Ambassador McFaul, driver of US-Russia 'reset,' becomes his own obstacle

US Ambassador Mike McFaul has been a Kremlin target since his arrival – most recently being slammed as 'unprofessional' and accused of spreading 'blatant falsehoods.'

Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters
US Ambassador Mike McFaul gestures during his meeting with deputies of the United Russia party at Russia's State Duma, lower house of parliament, in Moscow, last week.

Mike McFaul, the earnest and plain-spoken Russia hand from the Obama White House who became US ambassador to Moscow, has been up to his neck in controversy since he took up his duties in January.

But Mr. McFaul attracted a new level of ire this week, with the Russian Foreign Ministry taking to the relatively new medium of Twitter and also issuing an old-fashioned official statement to angrily assail Mr. McFaul for his "unprofessionalism" and his penchant for spreading "blatant falsehoods through the mediasphere."

Many experts express bafflement at the unprecedented targeting of McFaul with highly personal official criticism, which is getting to be a regular and embarrassing distraction from his job of keeping the troubled US-Russia "reset" of relations on track.

Some suggest newly inaugurated President Vladimir Putin would prefer to deal with Mitt Romney, whose attitude toward Russia is frankly hostile, and has licensed the Russian establishment to go after McFaul, who is not merely US ambassador but also a member of Mr. Obama's inner circle and a key architect of the "reset." In this view, the Kremlin is fed up with deadlock over missile defense, Syria, and other issues, and has decided to turn its foreign policy focus eastward toward the former Soviet central Asian countries and China.

Mr. Putin, under pressure from the biggest wave of street protests since the collapse of the Soviet Union, may also find it easier to crack down on the opposition if they can be explicitly linked to an ill-intentioned Western adversary

Others argue that no high politics are necessarily involved, and that McFaul's open and unguarded way of speaking, as well as his extraordinarily active public style, has ruffled the old-school diplomats in Russia's Foreign Ministry, who can't resist teaching him some manners. 

"He's not your typical ambassador. It's his straightforward way of expressing himself, his openness, how public he is, that makes him different," says Masha Lipman, editor of the Moscow Carnegie Center's Pro et Contra journal. "It makes waves." 

'Still learning' how to be a diplomat

The trigger for the latest blizzard of official outrage was an upbeat, routine slideshow presentation about the course of the "reset" that McFaul gave to Russian students at the prestigious Higher School of Economics on May 25. It's mostly a summary of the progress the US and Russia have made: signing the new START treaty, cooperating in Afghanistan, boosting trade and investment, and improving dialogue about contentious issues like Iran and Syria. 

But in his asides to the students, McFaul made a few controversial remarks. The one that ignited the most fury at the foreign ministry was the suggestion that in early 2009 the Kremlin had "put a big bribe on the table" to get authorities in Kyrgyzstan to cancel the US lease on Manas airbase, a vital link in the resupply chain to embattled NATO forces in Afghanistan. That's an undeniably colorful way to describe how then-Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiyev decided to close Manas after receiving a huge aid package from the Kremlin that included a $150 million gift.

The foreign ministry Tweeted that it was "utterly shocked" by the claim, adding in its lengthy statement that "Mr. McFaul knows better what kind of bribe, and to whom, Washington gave," to get Manas back. 

McFaul himself subsequently took to Twitter to dial back some of his remarks. "Still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically," he Tweeted. On his blog today, McFaul insisted that he was surprised by the reaction to his presentation, since it was mainly about how much relations between Russia and the US have improved in recent years.

"Prime Minister Medvedev said recently in Seoul that the last three years of the US-Russia relationship have been the best period in US-Russia relations in history," McFaul wrote. "We agree, and I am proud of the personal role that I have played in improving the bilateral relationship between our two countries." 

State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland backed up McFaul in a briefing yesterday. "He was making the point that with regard to Kyrgyzstan and the importance of the Manas transit center, that we are very transparent," she said. "We ask for the same information and the same support from Russia. So it's no longer this sort of secret competition that you had in the Soviet era. …

"As one of the architects of the president's reset policy, [McFaul is] in a position not only to really understand the benefits, but also to try to continue to advance them. So from that perspective we considered him an extremely strong ambassador," she added. 

A sign of the times

Some analysts suggest there may be more going on here than just a free-speaking ambassador who's having a bit of trouble finding his diplomatic voice and is irritating the old professionals. 

"Criticism of McFaul is part of the general pattern of anti-Americanism that came to life during the last parliamentary and presidential election campaigns" in Russia, says Viktor Kremeniuk, deputy director of the official Institute of USA-Canada Studies in Moscow.

"McFaul would have been the perfect ambassador during the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, who positioned himself as more liberal and democratic. But it took time after McFaul was nominated for him to be approved and arrive in Moscow. By that time the wind had changed and was blowing in the opposite direction. So he's become a hostage of this new situation." 

McFaul, a former Stanford professor and expert on democratization, arrived in Moscow just as massive anti-Kremlin protests were gathering steam. One of his first acts on the job was to meet with Russian opposition leaders, a routine diplomatic function, but one that triggered a storm of indignation in Russia's official media and led to McFaul being shadowed and harassed by activists of the pro-Kremlin Nashi movement wherever he went. At one point, McFaul even complained that his e-mail and phone accounts were being hacked into by Nashi activists posing as journalists. 

"McFaul's background as a democracy specialist arguably made the Kremlin suspicious of him from the outset," says Ms. Lipman. "His background, which should have served him well, had the effect of strengthening those irrational fears that the US was somehow behind the [opposition] demos. 

"He's made a few mistakes, but he's a straight talker and an open person. It's clear this is how he intends to be, and how his government wants him to be," she adds. 

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