Former Obama Administration Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has an “easy” solution to the Ukraine crisis:
Self-determination in eastern Ukraine and respect for that nation’s minorities. He does concede a catch: Putin has to agree to it. Right, that minor issue. Perhaps McFaul can tackle Iraq next. I imagine his solution involves all parties ending their fight — if only they can agree to stop being angry with one another.
Where on earth did Obama get this guy? Did he win some sort of contest?
This is far from the first foolishness by McFaul, who served in Moscow from 2011 until February 2014. Early in his ambassadorship he rather publicly met with dissident political leaders in the American embassy as part of his engagement in the domestic politics of Russia.
Make no mistake, American ambassadors sometimes have occasion to meet with out-of-power politicians. Furthermore, it would be ideal if Russia was a pluralistic democracy with strong civil rights protections and was governed by the rule of law rather than the whim of Putin. Unfortunately, what is ideal and what is reality are two very different things.
The fact is that Russia is far from a democracy and there is and was little hope of them becoming one soon. But the key twist for the United States is that Russia is not some middling country where American involvement in domestic politics has little economic and geopolitical consequence. America has a wide range of important issues for which Russian cooperation is important. Controlling cyber-criminals, nuclear proliferation, supply access to Afghanistan, and actions before the UN Security Council are among the issues where we have to deal with the Russians whether we like it or not.
Not only that, there is little evidence the overt support for opposition parties or engagement by American officials would be helpful. In fact, such efforts are more likely to undermine dissident political forces. In the past 30 years, Russia has shrunk to its smallest size in over 200 years, lost its dominance on the world stage and seen the arrival of a capitalist economy that has not provided all that was promised (of course, it is not true competitive capitalism, but rent-seeking, crony capitalism). In the Russian mind all this can be traced to losing the Cold War to America. For a proud country, this is a humiliation.
Anyone with even an iota of political sense should be able to see that overt American support of any domestic political group in Russia would be toxic, opening up that group to accusations of being American puppets, agents of the CIA, etc. Look at it this way, what do you think the reaction would be if Hillary Clinton was endorsed for president by the Chinese ambassador?
And, what could the United States do if Putin cracked down on the political opposition? Nothing.
Yet McFaul, considered an “expert” on Russia, was somehow oblivious to these facts. He pursued his own agenda of hobnobbing with those who opposed Putin. Typical of the Obama administration, McFaul never seemed to consider the contingency that his brilliant moves might not work out perfectly. When Putin cracked down and put McFaul into the deep freeze, McFaul was left with no options. Every day we discover a one more reason why the Obama administration’s foreign policy is so atrocious. His foreign policy team consists of nothing but bumblers.
Dealing with Putin and the Ukraine crisis does not mean rolling over and accepting whatever Putin decides, but it does require an honest appraisal of American influence, plus thinking and acting like Machiavelli.
The fact is there is nothing the United States can do in the short-term. Putin will not allow the separatists to be routed. But that does not meant the U.S. is without options. Putin is repeating the same mistakes that caused the Soviet Union to collapse: a corrupt, inefficient economic system dependent on exporting hydrocarbons and subject to imperial overreach.
The shrewd Machiavellian strategy would be to attack Putin at his weakest points, not engage in pointless symbolism. Working to reduce the price of oil and increasing Russia’s imperial burden repeats the successful course of events in the past.
As predicted by this author and others, sanctions have completely failed to contain Putin. The sanctions may have caused some economic pain, but there is not a shred of evidence that they have any prospect whatsoever of changing behavior – which should not be a surprise to Obama if he had cared to look at the research on the subject.
Integrating American oil supply into the world market, engagement in Libya, and allowing Kurdish oil to be exported would help suppress the price of oil.
Increasing Russia’s imperial burden is the most difficult politically. It would involve negotiating with Putin. The end game would most certainly mean Russian domination of the Donetsk region and Crimea. But, Ukraine should be able to cut a better deal than just that. Ukraine needs debt relief and a supply of cheap natural gas more than it needs the poverty-stricken, restive, now rubble-strewn territories Russia covets.
The best revenge for Ukraine is to take the money and run, while cleaning up its own house. Both Russia and the Ukraine share the same problem: corrupt, inefficient economies dominated by a klepto-elite. If Ukraine is truly willing to become part of the West and reform itself, as Poland did, the result will be a prosperous society envied by its former citizens. Jettisoning its debt to Russia (and maybe holding out for a compensation check) and securing a reasonably priced energy supply would be a good start.
But Machiavellian moves are a problem for a President who finds the very concept of strategy baffling. Obama would have to ignore the conventional wisdom and suffer short-term criticism – and risk-phobic Obama cannot possibly conceive of doing either.
Letting Putin have his way for now is a lot of crow to eat, but the status quo is not going to change. That means Putin gets what he wants without paying much of a price. In a world where the ideal is impossible, you make the best deal you can. As things stand now, western aid will go to pay off debts held by Russia – can you imagine a more ridiculous course of events?
Machiavelli would be willing to suffer short-term costs and play the long game. He would lure Putin into a swamp and let him slowly sink.
The trouble is that there are no Machiavellis in the Obama administration, only Elmer Fudds.