Vladimir Putin has history on his side. Photographer: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images
Vladimir Putin has history on his side. Photographer: Alexei Nikolsky/AFP/Getty Images

Michael McFaul, who recently stepped down as U.S. ambassador to Russia, says President Vladimir Putin is riding "an ugly nationalistic fervor that's off the charts," and is likely to escalate tensions with the U.S. and Europe over Ukraine.

McFaul, who left his post as ambassador last month to teach at Stanford University, expects tougher sanctions to be imposed on Russia and anticipates Putin will respond "tit for tat." The Russian leader, he believes, has little interest in negotiations.

"I don't think he wants an off-ramp," McFaul said in a telephone interview.

After the overthrow of Ukraine's pro-Russian leader, Viktor Yanukovych, Putin sent forces into Crimea and annexed the territory, which is home to Russia's Black Sea Fleet. The U.S. and Europe responded with economic sanctions against Russians close to Putin; more actions are expected.

Standoff in Ukraine

McFaul took issue with Republican critics who said the policy weakness of President Barack Obama is to blame for the crisis. Senator John McCain has criticized the Obama administration's actions, describing them as almost as weak as "doing nothing." The party's 2012 presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, said strong leadership could have headed off Russian action.

"These critics miss an important historical point," McFaul said. "When the Soviet Union or Russia decides to use coercive force against one of its neighbors, no American president has been able to prevent that. This goes back to President Eisenhower -- General Eisenhower -- who when the Soviet tanks rolled into Hungary in 1956 couldn't stop it."

He added that this also was the case under former President Jimmy Carter when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; under Ronald Reagan when Moscow imposed martial law in Poland; and during the George W. Bush administration when, in 2008, Russia invaded Georgia.

"The record shows we're just not good at stopping Russian aggression in that part of the world," he said.

Some top aides to former President George W. Bush, such as political strategist Karl Rove, have contrasted the response by the Obama administration to what they said was a more robust response in 2008. McFaul said that although Russia didn't take over Georgia in 2008, the invasion successfully picked off pieces of the former Soviet Republic and Putin, then prime minister, paid no price.

Noting the "really ugly anti-American" atmosphere in Russia fueled by Putin, McFaul said Russia's reaction to stiffer sanctions, which he strongly supports, could range from symbolic retaliation to further military action in eastern Ukraine. According to McFaul, Russia's nationalistic fervor gives Putin more leeway to act.

McFaul thinks economic sanctions may hurt Russia's weakening economy in the long run but won't have much immediate impact. "Putin is highly motivated to prevail and he's willing to incur big economic costs," he said. "And, by the way, he doesn't answer to any real electorate or shareholders."

The crisis has ominous implications , the former envoy to Moscow believes. "This is the critical turn at the end of the post-Cold War period; the idea of integrating and engaging Russia is done."

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter at @AlHuntDC.)

To contact the writer of this article: Al Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Alex Bruns atabruns@bloomberg.net.