Senate Testimony of Ambassador Michael McFaul;Outside Perspectives on Russian Sanctions: Current Effectiveness and Potential for Next Steps [Excerpt]

Ambassador Mike McFaul file photo

Testimony of Ambassador Michael McFaul [Excerpt]
Director, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Professor
of Political Science, and Hoover Institution Senior Fellow at Stanford University
U.S. Senate Committee on Banking
Outside Perspectives on Russian Sanctions: Current Effectiveness and Potential for Next Steps
September 6, 2018

[PDF Full text here:]

In the last several years, the Russian government has taken increasingly belligerent actions abroad, threatening not only American national interests but also violating international laws, norms, and values. Russia has not always behaved as a rogue or outlaw state. Under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Russian President Boris Yeltsin, the Kremlin adopted a different, more cooperative approach towards the United States and the West and adhered more closely to the rules of the game of the international system. Under the leadership of President Vladimir Putin, however, especially after his return to the Kremlin in 2012, Russia has moved in the opposite direction, defying the West, challenging international rules, and aggressively undermining American national interests. In parallel, Putin has consolidated autocratic rule inside Russia, a lamentable trend that correlates with Russia’s growing belligerency abroad.

While Putin remains in power, Russian foreign policy is unlikely to change. But that fact should not lead to the erroneous conclusion that the United States — together with our allies — cannot constrain, contain, or deter Putin’s bad behavior. By developing a sustained, multi-pronged strategy of containment regarding most issues, combined with engagement on a limited agenda, the United States and the West can begin to reduce Russia’s disruptive, dangerous, and damaging actions in the world. Part of that strategy must include a new and improved sanctions regime.

The Facts on Putin’s Belligerent, Criminal Behavior

Tragically, Russian foreign policy has become increasingly belligerent and rogue during the almost twenty years of Putin’s rule.

In August 2008, Russia invaded Georgia.2 In the wake of that war, Moscow recognized Abkhazia and South Ossetia as independent countries, changing de facto by force the borders of the sovereign country of Georgia. This Russian action violated international laws and norms and adversely affected American national interests.

In February 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine. Russia first seized control and then annexed Crimea. Annexation is illegal and taboo in the international system. After annexation proved easy and cheap, Putin fomented separatist movements in eastern Ukraine, sparking a civil and inter-state war, since Russian soldiers and intelligence officers have been directly involved in the fighting. Putin also provided the rocket that shot down MH17 over Ukraine, killing all 283 passengers and 15 crewmembers on board, another criminal act.4 Since the fighting began in eastern Ukraine, over ten thousand people have died and roughly two million Ukrainian citizens have been displaced. During World War II and before, dictators annexed territory in Europe. But during the Cold War and after, annexation ceased to be a practice in European politics, until 2014.

In September 2015, Putin deployed the Russian military to Syria with the mission to prop up a ruthless dictator, Mr. Assad. Russia’s ally in Syria used illegal chemical weapons to kill innocent civilians in a violent campaign of suppression that started against peaceful protestors and then metastasized into a civil war. Many external observers have labeled Assad use of chemical weapons and other military actions against civilians as crimes against humanity, yet Putin continues to back him. Some of Russia’s own military operations in the Syrian war, including the carpet-bombing of Aleppo, also have been portrayed as crimes against humanity.

In 2016, Putin violated American sovereignty. The Russian president used several instruments – including theft and then publication of private data, deployment of Russian state-owned and state-controlled conventional media, social media, bots, trolls, and fake accounts, as well direct engagement with the Trump campaign – to try to help Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election. Russian state-sponsored actors also sought to exacerbate American political polarization more generally. Putin and his proxies also may have used other means, including money and “kompromat,” to sway the outcome of the election and influence subsequent actions by President Trump. We must wait for the outcome of the Mueller investigation to understand the full extent of the Russian operation to influence our vote and subsequent politics and policies. But we know already that Putin’s actions in 2016 adversely affected American interests and violated international norms. During the Cold War, the Kremlin never violated American sovereignty so illegally, aggressively and audaciously.

Since the 2016 presidential election, the Russian state and its proxies continue to use traditional and social media to spread disinformation and sow division in American society. Russian government officials and their allies also continue to seek partnerships and cooperation with like-minded Americans.7 This Russian campaign inside the United States is part of a global effort by Putin to win over ideological allies within democracies as a means to change their policies towards Russia. Putin has anointed himself as the global leader of nationalist, nativist, conservative (as defined by him) movement fighting against the decadent, liberal West. Putin also cultivates an image of a strong, virile ruler – bare chested fishing, hunting, horseback riding and all that – in contrast to weak democratic leaders in chaotic democratic societies. Putinism has attracted ideological allies sometimes in the government and sometimes in the opposition in Hungary, Italy, Czech Republic, Turkey, the Philippines, Austria, the Netherlands, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

In March 2018, the US State Department assessed that the Russian government attempted to assassinate Sergei Skripal, a former Russian intelligence officer living in the United Kingdom. Russian operatives used illegal chemical weapons, violated British sovereignty, injured innocents, and served notice to everyone around the world that the Kremlin can come after you anywhere.

Skripal is not the only Kremlin foe attacked overseas. The tragic assassination of Kremlin critic, Pavel Sheremet, in Kyiv, Ukraine on July 20, 2016 remains officially unsolved. Others Putin considers foes of his regime, like Boris Berezovsky (found dead in 2013 in London in suspicious circumstances) and Alexander Litvinenko (killed in 2006), which, a British inquiry concluded nearly ten years later, was ordered by the Kremlin, were similarly violations of British sovereignty. Even in the United States, former Russian press minister Mikhail Lesin died mysteriously in 2015 in Washington D.C. On occasion, Soviet leaders did assassinate dissidents abroad, including most famously Leon Trotsky in Mexico in 1940. But for many decades of the Cold War and post-Cold War era, these practices were considered taboo, until recently.

In addition, the true perpetrators of several assassinations inside Russia remain unresolved, including most recently the murder of former first deputy prime minister Boris Nemtsov, in February 2015. Those responsible for the wrongful death of Sergei Magnitsky in November 2009 have never faced justice. Nor has anyone gone to jail for the assassination attempts against opposition activist Vladimir Kara-Murza. Especially troubling are the number of Russian journalists who have been murdered mysteriously, including most famously Anna Politkovskaya in 2006, and most recently, Nikolai Andrushchenko and Dmitry Popkov in 2017.9 American journalist Paul Klebnikov also was killed in 2004; those behind his tragic murder have never ben arrested.

In July 2018, at his Helsinki summit with President Trump, Putin called for the interrogation and arrest of several former US government officials (including me) and one currently serving staffer here at the U.S. Congress, Kyle Parker. For performing our jobs in the U.S. government, we are accused falsely of violating Russian law. Again, in a now familiar pattern, by calling for the interrogation and hinting as his government plans to indict American officials without any evidence about illegal activities, Putin’s action violated international norms. Unfortunately, Russia has a long track record of violating INTERPOL procedures and practices in seeking to detain innocent people in third countries. Putin’s “incredible offer” proffered in Helsinki obviously served no American national interest but also violated basic diplomatic protocol. During the height of the Cold War, no Soviet leader sought to interrogate or arrest American government officials.

I could go on. But the point of this long but impartial list is to remind this committee that Putin is not only acting against American national interest across several issue domains, but is also audaciously violating international laws and norms. Many of these actions are criminal. He should not be embraced; he must be deterred ….