Amb. Michael McFaul would be quick to point out that this may not be as big a "wow" as it may seem at first blush, considering his role as a long-tenured senior fellow at the conservative Hoover Institution at Stanford University. Nevertheless, he did work in the Obama administration, and a quick perusal of his Twitter feed reveals that he's not a great admirer of Obama's successor. In a live radio broadcast from Hoover earlier this week, Marie Harf and I interviewed McFaul about his new book, which details his views on Vladimir Putin -- a man he's known and studied in various capacities since 1991.
The full interview is worth listening to, but one exchange in particular caught my interest. While discussing President Trump's almost pathological aversion to criticizing Putin (he demonstrates absolutely no such compunction about various Western leaders or American political rivals), I pressed McFaul on whether Trump's words matter more than his administration's actions. I argued that despite the media narrative, the Trump White House has actually been quite tough on Russia, expanding sanctions, expelling dozens of diplomats, and extending lethal aide to the Ukrainians -- going further than the Obama administration ever had, even after its "reset' effort had failed badly. The latest slap-down came earlier this week, in fact:
Treasury Department added five Russian companies and three Russian individuals to its sanctions list for supporting Moscow’s global campaign of cyberattacks https://t.co/qd67BKfjbH— POLITICO (@politico) June 11, 2018
The sanctioned firms provided “material and technological support” to the FSB, Russia’s main security agency, according to the department. The move freezes any assets the businesses and executives have in the U.S. and bans Americans from doing business with any of them...As examples of Russia’s malicious cyber activity, Treasury cited Moscow’s digital attacks on the U.S. energy grid, its malware designed to infect routers around the world and its release of the NotPetya malware that crippled many Ukrainian businesses last year...Mnuchin said the Trump administration is “committed to aggressively targeting any entity or individual working at the direction of the FSB whose work threatens the United States and will continue to utilize our sanctions authorities … to counter the constantly evolving threats emanating from Russia.
McFaul said he agreed that the Trump administration's policy posture has been fairly strong, voicing his support for their actions on this issue, even as he criticized some of the president's apparent impulses and public pronouncements:
"I actually think the Trump administration's policy towards Russia is pretty good. I support it...Actions are more important than the words. That's true. But, the rhetoric gets in way of other policies."
The suggestion about Russia rejoining the G7, for instance, was a bad one (relatedly, read this). Nevertheless, I'll leave you with this Wall Street Journal editorial (also critical of the president's G7 musings) listing the reasons why -- after you cut through all the shouting -- Team Trump has not gone easy on the Kremlin on a host of critical policies and diplomatic actions:
Mr. Trump is right, as he often says, that his Russia policy has been tougher than Barack Obama’s. He’s signed off on strengthening NATO deployments to Eastern Europe and admitting Macedonia to the alliance. He has dispatched Javelin antitank missiles to Ukraine, let the Pentagon attack Russian mercenaries in Syria, sanctioned Vladimir Putin’s cronies, and expelled Russian spies in solidarity with Britain after the attempted murder of a former double-agent spy and his daughter on U.K. soil. He’s also fought hard behind the scenes to persuade Germany and Europe to end the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline that would give Mr. Putin more leverage over Poland and other European countries.
I agree with McFaul: While the words can be confounding and maddening and counterprodutive, the actual policies being carried out under Trump's auspices ought to count for a lot more than many critics are willing to admit.