Former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, speaks with a reporter in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 7, 2014. 

Former Amb McFaul weighs in on escalating tensions between the US and Russia

The World's Marco Werman spoke with former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul about recent events between the United States and Russia.

The World

Former US ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, speaks with a reporter in Sochi, Russia, Feb. 7, 2014. 

David Goldman/AP

Tensions between the US and Russia are escalating practically by the day. On Tuesday, the State Department said that US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan will be returning to the United States this week. The move comes just a week after the US and Russia imposed sanctions on each other.

Related: Biden administration levels stiff new sanctions against Russia

The Kremlin emphasized that it couldn't order Ambassador Sullivan to leave for consultations and could only “recommend” that he do so amid the current tensions. And Sullivan emphasized that he would come back to Moscow within weeks.

Related: Russia retaliates with sanctions on US

In his statement, Ambassador Sullivan said he would like to speak with the Biden administration "about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia."

Sullivan's departure comes after Russia said it “suggested” that he follow the example of the Russian ambassador to the US, who was recalled from Washington last month after President Joe Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” Russia has set no timeframe for Ambassador Anatoly Antonov's return to Washington.

The World's Marco Werman spoke with former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul about the recent events, and what it means for relations between the two countries.

Marco Werman: Ambassador, what do you make of all of this? How significant is it that both ambassadors, from Russia and the US, are not at their posts right now?

Michael McFaul: Well, I think it's disappointing. I think it's a mistake. I thought it was a mistake for Ambassador Antonov to go back to Moscow. That’s some symbolic act that has no practical significance. This is the 21st century, Marco. You can do consultations with your capital on various platforms. I most certainly did when I was the US ambassador to Moscow. And second, I think Ambassador Sullivan, I understand he wants to meet the new team. Remember, he is a political appointee from the Trump administration. So, it's somewhat unusual even that he kept the job. And I understand he wants to meet the new team. These are people he doesn't know. But I also think it's a precarious moment when we do not have senior people in capitals. That means communications are weaker than they should be at a time when tensions are very high.

As for Ambassador Sullivan, do you believe his return to Washington was a forced move by Russia? I mean, the Kremlin did say that they would like Ambassador Sullivan to return to the US for consultations and here we are.

Yeah, I mean, Foreign Minister Lavrov said it in his very particular way that he did, using the passive tense. I used to work with Foreign Minister Lavrov and he has a way with words. And initially, Ambassador Sullivan said he wasn't going to go back. And let's be clear, nobody has been declared persona non grata — PNG, right? That would have been an escalatory step that the Russians could have taken and did not, thankfully. But then, Ambassador Sullivan changed his mind, and he'll come back. And it's good for him, of course, to meet the new team and understand their strategy. I just don't like it when there's not high-level diplomatic engagement, when tensions are high.

I mean, with Sullivan returning to Washington, Russia is bound to see the US playing to their suggestion. What do you see as kind of possible downsides there?

Well, President Biden, in his remarks announcing the expulsions of diplomats and the new sanctions, also made very clear that he wants a stable relationship with Russia, a stable relationship with President Putin and he even, surprisingly to me, offered to hold a summit with President Putin in a third country somewhere in Europe. And so, I saw a genuine effort on behalf of the president and the Biden administration to say, OK, let's put a period to that era and now move forward. The problem is, I'm not sure that Vladimir Putin wants a stable relationship with the United States. The buildup he's done on the borders of Ukraine suggests that he likes instability, he likes uncertainty. And it's most certainly my view that he needs the United States as an enemy as part of his argument domestically for why they’re taking such a hard line with the West and blaming the West, as he often does, for the economic woes that they have at home. So, I appreciate President Biden's attempt to stabilize and have dialogue with President Putin, but it takes two to tango. And I'm just not sure that Putin wants to engage in that right now.

So, it's complicated, and because it is, it would not be surprising if there were some disagreement within the administration on how the US should approach Russia. Ambassador, can you take us behind the scenes? What do those debates and conversations sound like? What can you tell us?

I think there is considerable debate and they're having debates about the very issues about whether or not, for instance, to offer a summit with Putin. Many saw that as a concession and a response to his buildup of forces on the Ukrainian border. Second, there's a debate about whether Putin should be included in multilateral platforms in negotiations. And I'll just note that he was invited and has decided to attend the climate summit that President Biden will be hosting later this week.

So, what side is going to win in this internal debate?

Well, Marco, no side ever wins. They just keep fighting. This is a difficult, hard portfolio, right? And you can say all you want in the White House Situation Room, but then Russia gets to react. I do think the administration probably underestimated how much time Russia is going to take. My sense is that they were completely focused on the China challenge, and they just thought they could just extend the New START treaty for five years, start strategic stability talks with midlevel officials in Russia and then park that bilateral relationship off to the side. I think Putin's not going to go along with that and will demand, therefore, much more attention from more senior administration officials than I think they were originally planning for.

So, this idea of a summit between Biden and Putin — could it happen at some point this summer and what could actually be accomplished given the level of tension right now?

I agree with President Biden that he should talk to President Putin. I was at the last meeting they had, by the way, in March 2011. Biden was vice president and Putin was prime minister. That's 10 years ago. So, it's good for them to talk. I agree with that. I'm not so sure a bilateral summit, a standalone summit, was the best idea because that creates all kinds of expectations. And my prediction is there won't be any deliverables, as we call them, from the summit. But I think it was the right move because you do not want conflict based on misperception. I would prefer to have some dialogue so that if we do have conflict, it's based on a correct reading of his preferences or what he's doing, and not incorrect, and vice versa. I want Putin to understand what President Biden is trying to do, as well.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.