Russia’s alleged nerve-agent attack on a former spy in the UK is part of a troubling pattern of rogue behavior that needs to be met with a serious response, the former U.S. ambassador to Russia told NPR’s On Point Thursday.
“This is a rogue state right now that is defiant of the entire international system,” Michael McFaul, who served under President Obama and now teaches at Stanford University, told guest host Meghna Chakrabarti.
Taken together, Russia’s annexation of parts of Ukraine, its meddling in American elections and its apparent attack on former spy Sergei Skripal show that there's no limits to what the Kremlin will do, McFaul said.
“This may be worse than the Cold War, in that Vladimir Putin kind of defies the international system,” McFaul said.
Said McFaul: “Annexation in Ukraine, that didn't happen for the last decades of the Cold War. Happened during Stalin, but it didn't happen in the latter part of the Cold War. Meddling in American elections, that did not really happen. And now this attempt — this is a rogue state right now that is defiant of the entire international system.”
Skripal was a former Russian intelligence official who started working for Britain’s spy agency, MI6. He was convicted of treason in Russia but had lived in the UK after a spy swap. He and his daughter were hospitalized after the attack, in which a nerve agent linked to Russia was allegedly used.
In a rare statement, the leaders of the United States, the UK, Germany and France released a statement accusing Russia in the attack.
In addition to McFaul, On Point was joined Thursday by Ellen Barry, New York Times international correspondent, Sam Greene, director of King's College London's Russia Institute and Natasha Bertrand, national security reporter for The Atlantic.
An edited transcript of our interview with McFaul is below:
I'm going back to this joint statement today because it is a rare coming together of the four heads of state, four leaders of different Western countries issuing a blanket condemnation of Russia for this poisoning of the former spy. Is it is it a positive step forward in a coordinated response?
McFaul: Yes I think it is. I'm impressed by it and I'm glad they did it. By the way, the statement doesn't have any of the ambiguity that we've been talking about right now, in terms of who did it. They are very much pointing at the Russian government. And that may be an error. If evidence were to contradict, they may have to change that. But I think if the Russian government wasn't behind this, the logical thing for them to be doing would say, This is outrageous and we condemn this attack and we look forward to working with the intelligence officials in Britain and elsewhere to try to get to the bottom of who did this. They're not saying those things, at least not yet.
In fact they're saying very much the opposite, right? We've been seeing Russians saying that this is the west scapegoating Russia yet again.
McFaul: If you wanted to carry out an assassination attempt, tragically, there's many ways that governments can do that without using a nerve agent like was used. And to me, it's kind of daring the West: This is what we do to traitors. And Vladimir Putin, President Putin, has been very clear about this, years before this incident, by the way. He has a very stark, strong, militant view that we will go after all traitors. I've heard him talk about that personally. And then you know they put their fingerprints on it by using this particular weapon.
So what more then do you think that that Western allies could or should be doing at this point? We heard Nikki Haley a little while ago calling on greater action from within the United Nations. What should be next steps?
McFaul: Well it's hard, and you know when I was in the government we faced these challenges too because our instruments of response are pretty limited. There's not going to be an Article 5 meeting, a declaration of war against Russia for this incident. There could be an Article 4 declaration by the way. Article 4 brings NATO together for consultations about security threats and that's one thing I think that should happen. That's a signal. But the basic instruments you fall back to as you've been discussing already on your program, it's about economic sanctions. We don't have a lot of other modalities. … I support those who say if Britain wants to get serious in response there have to be greater economic sanctions, they have to go after those individuals tied to Putin that have business relationships and property inside the UK. I think particularly on the financial side. The three big Russian banks... they're all government owned banks. They do a lot of business in the UK. If you wanted to show you are serious you would try to shut down their businesses and what they do inside the UK.
McFaul: I think it's really important to underscore just how outrageous this behavior is. And again the caveat — maybe it wasn't Putin. And if there is new evidence we have to reconsider that hypothesis. But if you think about the means that they used which is traced back to Russia and the motive, who is in the Venn diagram that has the motive and means to kill this 66 year old pensioner living in Salisbury? By the way I was part of the team that swapped him out of Russia back in 2010. And you know that that was an explicit thing — we're going to get our people out and we're going to send your people back in, and case closed. It seems to me that Putin had a different view of that. But let's underscore something, this may be worse than the Cold War in that Vladimir Putin kind of defies the international system. I mean if you add it all up — annexation in Ukraine. That didn't happen for the last decades of the Cold War. Happened during Stalin, but it didn't happen in the latter part of the Cold War. Meddling in American elections, that did not really happen. And now this attempt — this is a rogue state right now that is defiant of the entire international system. It seems to me we have to get our heads around that, that one more, "Well let's just try to get along and engage and maybe Putin will come around" — I think those kinds of strategies have to be rethought.
Skripal’s backstory is kind of amazing. He's a former officer from Russia's GRU military intelligence unit. He started working for MI6 in 1995, was arrested in the early 2000s and convicted of treason and sent to a penal colony in Russia. And so when after this swap happened he lived a relatively open life in the UK, didn't he? I guess the reason why I asked that Ambassador is that it's another one of those strange aspects of this case that he didn't feel like he had to hide that he had served his time. And yet he ends up you know comatose on a park bench in Salisbury poisoned by a Russian nerve agent.
McFaul: Exactly. And from our point of view — you just listed what's in the public domain. I'm not going to talk about that. But I want to remind everybody that we did a swap, we sent out a dozen Russian spies out of our country. We did not arrest them. We did not put them in jail for 30 years. Some people wanted to, by the way, in our government. And deal's a deal, right? Nobody's going after them inside Russia today. And I just think it's completely outrageous what happened to this gentleman and his daughter. By the way, his daughter by all means is innocent. The hundreds of people that were affected in Salisbury, they are innocent. There has to be a very strong response to this because I think it's a really audacious thing — that, yeah, it just shows that there's no limits to what the Kremlin will do today.
This segment aired on March 15, 2018.