KT McFarland’s Hardline on Russia with Nuance

On Friday, the President-elect named KT McFarland as Deputy National Security Advisor, a position that does not require Senate confirmation. In contrast with positions articulated by Mr. Trump and retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn during the campaign season, McFarland has sounded more in synch with Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Mitt Romney when it comes to Russia.

Below are some of McFarland’s statements and video clips, followed by some of my cautionary notes for this kind of analysis.

McFarland’s statements include advice for the United States to put a “hand around the throat” of Russia in private negotiations. She made a physical gesture to illustrate her point (image above).

Other recent statements by McFarland on Russia include:

1. McFarland called Russia’s final assault on Aleppo “genocide”
“The European Union won’t even put sanctions on them for what they are about to do, the genocide they’re about to commit.” (video below at 1:44)

2. McFarland says Russian cyber operations during 2016 presidential elections would be an”act of war”
“We are already at war with Russia. We’re at cyberwar with Russia. If it is true that Russia has been trying to influence and sort of jigger up and scramble our elections, then that’s an act of war. It’s an act of cyberwar.” (video at 3:40)

3. McFarland calls for aggressive approach to Russia in private
“Give them respect in public, but then in private turn the screws.” (video at 5:44).

Similar to her statement on putting the screws on Russia in private, McFarland said the following to Fox’s Lisa Kennedy (at 3:32):

McFarland: To me what we should do with the Russians is instead of humiliating them in public and then in private giving them concessions, be nice to them in public. Tell them they’ve done a great job. And then in private, hand around the throat, here’s the negotiation.
Kennedy: How interesting. So, flip the script.
McFarland: Flip the script, and heads up.
Kennedy: We will see if the next President will do that….

Let me add three caveats to this analysis.

First, it should be acknowledged that McFarland made these statements while she was on the Trump campaign’s advisory committee, during the heat of the political campaign, and in her appearances on Fox News. What anyone said in those contexts is not necessarily how they will and would govern.

Second, McFarland’s statements may be more congruent with Trump’s than first meets the eye. Recall her position is to act “nice” toward Russia publicly and even to congratulate Putin publicly, while taking a very different approach in confidential government-to-government negotiations. Arguably that position is consistent with Trump’s public statements about Putin and his consideration of Mitt Romney to lead the State Department.

Third, although McFarland’s rhetoric is tough, she followed each of these statements with recommended responses to Russian provocation that are not as hardline. Specifically, her recommended actions fall below the threshold for military action, or what international lawyers would define as a use of force. In one context she proposed stiffening international sanctions. In another context she described the “ultimate weapon” that the United States could deploy against Putin—which does not seem to amount to much more than the kind of cyber operation involved in the DNC hacks. Specifically, McFarland stated:

“The ultimate weapon against Russia is to say privately to them, you want to do this to us, you want to have a cyber war with America? We know how to respond to that, which is we will tear down your cyber walls. Because the one thing that Putin fears more than anything is that his own population rises up against him like the Ukrainians did against Yanukovych.”

McFarland has also made an important cautionary point about Russia’s military buildup and provocative actions saying that neither the United States nor Russia want war with one another. Also, back in 2013, McFarland penned an opinion piece for Fox News titled, “Putin is the one who really deserves that Nobel Peace Prize,” in which she argued that Russian diplomacy in getting Assad to commit to ridding himself of chemical weapons stopped an unnecessary US military conflict in Syria at the time.

Finally, no analysis like this would be complete without related tweets. Here are three from McFarland’s twitter account:

https://twitter.com/ktmcfarland/status/791369480865710080
https://twitter.com/ktmcfarland/status/790219439849562112
https://twitter.com/ktmcfarland/status/785519359938617344

 

[Editor’s note: To see more on this topic, read Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, The Strategic Balance: A New US-Russian Zero Sum Game] 

About the Author(s)

Ryan Goodman

Co-Editor-in-Chief of Just Security, Anne and Joel Ehrenkranz Professor of Law at New York University School of Law, former Special Counsel to the General Counsel of the Department of Defense (2015-2016). You can follow him on Twitter @rgoodlaw.