US ties with Russia have been deeply strained since Prime Minister Vladamir Putin began his re-election campaign for president.
This has made it more difficult for Washington and Moscow to make progress on policy toward Syria and Iran.
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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman, this is The World. It’s a tense moment for US-Russia relations. The two nations have been at odds over what to do about Syria, and Washington has expressed concern over allegations of fraud in Russia’s two most recent elections. That includes a vote just over a week ago that returned Vladimir Putin to the presidency. The Kremlin, meanwhile, has been critical of what it sees as American meddling with Russia’s internal affairs. Michael McFaul is the new US ambassador to Russia. He’s currently in Washington for a brief visit. McFaul says the administration did note problems with the recent vote, but also saw something to be pleased about.
Michael McFaul: We also, however, in our statement noted the positive trend of more Russians participating in the electoral process and, really, an unprecedented spike in participation of electoral observers. Marco, you and I know, we’ve known each other for a long time, I’ve spoken on your program for a couple of decades probably, and I’ve followed elections previously very closely, written books about it as a professor. Never has there been this kind of scrutiny by Russian society. So, you see a process of renewal now going on between the Russian government and Russian society in terms of how to reform their political institutions. There’s a real debate going on in Russia today that was not going on just six months ago, and it’s a debate between the government and society â€“ not just society debating with itself.
Werman: Let’s talk briefly about two key issues where Russia and the US need to cooperate. You mentioned one earlier, Syria. Help us understand Moscow’s motivations vis-a -vis Syria.
McFaul: On Syria, and as you know, Secretary Clinton and the foreign minister Lavrov are meeting today in New York to discuss this again at the highest level. There’s actually more agreement than I think people understand about the necessity to do something, to act, what the final outcomes might be. But there’s a big disagreement about the means. The Russian perspective is that they do not want the U.N. Security Council voting to decide who leads what country. That’s what they say to us in all of our meetings. And we say back to them, we, as responsible, important players in the international system, have an obligation to stop the violence, to stop the atrocities that are being conducted inside Syria. That’s part of our obligations as U.N. Security Council members as well. And that’s the difference in principles that we’ve been arguing over for the last several weeks.
Werman: If Russia doesn’t want to negotiate Syria through the U.N. Security Council, how do they see the negotiations happening?
McFaul: It’s not clear. It’s not clear to me.
Werman: Can you imagine Russia shifting on its position on Syria somehow or will it stand by President Bashar al-Assad?
McFaul: Well, they would take issue with the characterization that they’re standing by the president of Syria. You know, we have a disagreement about that, but they emphatically say that’s not their policy. They’re against foreign intervention in the internal affairs of other countries. All I know is our policy is to continue to engage on this, but we believe in the international system, we believe in the United Nations, we believe in the U.N. Security Council and therefore we’re going to continue to try to engage with the Russians so that we can find a common cause when it comes to Syria.
Werman: And Iran, what about Iran? What’s it going to take for Washington and Moscow to get on the same page in terms of how to address Tehran’s nuclear ambitions?
McFaul: Well, Iran, by contrast, I think we have seen more agreement and cooperation over the last several years, not just over the last several weeks. We do have a disagreement about additional sanctions. The Russians think we’ve pushed the Iranians too far into the corner. We think that pressure is making them reconsider negotiations. But on the general outlines of what we’re trying to do, I would say we’re working pretty closely with the Russians when it comes to Iran right now.
Werman: Let me ask you this Ambassador McFaul. Shortly after your arrival in Russia in January, you met with opposition activists. Since the Kremlin continually raises suspicions about the US role in promoting democracy, wasn’t that a dangerous thing to do diplomatically?
McFaul: From the very first weeks and months of the Obama administration, we articulated a strategy which we call “dual track engagement”. And by that we say, very clearly, we’re going to engage constructively with the Russian government to try to find common interests, and, in parallel, we’re going to engage with Russian civil society. When the president of the United States was in Russia in July of 2009, he spent day one meeting with Medvedev and Russian government officials and he spent nearly the entire second day meeting with Russian civil society leaders of opposition, student and business communities. That’s our policy.
Werman: And, as well, we saw Prime Minister Putin charging Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of having sent a signal setting off recent anti-government demonstrations in Moscow. That seems to take it to a personal level. You’re the envoy for the U.S., are you concerned that that personal flavor might end up at your desk?
McFaul: Oh, I’ve had all kinds of threats and denunciations, you know, being accused of this and that on Russian television, demonstrations outside of the embassy claiming that we’re fomenting revolution. And what I would say is two things. One, OK, that’s part of the job, I guess. We didn’t expect it but we can handle that. But the more important point is that those kind of comments are an incredible insult to the Russian people, the Russian citizens that went out and demonstrated. They weren’t waiting for a signal from Secretary Clinton or Ambassador McFaul to go out to demonstrate for their electoral rights. That is absolutely a ridiculous way to frame the issue. So I hope, moving forward, Russian government officials will see the virtue of having a society that cares about political reform and will make this about that as opposed to something that has to do with the United States because that’s not what we’re doing. And let’s not insult the Russian people who are taking, you know, they’re the ones taking the future of their country into their own hands.
Werman: I’m wondering if you’ve done interviews on state run television in Russia and what’s been the tone of those interviews.
McFaul: I have. I decided in the wake of this criticism that the only way we’re going to address it is to state our policy and to restate it and to engage. So I’ve been on their Russian state television and, you know, tough interviews, but that’s good, I appreciate that. I’m on Twitter, something new for me. I never had a Twitter account until I went to Russia. I think I’m up to 20,000 followers now. That gives me a direct way to communicate with Russian citizens in a way that does not have to be mediated through state television or otherwise. We got nothing to hide. Our policy is on the table. Our cards are down. The reset is what we’ve been doing for the last three years and we’re not changing. And so I see my job as the ambassador out there is to try to explain and articulate that to as many people as I can. And even, in some rare instances, by the way, I have done diplomacy over Twitter where I have engaged with Russian government officials on Twitter debating a policy with 20,000 people watching. I think that’s a good thing.
Werman: Michael McFaul is the U.S. Ambassador to Russia. He joined us from Washington. Congratulations on the post and thanks very much.
McFaul: Thanks for having me.
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