Just seven days ago, Michael McFaul's stint as the United States ambassador to Russia was winding down on a positive note. What a difference a week makes.
He had planned to step down from his post after the Winter Olympics in Sochi. Then the crisis in Ukraine exploded. McFaul is back in the US, though he continues to closely monitor the situation in Crimea.
“It’s an extremely emotional moment when part of your country is occupied,” McFaul said. “There will be people calling for resistance, calls for military action and how the Ukrainian government responds to that in the next 24 hours — it’s a very pivotal moment in Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian government’s greatest concern right now, McFaul speculated, is civil war.
“There’s a simplistic notion to think that everyone in Crimea has a Russian passport, and speaks Russian, and wants to be Russian. That’s just not true,” he added. “Just to assume that this is going to be a smooth process of first occupation and then annexation, I think, is also naïve on the part of the leadership in Russia.”
While the majority of Crimeans do claim Russian heritage, a large percentage of the population is not Russian. And that percentage of the population is afraid.
“If you’re being occupied by guys with real serious guns, you’re scared,” McFaul said. “Let’s not assume because Putin says this is what the Crimeans want — and a handful of rogue bandits have said they want to declare independence — let’s not assume they speak for all of Crimea. It’s just illegitimate for a piece of a country to be occupied and taken over by a neighboring country.”
The subject of legitimacy is one that has come up frequently in the past week when McFaul discusses the situation in Ukraine with Russian friends and colleagues. He's quick to point to Putin’s previous position on state sovereignty.
“President Putin, all the time I was in the US government, has invoked territorial integrity and respect for sovereignty as the most important norm in international relations. That’s why we’ve had such a standoff with Russia over issues such as Syria,” McFaul said.