From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia

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Release Date: 
May 8, 2018
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Reviewed by: 

“[This] book is a must not only for specialists but for any reader trying to understand how and why U.S.-Russian relations have gone from Bill Clinton’s embrace of Boris Yeltsin to confrontations on many fronts—because and in spite of Donald Trump’s election and his policies.” 

From high hopes for a Russian-American “reset” in 2010 to a turn toward “hot peace” in 2012, Michael McFaul’s personal story overlaps with the rise and fall of improved relations between the former Cold War superpowers.

The story begins in a Bozeman, Montana, high school where McFaul debated Soviet-U.S. trade ties. It ends (for now) at Stanford University, where McFaul returned after five years in the Obama administration. From 2011 to 2014, he served on the National Security Council and then, for two years, as ambassador to Moscow.

McFaul’s book covers all the major issues in U.S.-Russian relations from the Gorbachev era, when the author studied and worked in Russia with a nonprofit, to the first year of Donald Trump’s presidency.  But most of the book details the issues addressed when McFaul served in the Obama administration and helped design the “Reset” aimed at improving U.S. ties with Russia. There are chapters entitled “Denying Iran the Bomb,” “Burgers and Spies,” “The Arab Spring.”  As relations with Russia got worse, chapters describe how “Putin Needs an Enemy—America, Obama, and Me,” “Getting Physical,” and “It Takes Two to Tango.”

The chapter on “New START” explains what goes into the negotiation of an arms control treaty and what forces obstructed and facilitated a deal. McFaul tells the story of the “new START” treaty as a major participant and observer of the wheeling and dealing within the U.S. government and between official Washington and official Moscow.  

New START is short for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed April 8, 2010 in Prague by Russia and the United States and which entered into force on February 5, 2011. (It  replaced the 1991 START I treaty, which expired December 2009, and superseded the 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, which terminated when New START entered into force.)

McFaul deftly explains the issues big and small—numbers of missiles and bombers; numbers of warheads, deployed and in storage; number and nature of inspections; telemetry; unique identifiers; type 1 and type 2 inspections; unilateral interpretations; limits on defensive anti-missiles. (Here, it seems, even the author got confused, discussing on page 142 a hypothetical “retaliatory first strike.”—not even hypothetical, because a first-strike could not be “retaliatory.”)

Humans—not robots—had to resolve these issues. If a U.S. diplomat wished to clarify something, would it be more useful to contact the head of the Russian general staff or the Kremlin’s minister of defense? Whom and how did one have to persuade to get 67 “consent” votes in the U.S. Senate: the Republican Minority Whip Jon Kyl or his fellow senator from Arizona, John McCain? Which Russian leader might be more accommodating: President Dmitry Medvedev or (then) Prime Minister Vladimir Putin? How deal with jet lag and other inconveniences? Flying from Washington to Moscow on a military plane, there were only four beds for five U.S. specialists. McFaul slept in a chair outside the heated bedroom but had to perform on arrival.

The results of McFaul’s efforts over some three decades to improve U.S.-Russian relations were mixed. Banned by the Kremlin from speaking at Russian universities, McFaul lectured to Russian students at the U.S. Embassy. At the Sochi Olympics, he and an embassy team sat in a hotel bar when a waiter appeared and said that an unnamed guest offered to buy champagne for the entire table. Leery of being compromised, McFaul declined the offer. Still, a few minutes later, a certain Mikhail Leontiev appeared and pleaded for acceptance of his offer. This was the same news commentator who had run a hit job on McFaul on Russia’s Channel One TV his first day as ambassador. Leontiev had repeatedly told Russian audiences that McFaul had been sent by Obama to overthrow Putin.  

Now, in Sochi, Leontiev told McFaul not to take his commentaries personally—he was just doing his job. The exchange left McFaul depressed. For two years, some Russians told him, “It’s all a game.” They called it pragmatism, but McFaul saw it as cynicism—a way to cope with ethical dilemmas. McFaul worried that “no amount of understanding, no amount of appreciation of Russian culture and history, no amount of engagement was ever going to close my disagreement with these cynics.” One day after McFaul landed back in California, the world learned that Putin had invaded Ukraine. 

Despite rebuffs by the Putin regime, McFaul has tried to retain a balanced view. He asserts that the United States played no direct role in sparking protests against Russia’s rigged election in 2011. Muscovites did not gather on a rainy evening on December 5 in response to some American signal. As ambassador, McFaul never once attended a political rally in Russia.

Still, he says, Putin was correct that the United States promoted democracy and worked to defend human rights in Russia. McFaul says that the United States “did not fund the political opposition.” One page later, however, he reports that in 2011 U.S. funding for democracy and election programs in Russia totaled $9 million (much less than U.S. contributions in 1973 to anti-Allende forces in Chile). U.S. support went to groups the embassy regarded as nonpartisan. If these groups supported free and fair elections, the Kremlin saw them as anti-Putin.

The idealist-realist scorned: McFaul was the first U.S. ambassador since George F. Kennan in 1950 whom the Kremlin declared persona non grata. Having reviewed the first year of Trump’s bumbling attempts to appease the Putin regime, McFaul concludes that “the hot peace, tragically but perhaps necessarily, seems here to stay."

His book is a must not only for specialists but for any reader trying to understand how and why U.S.-Russian relations have gone from Bill Clinton’s embrace of Boris Yeltsin to confrontations on many fronts—because and in spite of Donald Trump’s election and his policies.