A Tormenting in Moscow

Why is Russia harassing President Obama’s new ambassador?

Astrid Riecken/Getty Images
Astrid Riecken/Getty Images

Russians are known for their warm welcomes, rolling out the red carpet for honored guests and ensconcing them in bear hugs, complete with three hearty kisses on the cheeks. Perhaps the new U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul didn’t quite expect the same gracious reception given the frosty relationship between Washington and Moscow these days, but his first few months on the job have been unusual, if not downright hostile, a lot more Cold War than Russian Reset. Upon arriving in Moscow, the ambassador greeted his guests with an effervescent — even hokey — YouTube video introducing himself, a longtime student of and friend to Russia. In response, he was met with an Arctic propaganda blast reminiscent of the early 1980s, and harassment likely without precedent for U.S. ambassadors — either in the Soviet Union or in post-Soviet Russia.

The Obama administration has since complained to the Russian government about the harassment of McFaul. "Everywhere I go," McFaul tweeted, "[the Gazprom-owned national television network] NTV is there. Wonder who gives them my calendar. They wouldn’t tell me. Wonder what laws are here for such things." By crowding the U.S. ambassador and filming his comings and goings, NTV reporters act not unlike former KGB myrmidons, clearly seeking to intimidate not only McFaul but even more so his Russia interlocutors, whom they try to intercept and "interview." It wouldn’t be the first time that the Kremlin has successfully snooped into the affairs of the U.S. Embassy — in fact, there’s a long tradition of mutual suspicion and spycraft between these old adversaries, but the host government sharing his open schedule with flunkies just to intimidate the ambassador seems a new low in what was hoped to have been a new period of mutual respect and good relations.

It is always sad and maddening to hear about insults to human dignity by paid propagandists and thugs of authoritarian regimes. Yet the hounding of McFaul is particularly bizarre. Not only is he a brilliant scholar, the author of hundreds of articles and several books on Russia, and one of the most popular professors at Stanford University, but McFaul is widely regarded as a man of profound intellectual and personal integrity. In at least 20 years that I’ve known and deeply admired Mike, I’ve met no one who did not hold him in highest esteem, even those who disagreed with him professionally.

A native of Montana and a Californian by professional choice, Mike epitomizes America’s democratic spirit, free inquiry, unfettered debate, and respect for the right to question authority. He is also a sparkling, often ebullient conversationalist. Anyone who spends even a few minutes in his company finds his discourse utterly infectious.

That he is a Russian speaker and, with his shock of blond hair, Hollywood-handsome, does not hurt him a bit among Russian television viewers — not to mention his legion of longtime admirers among pro-democracy experts and intelligentsia. It is all of this — but particularly the last bit — that makes McFaul such a stark and embossing contrast to the intellectual grayness of Putinism, the vulgarity of its propaganda, and the pettiness of its cat-and-mouse games with intellectuals and pro-democracy opposition.

From the start of his ambassadorship a few months ago, McFaul seemed determined to treat Russia as a normal country: he proclaimed himself willing to speak to anyone – even his detractors. "I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any questions," he tweeted of NTV, even as he wondered whether "they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?"

But there is more to it than that. McFaul was among the key architects of the reset in the U.S.-Russian relations. Whatever this effort has or has not achieved and whatever built-in flaws handicapped the reset from the beginning, there is little doubt about McFaul’s sincerity, good faith, and passionate commitment that the effort would make both countries more secure and prosperous. Among other things, he worked tirelessly on the New START nuclear arms treaty and helped to secure Russia’s entry in the World Trade Organization.

What an odd and vile payback, then. But perhaps not so odd, after all. In the through-the-looking-glass world of Putin’s "sovereign democracy" (which as my Russian friends like to point out is to "democracy" as "electric chair" is to "chair"), it is precisely McFaul’s involvement in the reset and his unshakable faith in Russia’s democratic future that have made him a target of choice.

Just as "all politics is local" so, too, is much of foreign policy domestic politics. With the Kremlin’s legitimacy badly damaged in the parliamentary and presidential elections this past December and March, it has again resorted to tried and true tactics of all authoritarian institutions: creating an alleged external danger to rally the people around the flag and to smear and marginalize opponents as agents of foreign enemies. Putin’s enemy of choice has always been the United States. And until it feels completely in control again (which does not seem to be likely anytime soon), the Kremlin’s policy will be informed largely by anti-Americanism — in order to lend as much credence as possible to the narrative of protecting the Motherland against the scheming enemies of Russia on the outside, and the fifth columnists within. That McFaul is highly respected and personally liked by those "fifth columnists" makes him a particularly dangerous man in Moscow.

Conceptually, the reset is clearly at odds with Putin’s dependence on anti-American rhetoric to galvanize his support base and to satisfy the myriad bureaucratic interest groups that, in one way or another, benefit from perceptions of Russia as a "besieged fortress." Hence, we now see an anti-American propaganda the likes of which, in crudeness and shamelessness, we have seen since 1985. Witness a "documentary" on a state-controlled national television channel, shortly after McFaul came to Moscow, in which his writings on democracy promotion were used to bolster an accusation that, in essence, he was sent by the CIA to foment a color revolution. Thus the calling out of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as a "signaler" to anti-Putin opposition. And finally, an utterly base "Anatomy of the Protest" documentary (on the same NTV network) that showed allegedly U.S. officials distributing money and cookies (yes: evil, wanton democracy cookies) to the anti-Putin protesters. Welcome to Moscow, Mr. Ambassador…

The recent collapse or likely future downfall of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East — some of which had (Libya) or still have (Syria) close ties with Russia — and the relatively recent color revolutions in the countries of the former Soviet Union have generated heightened sensitivity in Moscow about the stability of Putin’s managed democracy. The Kremlin knows that vast majority of Russians are aware of an apparent irony: their country has defied global trends that have been marked by leadership transitions by way of revolution, ballot box, or authoritarian succession.

Even China, which is far more authoritarian today than Russia, will at least see some new faces assume the reins of its principal governmental structures this year. In Russia, meanwhile, Putin will formally return to the Kremlin next month and his cadre of largely siloviki-turned-oligarchs associates will continue to dominate the country both politically and economically. This paradox isn’t lost on Putin. The attacks against McFaul, with his exemplary background in democracy promotion, represent in part a knee-jerk attempt by the Kremlin to drown in lying hysteria the realization that the country is becoming more detached from the norms and values of what Russians still call the "civilized world" — to which tens of millions of them want to belong.

There is a recent video of McFaul arriving at a meeting with pro-democracy activists. Wet snow is falling. Getting out of his car, without an overcoat or hat, the ambassador is about to enter the building, when he suddenly turns around and steps outside to talk to his interviewer harassers. He asks them, smiling all the time, why they do this to him and how they happen to know where he would be. His host tries to pull him indoors, but McFaul holds his ground. He tries to explain, in Russian, how this behavior is in "violation of the Geneva [Convention]." To which he’s met with a flurry of denials and catcalls.

Next time you ponder what happened to the reset and wonder what to expect after Putin’s self-coronation in May, remember those gray sleeting skies over Moscow: the U.S. ambassador’s attempt at explanation and dialogue — and the haranguing and jeers in response.

Leon Aron is the director of Russian studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author, most recently, of Roads to the Temple: Truth, Memory, Ideas, and Ideals in the Making of the Russian Revolution, 1987-1991.

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