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McFaul: Russian Enmity Toward U.S. Fueled by Own Weakness

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul

Russia, and the Kremlin in particular, has an unhealthy and misguided obsession with U.S. power and intentions, and this means badly strained relations between Washington and Moscow won't improve anytime soon, former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul told RFE/RL in an interview.

McFaul, who was a chief architect of President Barack Obama's first-term "reset" with Russia as a senior White House adviser, later became one of the most vilified U.S. ambassadors to Moscow in recent memory.

During his two-year stint, which ended in February 2014, McFaul was regularly stalked by Russian state TV reporters and pro-Kremlin activists, and publicly accused of trying to foment revolution in Russia.

In an interview with RFE/RL on August 4, McFaul, who now teaches at Stanford University in California, said even before he took up his post in January 2012, he had been tagged by some officials and agencies in Russia as being a subversive, particularly ahead of the presidential election that was held in March of that year.

"Was it unexpected to me? Yes. Especially because it became so personal, so fast. Even before I met any Russians, there were already pieces on television about me," he said. "I hadn't met anyone yet. I was still unpacking my bags."

"As one very senior Kremlin official pointed out to me -- he said: 'Hey, don't take it personally. We need an enemy now, for election purposes, for foreign policy purposes. The United States is the obvious candidate and you are the poster child for the enemy'," McFaul said.

McFaul, whose successor, John Tefft, has cut a lower profile in Russia, said that Obama considered his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to be a "straightforward and clear thinking" man, as well as pragmatic.

That's why Obama was able to reach several important foreign policy successes with Russia, McFaul said, such as securing its membership in the World Trade Organization, agreement on the "Northern Supply Network" to bring weapons and personnel to U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

'Zero-Sum Game'

Putin, however, has now all but given up on a peaceful relationship with the United States, viewing geopolitics as a Cold War-style "zero-sum" game for influence and power, McFaul said.

"Putin thinks that the United States is out to get Russia, is out to weaken Russia, is out to win in zero-sum terms, not win-win outcomes. And that's a fundamental different world view," he said.

The Kremlin has portrayed the turmoil that erupted in Ukraine in late 2013 as the result of Western meddling and the "Euromaidan" protests that pushed President Viktor Yanukovych from power in February 2014 as a U.S.-backed coup.

Russian media, most of which is beholden to state influence, have routinely pointed to the presence of a top State Department official handing out food to protesters in Kyiv as indicative of U.S. involvement.

"When you think that handing out cookies is leading to regime change, you're assigning a lot of power to one individual…. To me that's a sign of Russia's weakness and Russia's insecurities, not the other way around," McFaul said.

"On the one hand, they talk about Obama being weak. And on the other hand, they seem scared to death of Obama. And every little thing that he and his administration do, they think is designed to destroy Russia," he said. "I mean, you know, a more competent country, a more competent leadership would not be worrying every day that Russia is about to be destroyed.

"Nobody in America, for instance, worries about the United States being undermined by Russia," he said. "We're not worried every night that Texas is going to leave because of some Russian power thing. I think there's a real schizophrenia about American power in Russia today."

Written by Mike Eckel based on an interview conducted by Petr Cheremushkin of RFE/RL's Russian Service
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