Sa, 2.12.2023

Michael McFaul: Russians were never promised NATO non-expansion to Eastern Europe

Taavi Minnik
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Photo: Carnegie

These past two years have seen tensions arising between Russia and the West which have let to talk about a new Cold War. Interviewed by Postimees, Stanford University professor and former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul – indisputably a top ranking Russia expert in the USA – shares about the recent US-Russia confrontation on the Baltic Sea, and Russia-West relations.

Lately we have seen different incidents on Baltic Sea: Russian jets simulated attack on US warship and Russian fighter jets have been flying dangerously close to US reconnaissance aircraft. Are Russians trying to send a message or just checking the reaction of USA in the Baltics?

Yes, Putin is sending a message. As with other threats, such as to Romania for hosting a missile defense components, these Russian actions are designed to threaten new NATO allies. These actions and words are extremely provocative. My greatest worry is that one of the Russian pilots will cause an accident, and then what?

We have heard from Russian politics different accusations incl. that West has broken it’s promise that NATO would not expand into the East. How would you comment: has there ever been a promise not to expand NATO or is it just a myth?

This assertion is a complete myth. I worked closely with Russian officials in negotiating many agreements, including the New START Treaty. Russian officials want to write everything down, agree on everything on paper. Its a diplomatic traditional I respect, even if it was sometimes frustrating to engage with during these negotiations. So why is there no written document -- signed by officials -- if such a promise? Why is there no treaty? NATO, by the way, is a multilateral organization, so such a document would have to be agreed to by all NATO allies, not just the United States. I have not seen such a document.

Russia has acted very irrational and growingly aggressive since 2014 and is openly waging war on the West. Has US adequately reacted in Russian threat in Eastern Europe?

First, I find recent Russian foreign policy behavior, including most dramatically the annexation of Crimea and intervention in eastern Ukraine, to be tragic, not only for Ukraine, but for Russia. These decisions have produced many long-term negative economic and diplomatic consequences for Russia. I hope someday Russians will have a rational debate about the costs versus benefits of this current foreign policy course. As for the Obama administration response, together with our NATO allies, I am basically impressed. Never in US-Russian diplomatic history have some many people and companies in Russia been sanctioned.  Do you know how many Russian officials or companies were sanctioned after the Russian intervention in Georgia in 2008? Zero. Second, I believe the decisions taken within the alliance to strengthen NATO are the right ones. Tragically again, NATO has to deter Russian threats.  The Alliance is implementing several important initiatives to do so. Third, the US and Europe have taken several important steps to assist Ukraine. This last goal may be the most important and also the most difficult. Putin expects Ukrainian democracy to fail and the Ukrainian economy to collapse, and is working hard to accelerate both of these outcomes. The West must do all we can to achieve the opposite outcome, through a combination of incentives but also conditions.

Mr McFaul, you have a long experience with modern Russia and its leaders. How should the West deal with Russia?

Two years ago for the New York Times, I wrote an article called «Confronting Putin's Russia.» I believe the basic argument and recommendations in that piece still stand.