Donald Trump emulating 'autocratic' Vladimir Putin's actions in the 2000s, says former US ambassador to Russia

Michael McFaul says Russian President launched similar attacks on media and judiciary 

Lizzie Dearden
Thursday 16 February 2017 10:03
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Michael McFaul says Trump is emulating Putin's actions in 2000s

The US’ former ambassador to Russia has accused Donald Trump of emulating Vladimir Putin’s “autocratic” style in his opening weeks in office.

Michael McFaul, who was Barack Obama’s envoy to Moscow between 2012 and 2014, said the President’s “warm statements” over his Russian counterpart were worrying.

“I know what kind of a leader Putin is and he’s an autocratic ruler, so I don’t want to see that replicated here,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“I’m not against getting along with Russia, I worked very hard to try to do that when I was in the Obama administration for five years, but getting along cannot be the goal of US foreign policy.”

Michael McFaul (right) leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow in 2013

Mr McFaul, who was placed on the Kremlin’s sanctions list and banned from entering Russia last year, drew comparisons between Mr Trump’s conduct and that of Mr Putin during his first presidential term in the early 2000s.

“When [Mr Trump] calls the press the enemy, for instance, that reminds me of Vladimir Putin in 2000 when he declared that the press was the enemy and went after them,” he said.

“When President Trump questions our rule of law, our judges, that reminds me of an earlier period of Russian history in the early Putin years when over time the judiciary became more subservient to the presidency.”

But Mr McFaul, now a Stanford University professor, said he was optimistic that America’s “democratic institutions are much more robust” than Russia’s when Mr Putin’s presidency started in 2000.

He pointed to a judge’s suspension of Mr Trump’s executive order banning migration from seven Muslim-majority countries and the national security adviser’s resignation as encouraging signs of an independent judiciary and free press.

But Mr McFaul cautioned that people must remain “vigilant” as Mr Trump’s aims towards Russia remain unclear as tensions over its backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, involvement in the Ukrainian war and disputes with Nato continue.

Despite his complimentary statements towards Russia and vows to improve relations, the White House said the President was “incredibly tough on Russia” and would maintain sanctions, as well as demanding it deescalates violence in Ukraine and withdraws from Crimea.

The Russian government responded to the statement by saying it would not return Crimea to Ukraine, describing the occupied peninsula as “our territory” after annexing it in 2014.

Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, later reacted angrily to comments by his American counterpart James Mattis after he spoke of the need to negotiate with Russia “from a position of strength”.

"We are ready to restore cooperation with the Pentagon,” he said. “But attempts to build dialogue from a position of strength with regard to Russia is futile.”

The statement came just hours before General Joe Dunford and General Valery Gerasimov, the US and Russian chiefs of staff, were to hold talks in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan in the first meeting between the two countries' senior members of the military since Mr Trump was elected.

The public dispute set the stage for an unexpectedly frosty meeting due later on Thursday between Russia’s foreign minister and US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who was awarded the Russian “order of friendship” by Mr Putin in 2013.

Mr Tillerson, who will meet Sergey Lavrov in the German city of Bonn, had close business ties with Russia through his former post as CEO of the oil giant Exxon Mobil.

The Secretary of State has yet to comment publicly on Russia’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election or its actions in Syria and Ukraine, which sparked continuing US sanctions against Moscow.

Mike Pence claims there was no contact between Russia and Trump campaign

Revelations that former national security adviser Michael Flynn gave “incomplete information” over the contents of his phone calls to the Russian ambassador during the transition forced his resignation earlier this week.

Both Republicans and Democrats have called for an independent investigation into the scandal and whether it violated laws preventing civilians engaging in diplomacy.

Fresh allegations then emerged that members of Mr Trump’s campaign team had “repeated contacts” with Russian intelligence officials during the year leading up to the November vote.

The President responded by accusing the “fake news media” of “going crazy with their conspiracy theories and blind hatred”.

He tweeted: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by ‘intelligence’ like candy. Very un-American!”

The Russian government dismissed the allegations as “not based on any facts”, despite deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov previously saying there had been communication between the Russian government and members of Mr Trump’s political team.

“There were contacts,” he told Interfax in November. “We are doing this and have been doing this during the election campaign.”

Hope Hicks, the spokesperson for the President’s campaign, issued a denial at the time saying members “had no contact with Russian officials”.

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