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.

“Something that happened 20 years ago cannot explain what’s happening now if we were cooperating two years ago,” McFaul argued. That is perhaps not a completely convincing argument—as we learned during the Balkan Wars, among other conflicts, historical animosities can appear to have disappeared, only to reappear suddenly and violently—but it does undermine those who blame U.S. policy.

Instead, McFaul sees two crucial events as leading Putin to decide the U.S. was implacably opposed to him and determined to push him out of power, which together produced the current situation. The first was widespread protests against Putin in early 2012, which the Kremlin accused McFaul himself of organizing. “But that was not the end of the story, because Putin is a great compartmentalist," McFaul said. "He'd say, ‘I understand you’re trying to overthrow regimes in Syria and Iran and here,'" but still see ways to work on business deals or the chemical-weapons deal with America.

The second event came during negotiations for a peaceful exit for Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych this winter. The American government was deeply involved in trying to broker a handover; Vice President Biden was on the phone with Yanukovych. Then the Ukrainian leader suddenly fled the country. "Putin thought that yet again the Americans had duped him. That’s when he said, 'I’m done worrying about what they think about me.'" In short, Putin had adopted a structuralist view. Believing that American grand strategy was geared toward undermining him at every turn, he rejected any attempt to reckon with Obama as an agent of policy. But that was an emotional decision—hence McFaul's allegiance to agency.

“We tend to assign a lot of rationale and logic to individuals and states, and my experience in government suggests ... they’re people with emotions, with worldviews, and that different people in that job will behave differently,” McFaul said. "The good news is that this is not part of a grand strategy where first they take Crimea, then eastern Ukraine, then Moldova, and then a piece of Estonia. This was a response to the collapse of the government in Kiev."

Yet even if the spark wasn't a grand strategy, the ground has now shifted. "The bad news is I think Putin is now locked into his worldview," McFaul said. "It’s going to be a long, long confrontational struggle with Russia that will last at least until Putin is no longer the leader."