Ex-Ambassadors Share Opposing Views on Russia

     WASHINGTON (CN) – Two former ambassadors on Tuesday presented Congress with very different views on how the United States should handle recent aggression from Russian President Vladimir Putin.
     Michael McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Tuesday that the best way to grapple with Russian military escalation and shows of power in Syria and Ukraine is to stay the course, recommit to NATO and repair relations with a Russian people constantly bombarded with propaganda.
     “I am a giant optimist about Russia,” McFaul said. “I want to make that clear. I’m a huge optimist about Russia.”
     Jack Matlock Jr., who was ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987 to 1991, took an opposite stance, calling for the administration to reevaluate regional alliances and leave the Russian people to solve their problems within their borders, without U.S. interference.
     McFaul called this idea dangerous and said signaling strong commitments to regional allies would be a strong deterrent to Putin’s advancements.
     “To pull back now, I think would be a very dangerous thing,” McFaul said. “Because it would create a vacuum, it would create uncertainty about our commitment to our NATO allies.”
     While McFaul argued the United States should continue helping Ukraine reform its economy, government and military, Matlock said Ukraine is “better off” without Crimea, which Russia annexed in 2014, and that the country needs a strong relationship with Russia to be successful.
     “To think that by bringing pressure to bear on them to make them change their policy simply plays into Putin’s hands because it makes it a national issue,” Matlock said. “So any attempts to use military force or to encourage it will make the situation worse.”
     Russians could see any efforts from the United States to influence policy within their country the same way Americans saw communist parties during the Cold War, Matlock said.
     Matlock generally advocated for a more hands-off approach to Russia, one built on getting the country to cooperate with the United States on challenges like terrorism and climate change. Doing this while seeking influence in Russia’s region would be difficult, he said.
     “As I said we can argue over who is more responsible for the situation, but the fact is that, as you well know, politics is driven by perceptions, and their perceptions are that we have been consistently moving against their interests and trying to encircle them and even try to interfere with their internal policy,” Matlock said. “Yes, President Putin has made many mistakes, many that are not in Russia’s influence. But Russia’s president, Russia’s government is a matter for Russians to decide. Their scandals are a matter for them to deal with.”
     Though he denied it was a direct reference to his colleague, McFaul pushed back against the idea that the United States is to blame for Russian aggression.
     “If we had a Ten Commandments about how to be a good multilateralist, how to be a good international citizen, at the top three, one of them would be thou shall not annex the territory of thy neighbor,” McFaul said. “And that’s what he did. I’m sorry. We didn’t annex any territory, we didn’t support any revolution against him and there’s got to be a response to that.”
     The two opposing viewpoints each won some followers during the hearing. Some lawmakers, like Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., sided more with McFaul while others, like California Republican Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, seemed to agree with Matlock’s argument.
     Engel called for the United States to invest itself in Ukraine’s success, even encouraging sending Ukraine weapons with the reasoning that Putin would change his approach in the country if Russian soldiers “start coming home in body bags.”
     “I just think that we have the most pro-Western government in Ukraine that we could possibly have and God forbid that government fall,” Engel said. “It’ll be 100 years before we’ll have anything like that.”
     McFaul told Engel he agreed with “everything” he said.
     Rohrabacher, on the other hand, put blame on both the United States and Russia for letting the relationship slip through ill-advised military exercises and shows of force that have left neither country better off.
     “I think that both sides, both Russia and the United States, need to take a deep breath and step back from these whole military operations that are actually making things worse rather than making things better,” Rohrabacher said. “We need to find out where our differences are, negotiate them, see where we can work together.”

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