From Cold War to Hot Peace

By Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia and Obama administration advisor, current director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and Peter and Helen Bing Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution. The following is an excerpt from his book, From Cold War to Hot Peace, available May 8.

Michael McFaul, former Russia advisor to the Obama administration and then U.S. ambassador to Russia, sits across from Russian President Vladimir Putin as he meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss Syria. Official State Department Photo.

As Air Force One began its initial descent into Prague on a clear, sunny day in April 2010, President Obama asked Gary Samore and me to join him in his office at the front of the plane to run over the final talking points for his meeting with Russian president Dmitry Medvedev later that day. The president was in an ebullient mood. In the same city a year earlier, Obama had given what may have been his most important foreign policy speech to date, calling for a nuclear-free world. Now, just a year later, he was delivering a major piece of business toward his Prague Agenda, as we called it. With his Russian partner, he was about to sign the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), reducing by 30 percent the number of nuclear weapons allowed in the two countries. Samore, our special assistant to the president for weapons of mass destruction at the National Security Council, was our lead at the White House in getting this treaty done; I was his wingman. So this quick trip to Prague was a day of celebration for the two of us as well.

President Obama meets with President Medvedev at Ray’s Hell Burger in what came to be known as the “Burger Summit,” June 24, 2010. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

On the tarmac, Obama asked Gary and me to ride with him in his limousine — “the Beast” — to the majestic Prague Castle, where the signing ceremony would take place. For a while, we discussed our game plan for pushing Medvedev to support sanctions on Iran, but mostly the drive was a victory lap. Obama waved to the crowds on the streets, flashing his broad smile through the tinted bulletproof glass. We all felt good about getting something concrete done, always a challenge in government work. We also allowed ourselves that day to imagine even deeper cooperation between the United States and Russia on issues beyond arms control. Maybe we truly had come to a turning point in the bumpy road of U.S.-Russia relations since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a turn toward genuine strategic cooperation that had eluded previous American and Russian leaders.

McFaul briefs President Obama on new START negotiations. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

With new young presidents in the White House and in the Kremlin, the Cold War felt distant. We were signing the first major arms control treaty in decades, working together to stop Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, joined in efforts to fight the Taliban and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, and increasing trade and investment between our two countries. We seemed to have put contentious issues such as NATO expansion and the Iraq War behind us, and were now digging deeper into areas of mutual interest. That year, for instance, Russian and American paratroopers were jumping out of airplanes together in Colorado, conducting joint counterterrorist-training operations, at the same time that American and Russian entrepreneurs were working together to develop Skolkovo, Russia’s aspirational Silicon Valley. We were even discussing the possibilities of cooperating on missile defense. These were breakthroughs unimaginable just two years earlier. Medvedev seemed like a pro-Western modernizer, albeit a cautious one. On that celebratory drive through the cobblestone streets of Prague, the Reset — the bumper sticker for Obama’s Russia policy — appeared to be working.

Later that afternoon, Medvedev and Obama signed the New START treaty, drank champagne together, and spoke glowingly about possibilities for further cooperation. At the time, solid majorities in both countries were convinced of such possibilities. Russia was popular in America, and America was popular in Russia. I flew home the next day in a great mood, convinced that we were making history.

After ratifying the New START Treaty, the National Security Council staff shares a toast with President Obama in the Oval Office. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

He turned away from Tom to stare intensely at me with his steely blue eyes and stern scowl to accuse me of purposely seeking to ruin U.S.-Russia relations. Putin seemed genuinely angry with me.

Only two years later, on a cold, dark day in January 2012, I arrived in Moscow as the new U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, charged with continuing the Reset. I had thought about, written about, and worked toward closer relations with the Soviet Union and then Russia since my high school debating days, so this new mission should have been a crowning achievement of my career: an opportunity of a lifetime to further my ideas about American-Russian relations. It was not. On my first day of work at the embassy, the Russian state-controlled media accused President Obama of sending me to Russia to foment revolution. On his evening commentary show, Odnako, broadcast on the most popular television network in Russia, Mikhail Leontiev warned his viewers that I was neither a Russia expert nor a traditional diplomat, but a professional revolutionary whose assignment was to finance and organize Russia’s political opposition as it plotted to overthrow the Russian government; to finish Russia’s Unfinished Revolution, the title of one of my books written a decade earlier. This portrayal of my mission to Moscow would haunt me for the rest of my days as ambassador. A few months later, in May 2012, I accompanied my former boss at the White House, National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, to his meeting with President-elect Putin. This was the first meeting between a senior Obama official and Putin since Putin’s reelection in March 2012. We met at Novo-Ogaryovo, Putin’s country estate, the same place where Obama had enjoyed a cordial, constructive, three-hour breakfast with the then prime minister four years earlier. Putin listened politely to Tom’s arguments for continued cooperation. At some point in their dialogue, however, he turned away from Tom to stare intensely at me with his steely blue eyes and stern scowl to accuse me of purposely seeking to ruin U.S.-Russia relations. Putin seemed genuinely angry with me; I was genuinely alarmed. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and sweat covered my brow as I endured this tongue-lashing from one of the most powerful people in the world.

In Prague, I had been the author of the Reset, the driver of closer relations with Russia. In Moscow, I was now a revolutionary, a usurper, and Vladimir Putin’s personal foe.

President Obama meets with Prime Minister Putin for the first time at his residence outside Moscow. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

What happened? How did we go from toasting the Reset in Prague in 2010 to lamenting its end in Moscow just two years later? Nothing fundamental had changed in our policy toward Russia. Nor had Russia done anything abroad that might trigger new animosity — that would come later. The one obvious change between these two meetings was Russia’s leadership. Medvedev was president when we were in Prague to sign New START; Putin was elected president soon after my arrival in Moscow as U.S. ambassador. But that seemed too simple an explanation. After all, Putin was prime minister during the heyday of the Reset, and most people thought he was calling the shots during that time.

And then things became even worse. Two years into his third term as Russian president, in February 2014, Putin invaded Ukraine, annexing Crimea and supporting separatist militias in the eastern part of the country. Not since World War II had a European country violated the sovereignty of another country in this way. Putin’s outrageous and shocking actions reaffirmed the end of the Reset, and with it, three decades of American and Russian leaders’ efforts to build a more cooperative relationship after the end of the Cold War. The project of Russian integration into the West — started by Ronald Reagan and sustained to varying degrees by all post–Cold War presidents — was over.

Sometime between the Obama-Medvedev summit in Prague in 2010 and Pu- tin’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014, public opinion in both countries also flipped: solid majorities in both Russia and the United States now perceived each other as enemies.

President Obama says farewell before departing from the G20 Summit. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

This new era of confrontation did not mark a return to the Cold War, exactly, but most certainly could be described as a hot peace. Unlike during the Cold War, the Kremlin today no longer promotes an ideology with worldwide appeal. Russian economic and military power is growing, but Russia has not obtained superpower status like the Soviet Union. And the entire globe is not divided between red and blue states — the communist bloc versus the free world — reinforced by opposing alliance structures. Russia today has very few allies. And yet, our new era of hot peace has resurrected some features eerily reminiscent of the Cold War, while also adding new dimensions of confrontation. A new ideological struggle has emerged between Russia and the West, not between communism and capitalism but between democracy and autocracy. Putin also has championed a new set of populist, nationalist, conservative ideas antithetical to the liberal, international order anchored by the United States. Putinism now has admirers in Western democracies, just as communism did during the Cold War. Europe is divided again between East and West; the line has just moved farther east. Russia’s military, economic, cyber, and informational capabilities to project power and ideas have also grown considerably in the last several years. And sometimes, this hot peace has morphed into hot wars, not directly between the United States and Russia but between proxies in Ukraine and Syria. And then there are some acts of Russian aggression that Soviet leaders during the Cold War never dared to attempt, including annexing territory in Ukraine and intervening in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. Khrushchev and Brezhnev confronted the United States around the world, even at times using military force as an instrument to fight the Cold War, but never annexed land or audaciously violated American sovereignty. As Putin’s Russia has amassed new capabilities and greater intent to challenge the United States and the West more generally, America’s standing as the leader of the free world and anchor of the liberal international order has waned. Compared to the Cold War, that’s new too. To- day’s hot peace is not as dangerous as the worst moments of the Cold War, but most certainly is tenser than some of the more cooperative periods of the Cold War.

I have spent the greater part of my life trying to deepen relations between Russia and the United States.

What went wrong? Why did the end of the Cold War not produce closer relations between our two countries? Could this new, tragic era of confrontation have been avoided?

And what had I gotten wrong? From my days as a high school debater in Bozeman, Montana, in 1979 to my years as ambassador to Russia ending in 2014, I had argued that closer relations with Moscow served American national interests. As a college student, I’d been so eager to deepen engagement with the Russians — or the Soviets, back then — that I enrolled in first-year Russian in the fall quarter of my freshman year at Stanford University and then traveled to what Ronald Reagan called “the evil empire,” against the wishes of my mother, on my first trip abroad, to study in Leningrad in the summer of 1983. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, I again packed my bags and moved to Russia to help support market and democratic reforms there, believing that those changes would help bring our two countries closer together. Beginning on January 21, 2009, I worked for President Obama at the National Security Council, and in 2012, I became his ambassador, animated by the belief that a more cooperative relationship served American national interests. I have spent the greater part of my life trying to deepen relations between Russia and the United States. But in 2014 all these efforts seemed for naught. Heightening my sense of frustration, I was banned by Putin from traveling to Russia — the first U.S. ambassador since George Kennan, in 1952, to be barred entry to the country. What had I personally done wrong? Had I pursued the wrong strategies? Or had I embraced the wrong goals in the first place?

McFaul and Deputy National Security Advisor Denis McDonough brief President Obama for an interview on Russian television, leading up to the July 2009 summit in Moscow. Obama kept the conversation lively. Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.

This book seeks to answer these big, hard questions about Russian-American relations over the last thirty years, from my perspective as both analyst and participant. The story begins with the first reset in U.S.-Soviet relations, in the Reagan-Gorbachev era, and ends with the last, failed attempt initiated by President Obama. It’s a complex story, shaped by Cold War legacies, punctuated by economic depression and civil wars, and interrupted by popular uprisings and foreign interventions. I will address all of these factors as potential causes of cooperation and confrontation. However, in my account, individuals — their ideas and their decisions — drive the narrative of U.S.-Russia relations over the last three decades. Real people made decisions that sometimes produced cooperation and other times led to confrontation. Relations between the United States and Russia were not determined by the balance of power between our two countries, or by innate forces such as economic development, culture, history, or geography. Where others see destiny, determinism, and inevitability, I see choices, contingency, and opportunities, realized and missed. In this book, I evaluate both American and Russian leaders — their ideas, decisions, and behavior — by how well they succeeded in achieving what in my view were desirable and attainable objectives. I try to evaluate my own work through the same critical lens.

U.S. leaders have certainly pursued policies that by turns nurtured and under- mined cooperation with Russia. I will discuss how and why. I personally made some mistakes in both analysis and actions. Those are not glossed over here. But in my account, decisions and actions by Russian leaders — shaped in large part by their domestic politics — drive most of the drama in American-Russian relations, sometimes in a positive direction, other times in a negative direction. This book is one participant’s recollections, not a dispassionate history of U.S.-Russian relations over the last thirty years. As I have learned from writing other scholarly books, memories are imperfect sources for the writing of history. It is too soon to draft the definitive account of these events, especially those that occurred in the Obama era, because almost none of the important documents — including ones that I wrote — have been declassified. Few of the central decision makers, in Russia or the United States, have been interviewed. Only a handful of the central policymakers in the United States have written memoirs. The memoir literature from Russian decision makers is even thinner. On some big policy issues during the Obama era, such as Iran and Syria, I also recognize that I participated in only a portion of the policymaking — that which had to do with Russia. Others in our government will have to write their accounts to complete the picture. And as this book goes to press, the role of Russia in the 2016 U.S. presidential election is a story still unfolding. This book is an early, interpretative take — my take — on this era in U.S.-Russia relations. I hope it will stimulate and inform other scholars in the writing of more definitive studies in the future.

McFaul introduces his wife Donna at the July 4th celebration at Spaso House in 2013, his sons watching. Rebecca Neff from the U.S. Embassy’s Economic Section emcees. Official Photo of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

By design, this book is a mix of abstract analysis, historical narrative, and personal anecdote. I hope that President Obama, my fellow policy wonks in government, my colleagues at Stanford, and my mother in Montana will all read it. That’s a tall order. My mom will tire when reading about telemetry, and my academic colleagues may not be that intrigued by the two-step. Therefore, I give all readers license to skip those passages not of interest to them, which I trust can be done without losing the arc of the story. Scholars will quickly identify the social science theories that shaped both the analysis in this book and my thinking about policy while in government. But I deliberately hid, rather than highlighted, the academic scaffolding and academic references to allow for better storytelling. I also wrote this book from the sometimes competing perspectives of scholar, policymaker, diplomat, and Montanan. Rather than try to maintain one voice, I deliberately deployed these multiple standpoints because I am all of these things, and therefore my understanding of and engagement in Russian-American relations was shaped by these multiple dimensions. These tensions in the book accurately reflect those tensions in my life.

Contents in From Cold War to Hot Peace



1. The First Reset

2. Democrats of the World, Unite!

3. Yeltsin’s Partial Revolution

4. Putin’s Thermidor


5. Change We Can Believe In

6. Launching the Reset

7. Universal Values

8. The First (and Last) Moscow Summit

9. New START

10. Denying Iran the Bomb

11. Hard Accounts: Russia’s Neighborhood and Missile Defense

12. Burgers and Spies

13. The Arab Spring, Libya, and the Beginning of the End of the Reset

14. Becoming “His Excellency”


15. Putin Needs an Enemy — America, Obama, and Me

16. Getting Physical

17. Pushback

18. Twitter and the Two-Step

19. It Takes Two to Tango

20. Chasing Russians, Failing Syrians

21. Dueling on Human Rights

22. Going Home

23. Annexation and War in Ukraine

24. The End of Resets (for Now)

Epilogue: Trump and Putin

More about the Book



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