McFaul: U.S. still sees Iranian threat as risk that should be minimized with missile defense system

Ambassador Mike McFaul file photo

(Interfax – February 5, 2014) The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has given an interview with Interfax in which he speaks about the outcomes of his work in Russia, latest trends and developments in relations between Moscow and Washington.

Question: The news on your departure has come as a surprise. Despite the fact that you clearly wrote that the departure is explained in terms of family issues, many people don’t believe it and link your departure to political issues. Is there any political reason for such a decision?

Answer: Zero, not in the least, I mean the only political dynamic was the request by the president, the secretary, and the Obama administration for me to stay as long as I could, and I tried to do that. I love this job, it’s a fantastic job, and it’s a great honor for me to represent my country in Russia, and I find it intellectually challenging to work the policy issues, both the good things and the hard things. I love being a part of an embassy team. As a professor I usually work by myself, right, I usually sit in front of my computer and write. I like being part of a team here at the Embassy. And also for me, this is an emotional moment because this will be the end of my time of working for President Obama. I’ve been with him in the government over five years now, I started on January 21, 2009, and before that for two years I worked as an informal unpaid advisor. So that’s almost seven years working with the President and his senior staff who are my close friends. And so it’s an end of different layers for me, not just leaving Moscow. But it had nothing to do with the U.S.-Russia relations, and it had nothing to do with any decisions by the Russian government or our government, it was all purely due the fact that I want and need to reunite with my family back in California. Seven months is a long time.

Q.: You have become quite the unusual ambassador, you threw dance and jazz parties at the Spaso House, you actively communicated via social networks. Which style suits you more? A reserved diplomat or a more liberal leaning Stanford professor?

A.: You know I’ll have to think about that question in the long run, but right now I feel that I really have come to appreciate and embrace a diplomatic work. Now I need to be clear. When I landed in Moscow, I had no experience as a diplomat at all, I had just a little bit of training back home because I was working at the White House. But other ambassadors go through a training program, and language program and all that. I just had just a few days of that, so I didn’t know what to expect to be perfectly honest. And the only reason I’m here is because Barack Obama, President Obama, asked me to do this job. Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that I would become a diplomat, let alone an Ambassador. Having said that, and if I think about it, I had to learn some things along the way, and I have some regrets about some mistakes I’ve made, but generally speaking I really love my work with Russian counterparts. I just came from one of my usual meetings with Deputy Foreign Minister [Sergei] Ryabkov, and I like diplomacy, I actually really enjoy the negotiations over the issues. I didn’t know that before and now I’ve come to know it, and I prefer it over being a professor, frankly in that regard.

Second, and what you mentioned, I enjoy and have embraced the public diplomacy part of my job and I am unique and I’m proud of that, and I’m happy that I’m different. I’ve always been different in any job I’ve ever done, so being unconventional is not an insult for me, that’s how it’s always been for me, so I’m glad that I’ve been able to bring some of my experiences from my previous work and my previous jobs and just life experience to be an innovative Ambassador whether its dancing at Spaso House, or working on Twitter.

And other thing I would say, which is something that a lot of people won’t understand is something that I spent a lot of time on as an Ambassador is trying to develop trade and investment ties between Russian and American companies. And you know, I teach courses on economics and I understand the theory, but I’ve really gotten to know a lot more about business in this job, and I really like it and find it really interesting because it’s really tangible, it’s real – for example, we will buy X amount of planes and that will create X amount of job.

So all three of those things are things that I will definitely miss when I go back to my life as a professor.

Q.: You said that you regret making some mistakes. What are they?

A.: Well, I just think there were a few times where I could have chosen my language more carefully, and you know we don’t have to rehearse those, but I regret that and I said it at the time. And it’s those times where I’d have chosen my words more carefully. And the other thing is that I travelled a lot when I first got here, and have travelled less more recently because of summit planning and the various crises and I wish I would have travelled to more Russian cities, because when I did that I enjoyed the public meetings with the private citizens, not diplomats, not government officials, not business elites – they were some of the more inspiring meetings that I’ve had, and for the first time in our history we would invite people on Facebook and Twitter. And people were shocked that they got to meet the ambassador, and I there was one woman in Vladivostok who was so thrilled to meet me, that she wouldn’t let go of my hand, for nearly 20 minutes, she just literally would not let go, and I take great pride in that we were able to connect not just with the people I needed to connect with but with a wider audience of people.

Q.: Have you often faced difficulties in your work? How often have you been criticized by various political forces and ordinary people? Was it hard to be under such criticism?

A.: You know the main point of view from my perspective, and the main pieces of work that I do as a diplomat is with the Russian government, so at the Kremlin and at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and at the White House, I have maintained contacts with all the officials with which I have worked in those meetings. And I am very proud of that, because some of those meetings were difficult, and I say that because you asked about difficulties. For example, last summer with Yury Ushakov, during the crisis with Mr. Snowden and the ultimate decision of President Obama not to come to Moscow. Those are difficult meetings, and what I am proud of is that even in difficult meetings with our Russian counterparts we have rapport, we have respect, we can laugh and I’ve never felt that my ability to do my diplomatic job was impaired by the public chatter and criticism, and so a lot of people don’t see that – they are not sitting with me at the Kremlin or the White House or the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and so they don’t actually see diplomacy and so they just see people talking about what I do, but that’s fine I don’t care. I engage with my critics directly, and some times it’s literally directly, and on public domains and privately. And people say back home that ‘oh it’s such a tough job there. I don’t see it that way at all, I think it’s invigorating and even when we’re dealing with tough issues, I find it a challenge in a positive way that I was the one that got to deal with those issues. Whether we’re talking about the ban on the adoptions for American parents, or the closing of USAID, those are very difficult issues to manage but as the Ambassador, I was glad that it was me who got the opportunity to represent both our interests and our values in our engagement with the Russian government and society.

Q.: Does the U.S. still seeks the extradition of Edward Snowden?

A.: Yes, we do. It has been our position all along. There have been charges against him, and he needs to come home and face that. We have requested the Russian government to assist us with that.

Q.: Is it possible that a bilateral meeting between presidents Putin and Obama will take place on the sideline of the nuclear secretly summit at the Hague in March?

A.: Yes, maybe. You know, I am not certain that President Putin has decided on his travel plans, but if both presidents will be there, then most certainly I would expect that there would be a meeting.

Q.: The U.S. side has said that the Russia-U.S. summit scheduled for September 2013 did not take place because the agenda was not rich enough. Has the situation changed and when such a summit may take place?

A.: We’re working very hard to make the agenda rich enough to justify a summit with an eye toward the G8 summit in Sochi in the summer. I believe we have new lines of cooperation. Most certainly Iran, most certainly Syria, with particular respect to their removal and destruction of chemical weapons. Those were pieces that were not as well developed last summer. We are also in close consultation and much more serious negotiations with the Russian government to develop a much more robust economic agenda. First Deputy [Prime Minister Igor] Shuvalov’s visit to Washington was a very important visit, and the subsequent meetings that our teams had in Davos last week – [Economic Development Minister Alexei] Ulyukayev and [Deputy Prime Minister Arkady] Dvorkovich meet with [U.S. Trade Representative Michael] Froman and [U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny] Pritzker, and that’s good. It feels like we’re starting to gain momentum on that, and so our job as diplomats and my job as ambassador is to get up every day and try to develop that agenda. It’s way too early to tell, as your government – the Russian government – has made no commitments. But there is a new momentum in a lot of different domains.

Q.: What agreements are being discussed? When can they be signed?

A.: It’s too early to tell. It’s very early, so I don’t want to prejudge what negotiators are talking about. I would say generally the idea is to increase the permissive conditions for increased trade and investment. What governments can do to increase that, and by the way, both ways. I think it’s important for people to understand that we are interested in Russian investment in the U.S. There are already several major Russian companies that invest there, and so we see it to be in our economic interests to invest there. So around investment, reducing barriers and creating confidence for investors – that’s what we’re negotiating.

Q.: Is the creation of a Biden-Medvedev commission for economic issues on the agenda or just forgotten?

A.: We have not forgotten about it, and it is a dimension of these negotiations that we were just talking about.

Q.: So may the commission start to work soon?

A.: Yes, with the appropriate content to justify it, but within our government it is something that we continue to discuss.

Q.: Moscow calls on the U.S. not to dramatize the delay in withdrawing Syrian chemical weapons. What is your comment on this?

A.: I think our position will remain to be what it has been, which is that these weapons were used against innocent people and we all made a commitment that they should be removed, and all countries involved including the Syrian government need to adhere to the commitments they’ve made.

Q.: Do you think that such delays may result in a military intervention in Syria?

A.: I don’t want to speculate on what might happen in the future, but I know that we are working very hard to try and meet our obligations and using our resources to do that, and [U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Rose] Gottemoeller will be coming later this week for discussions on that very issue with Deputy Foreign Minister Ryabkov.

Q.: Why has the U.S. had such a harsh reaction to reports that Russia and Iran are discussing a possibility of a ‘oil for goods and equipment’ barter deal?

A.: Well, our position on that has been clear for a long time. We think that sanctions have helped to create the permissive conditions for negotiations, and we are very pleased with the momentum that we have. There is a very difficult road ahead of us for the next 6 months, and we think that we should focus on that very specific and very critical foreign policy issue and not do anything that might decrease momentum on getting a deal in the context of the P5+1. We think that we should stick to what’s most important and not take the positive pressure off of the negotiations

Q.: When will the U.S. consider the Iranian nuclear issue settled enough to revise its missile defense plans?

A.: I look forward to the day when we can say that that the issue is solved, because right now, Iranian missile threat is an issue that is first and foremost on our minds, and we have a long, hard road to go before that will be accomplished. But we’ve always made clear that the Iranian threat is a principal threat with respect to the defenses that we’re building, threats that we’re seeking to counter. And remember, our missile defense system is global and is adaptable depending on the threats that we face. It’s called the [European Phased Adaptive Approach] EPAA for a reason, because it’s adaptable depending on where the threats are coming from, which is different from the previous program which was not as adaptable.