Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took personal aim at US ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul today, charging that his remarks to a Russian news agency about US missile defense policy were "arrogant," and that as an envoy to a foreign country Mr. McFaul ought to know better.
Mr. Lavrov's tongue-lashing of the freshman ambassador, though unusual, might be overlooked as part of the widening circle of acrimony between the US and Russia over missile defense if it were an isolated example.
But since taking up his new post in January, McFaul has found himself at the center of a roiling controversy, accused in the Russian media of conspiring with opposition leaders, his footsteps dogged by a major state-run Russian TV network that seems intent on convincing its viewers that the US ambassador is the main financial backer and key organizer of the pro-democracy protest movement that erupted after allegedly fraud-tainted Duma elections last December.
Last week McFaul went so far as to hint on his public Twitter account that his phone and e-mail accounts were being hacked by the NTV network, which is owned by state-run Gazprom-Media. He accused the network of knowing his every move, and bringing not only journalists but also "uniformed people" to harass him everywhere he went.
The State Department backed him up. "There's been a number of incidents since (McFaul's) arrival there that have caused us to have some concerns about his security and safety," State Department spokesman Mark Toner said on March 30. "So as we would in following normal protocol, we've raised that with the government of Russia."
McFaul would seem an strange target for what appears to be growing Kremlin ire. As the White House's chief Russia adviser over the past three years, he is the main architect of the "reset" of relations, which returned Moscow-Washington ties to a normal business footing after several years of deep chill under former President George W. Bush.
McFaul is an old Russia hand who has spent years living and working there, where he is said to have many friends from all walks of life. The ambassador came in with a remarkably open style, including extensive use of Twitter, Facebook and his own blog in Russian to publicize his activities.
He is also well known for an upbeat view on Russia, and frequently wishes the country well in his public statements.
But, as previous ambassadors and visiting US officials have routinely done, he held a meeting with Russian opposition and civil society activists early in his first week on the job. That sparked an unexpected explosion of controversy.
"US representatives are acting in an incredibly cynical manner," pro-Kremlin deputy Andrei Isayev alleged in the Duma. "This concerns both the embassy meeting, and the very fact that McFaul, who specializes in ‘orange revolutions,' has been appointed as US ambassador to Russia," a reference to McFaul's past academic work, which dealt with pro-democracy movements in South Africa and the former Soviet Union.
"There's a lot that McFaul has written and said in his long career, which has been closely tied to Russia, that indicates he wishes the best for this country and its people; he wants Russia to evolve into a modern democracy and to prosper," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "Of course you can cherry pick from his academic work, which dealt with pro-democracy movements. But in his recent career he's been a promoter of better relations. He clearly sees himself not as an implementer of his academic ideas but as an implementer of Obama's policies."
McFaul arrived just as Russia's presidential election campaign, in which Vladimir Putin was seeking an unprecedented third term as president, was kicking off. During that campaign, Mr. Putin engaged in quite a bit of America-bashing, a theme that plays well in Russia's vast conservative hinterland.
"During the election Putin used anti-American rhetoric extensively and McFaul sort of arrived in the middle of that," says Ms. Lipman. "But there were lots of hints from the Russian government that they had a domestic audience in mind, and that after Putin was reelected all that would end, and we'd return to more normal relations. But the election is over and it's not ending for some reason. The fact that McFaul was singled out by Lavrov in remarks that were condescending and critical, even after the State Department had complained about the harassment, is deeply worrisome."
In an interview yesterday with the Kremlin's RIA-Novosti agency – which may have been an attempt to build bridges – McFaul restated that it was basic US policy that Washington would not let any other country dictate the US's defensive requirements. "We are going to accept no limitations on that whatsoever because the security of our people, of our allies, is the number-one top priority," he said.
McFaul went on to say a second term by President Barack Obama would include a major effort to engage with Russia, including finding ways to defuse the missile defense issue. "The president believes that this is an issue where we can turn from confrontation to cooperation because we have no interest in building a missile defense system against Russia’s nuclear arsenal," he added.
"Yesterday our colleague – the US ambassador – said very arrogantly that there will be no changes to missile defense even though he, being an ambassador of a foreign state, must understand that the interests of corresponding states must be taken into consideration," Lavrov said.
Experts say they're baffled why McFaul is being singled out like this, especially since the Russian establishment appears appalled at the prospect of Republican president candidate Mitt Romney – who last week declared Russia "our number one geopolitical foe" – winning US elections next November.
"This is probably inertia left over from the Russian presidential election, which did a lot to polarize Russian-American relations in the public mind," says Dmitry Suslov, an expert with the independent Council on Foreign and Defense Policies in Moscow.
"The real targets of all this are Russian opposition leaders and human rights activists, and McFaul is just caught in the crossfire. But it's unfortunate, because McFaul is not only the official representative of the US, he is closely tied to Obama and the policy of 'reset'. So any blow against him means a blow against Obama as well," Mr. Suslov adds.