nation trying to assimilate into the world; the crisis in Ukraine imperiled Putin's dream of creating an eastern version of the EU.

Another approach suggests that U.S. policy is to blame—either the Americans were far too aggressive, chastising Russia for its failings, driving NATO eastward, and supporting "color revolutions" in Eastern Europe, which drove Putin to paranoia; or else the Americans were too soft, letting Putin get away with his incursion into Georgia and telegraphing that they wouldn't strike back. McFaul rejected that, too, noting the long list of collaborations between the two governments up to February: a nuclear-arms-reduction treaty, distribution networks to Afghanistan, Iran sanctions, the Syrian chemical-weapons deal. Violent protests in 2010 in Kyrgyzstan didn't cause a crisis; Russian opinion polls showed two-thirds approval of the United States as recently as three years ago.

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David A. Graham is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Politics Channel. He previously reported for Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, and The National.

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