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McFaul Departure Leaves Void During Ukraine Crisis

McFaul Departure Leaves Void During Ukraine Crisis

The Obama administration is stepping up its diplomatic pressure on Moscow to withdraw from Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula. One problem with that approach: Washington has no ambassador in Moscow to carry it out. 

Just days before thousands of Russian troops streamed into Ukrainian territory, Michael McFaul stepped down from his post as U.S. ambassador to Moscow — leaving the embassy in the hands of deputy chief of mission Sheila Gwaltney, a State Department veteran who has spent much of her career dealing with Russia.

McFaul’s had a rocky two-year tenure in Moscow, but diplomatic experts said his close ties to senior Russian officials would offer an important line of communication during crises like the current standoff over Crimea.

"The personal relationships an ambassador has are not something you can immediately inherit," said Matthew Asada, a U.S. diplomat and State Vice President of the American Foreign Service Association. "It’s something that’s developed over time."

Asada told The Cable that those relationships determine whether a U.S. diplomat can get a Russian official on the phone in the middle of the night and feel comfortable floating scenarios to resolve disputes diplomatically.

Andrew Kuchins, the director the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the lack of an ambassador was particularly risky because of the "high stakes and stress" of the escalating tensions between Washington and Moscow.

"I think it would certainly be preferable for us to have our embassy headed by an ambassador especially during a time of high stress and stakes like now," he said. "It is another asset for us on the ground to read between the lines about what the Russians are saying and how that may or may not correlate with their goals."

For now, that job falls to Gwaltney, the deputy chief of mission and former American consul general in St. Petersburg. It’s not clear how long she’ll be in the post as chargé d’affaires: the White House hasn’t nominated a new ambassador, and any pick would then have to make its way through a divided Senate. It’s also not clear who will get tapped for the job. A U.S. shortlist circulating in Russian media reports includes career diplomats John Tefft, Steven Pifer, Carlos Pascual, as well as nuclear security expert Rose Gottemoeller. Sources speaking to The Cable said Tefft was a top contender, but cautioned that no decision had been reached. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

The next U.S. ambassador will have big shoes to fill, for better and for worse.

McFaul spent three years as the top Russian official on the National Security Council before heading to Moscow. He presided over an unusually tumultuous period in Russian-American relations. His achievements as ambassador included helping to broker a New START treaty to reduce the two countries’ nuclear arsenals, opening supply routes through Russia for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and winning Moscow’s support for an interim nuclear deal with Iran. 

But much of his tenure was also colored by dramatic disagreements between Washington and Moscow over the bloody civil war in Syria, Russia’s sheltering of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden, and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s escalating crackdown on his country’s journalists, NGOs, and pro-democracy activists. McFaul began his tenure by sitting down with members of the Russian opposition, a move Putin regarded as a clear provocation and never quite forgave.

Media outlets and journalists with ties to the Kremlin responded by having McFaul savaged in Russian state-run television stations and newspapers. Pro-Putin mobs also held raucous demonstrations outside the heavily-secured and sprawling U.S. Embassy compound. Still, diplomatic experts said McFaul’s tense relationship with Putin never diminished his value to Washington.

"Mike’s tenure in Moscow as ambassador was made very difficult and unpleasant at times by the Russians, creating a lot of controversy around him," said Kuchins.  "Nevertheless, Mike is an extremely experienced Russia hand, and I think the administration would certainly benefit from his insights if he were still there."