U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. --
Four workdays into President Barack Obama's first term in office, Michael McFaul had already found himself in a spot of trouble.
Obama was about to place a phone call to Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. McFaul, in his capacity as senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, was in the Oval Office with Obama, his knuckles and the heels of his hands resting on the president's desk.
"It was my first time in the Oval Office," McFaul recalled in a presentation to Air Force Academy cadets Feb. 3. "After I walked out, one of the people working there said, 'You're not supposed to touch the desk.'"
Obama's conversation with Medvedev focused on resetting the relationship between the United States and Russia, according to White House officials, but six years after that conversation, the two nations have revived much of the rivalry of the Cold War a generation past.
McFaul spoke about that international relationship during his Academy Assembly keynote address.
"How is it that, just 25 years ago or so, we went from this euphoric moment -- ending the Cold War, the end of history, we're all going to be friends, Russia's going to integrate with the West and be our partners ...?" he said. "Russia is fighting a proxy war in Eastern Ukraine. Russia is redefining us as the enemy again, not just in terms of our interests and their interests but in an ideological way: Imperial America and the decadent West and their Nazi proxies in Kiev. That's the way they're framing the debate about us."
McFaul, who now directs the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, presented three arguments for what caused the sudden freeze in U.S.-Russian relations. His first hypothesis touched on the nature of international relations and the tendency of nations to come into conflict as their power in the world rises and falls.
The problem with this explanation, McFaul said, was that Russia had no imperial designs on Crimea in 2012.
"Putin wasn't talking about invading," he said. "Two years before the annexation, the most important objective for Vladimir Putin was to create the Eurasian Economic Union. We saw this as one of his most important foreign policy objectives. This was their response to the European Union: Bring all the countries that used to be in the Soviet Union into their economic union to counter the EU. To make that work, he needed Ukraine to be in it."
But while Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych leaned toward joining the Russian-led EEU, many Ukrainians favored joining with Europe. Tensions led to protests and later to Yanukovych's exile from power.
McFaul's second hypothesis touched on U.S. foreign policy and the role it may have played in souring relations. However, that explanation doesn't explain the improved relationship between the U.S. and Russia from 2009 to 2012, he said.
"We (the National Security Council) were briefing President-elect Obama, now President Obama," McFaul said. "We were trying to explain conflict based on historical stuff, the Cold War, and psychobabble about their leadership. He would look at this stuff and say, 'When I look at the world, and I see the threats to us -- al-Qaida, the Taliban, Iran, North Korea ... aren't most of them also threats to Russia? And wouldn't we both be more secure and better off if we worked together to try to address those threats?'"
McFaul crafted a U.S.-Russia relations strategy that would become known as the "Reset." Between 2009 and 2012, the two countries signed the New START treaty, implemented tough sanctions against Iran in response to that country's nuclear program, and negotiated the Northern Distribution Network, which allowed flights over the Arctic and through Russian airspace for American troop deployments to Afghanistan.
"This is not symbolic stuff," McFaul said. "NDN was something big that mattered to us -- to anybody who was involved in the war effort or is still involved in the war effort in Afghanistan."
That relationship also allowed Russia and the U.S. to preserve stability in Kyrgyzstan when that country erupted into violence in 2010, McFaul said. In the course of 10 days, dozens of people were killed, and 300,000 ethnic Uzbeks fled into neighboring Uzbekistan.
"It was the scariest moment of my time in the government, because I thought we were about to witness a civil war and ethnic war that we were not going to be able to stop," McFaul said. "I dealt with a lot of scary things and a lot of difficult things ... but this was the scariest thing -- that you probably never heard about, because unlike the crisis in Ukraine, we called Medvedev. We said, 'We both don't have a national security interest in a civil war in Kyrgyzstan,' and Medvedev agreed. He said, 'You're right, it's not in our best interests.'
"Through their connections in the region, through our connections in the region, that was something that we managed in a way radically different than the current crisis that we're seeing in Ukraine," he continued.
But relations turned sour again after Vladimir Putin took office in 2012, which led to McFaul's third explanation, that the souring of relations is a result of Putin's personality and Russia's domestic politics.
"The clear driver of what's happening today is what happened domestically in Russia," McFaul said. "Putin's from the KGB. He thinks in zero-sum terms: He thinks of us as a competitor. He thinks what's good for America is bad for Russia and vice-versa. Now, with him as president, we encounter that in a much more direct way than we did when Medvedev was president."
McFaul said Putin also believes the Defense Department and the CIA govern the United States.
"He assigns us these powers to foment revolution abroad, whether it's Tunisia, Egypt, Syria or his own country," McFaul said. When Russians protested Russia's 2012 presidential elections, Putin wrongfully saw the hand of the U.S. government.
"They got nervous about the stability of their regime, and therefore they developed a strategy to try to contain this thing," he said. "A big part of it was to frame the opposition in Russia as lackeys of the West, puppets of Barack Obama and in the personal payroll of me personally. That's when this anti-American pivot happened -- two years before Ukraine."
When Yanukovych suddenly departed Ukraine, McFaul said Putin finally decided that maintaining a façade of a relationship with the United States was no longer worthwhile.
"Putin saw this as the CIA, the United States -- the meddlers, the regime changers. Here they are again. And that's when I think he just said, '... I'm done dealing with these folks, and I'm no longer going to be concerned with what they think about me.' That's when he decided to annex Crimea, and that went well, relatively speaking. And that's when he said, 'OK, let's roll the dice and see what will happen in Eastern Ukraine.' And that's why we're in the crisis we're in today."
McFaul said the silver lining in this situation is that Putin does not have a "master plan" to reunite the former Soviet satellites under a new Soviet Union.
"I believe this was a reactionary, tactical move in response to a concrete outcome in Kiev," he said. "Had there not been the meltdown and the fleeing of Yanukovych, I don't think he would have gone into Crimea. Nor do I believe that we are destined to have conflict with Russia because of their power, because of their history or because of their culture. I don't believe it. I don't think that we are inevitably going to be in conflict with Russia forever."
Unfortunately, McFaul said, Russia is unlikely to change its policy as long as Putin's in power. If re-elected in 2018, Putin will remain in office until 2024.
"I think he's locked in, loaded for bear," McFaul said. "That is his new argument for legitimacy at home, and I don't see the conditions under which he changes that.
"So I think he could be around for a long time, and I just want to remind you, he works out three hours a day," McFaul quipped. "The question I have therefore is not about him and what he's decided; it's about us. Do we have the staying power to confront this new challenge?"
The Academy Assembly, co-sponsored by Columbia University's American Assembly, has been held here annually since 1959. The event is designed to provide students with better understanding of major national issues and to help students realize the difficulties in analyzing and reaching consensus. Co-sponsors include Columbia University's American Assembly, the Olmstead Foundation, the Association of Graduates, the USAFA Endowment and the Falcon Foundation.