Attacks on McFaul Reveal Bigger Reset Issues

Russian media insults directed at the new U.S. ambassador send a message about lingering problems in the U.S.-Russia relationship.

Michael McFaul wrote in a blog entry on Russia’s popular LiveJournal web site that his first day as U.S. ambassador to Moscow “started with a bang.” In fact, the real bang came on the second day, when the new ambassador was harshly denounced on Russia’s principal state-television channel after meeting with opposition politicians and civil-society activists. Though U.S.-Russian relations will surely survive the incident, it puts the fundamental challenges and dilemmas of the reset, and previous efforts to improve the relationship, into sharp focus.

Mikhail Leontiev, a television personality known for his inflammatory commentary, attacked McFaul at length on his program Odnako (“However”) on ORT, Russia’s Channel One, assaulting the new ambassador’s career as a scholar and an advocate for democracy in Russia and elsewhere. Leontiev also asked rhetorically whether McFaul had arrived to “finish the revolution” in Russia (a play on the title of one of McFaul’s scholarly books, Russia’s Unfinished Revolution). Leontiev’s commentary followed video footage of opposition leaders and activists leaving the U.S. embassy in Moscow, as if in reaction to the meetings. Given how Russia’s state-television channels operate, the broadcast was likely coordinated with government officials.

While Moscow is always sensitive to any perceived interference in its internal affairs—especially by American officials—and is doubly sensitive in the uncertain environment after December’s protests and before Russia’s March 4 presidential election, Leontiev’s report was interestingly disproportionate to events. First, McFaul was a participant in the meetings but not the host; the sessions were arranged for Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, himself a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. In that context, McFaul’s presence was routine and ancillary. Second, the meetings were not McFaul’s first in Moscow, as some Russian reports have implied (including state-controlled media that should know better). He presented his diplomatic credentials at the Russian Foreign Ministry the previous day and then accompanied Burns to appointments with an impressive array of top officials in the Kremlin and in Russia’s White House (where the prime minister and his aides work) as well as with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Finally, Russian officials know well that visiting senior U.S. officials virtually always meet with opposition figures and, as is common in the diplomatic world, were informed of the meetings in advance.

Other aspects of the controversy also raise questions, including the presence of cameras outside the U.S. embassy to secure video footage of the departing Russian guests. Right-wing pro-Putin Nashi protesters also happened to be outside the embassy to hurl on-camera verbal abuse at the civil-society activists, some of whom responded in kind rather than trying to be models of democratic tolerance. The whole package looked like a set-up.

Why did they create this stunt? Russia’s leaders surely are attempting to discourage what they see as not just U.S. interference in Russia’s politics but also direct support for those seeking to prevent Putin’s reelection. This is the transparent first-level message of Leontiev’s attack, which Russian officials can expect their American counterparts will recognize as government sanctioned. Senior Russian officials have already said this publicly and privately to the White House, but they must be either dissatisfied with the results or acting from an abundance of caution in their country’s tense pre-election environment. Burns went to great lengths to insist that the United States had no such intent, telling the newspaper Kommersant that “we have no interest—zero interest—in interfering in Russian politics.”

Notably, Leontiev specifically attacked McFaul rather than Burns, the senior American present with responsibility for his own schedule. This probably reflects appreciation for Burns, who managed to be quite effective as ambassador without offending Russian officials, and the fact that McFaul’s reputation as a democracy advocate made him a suitable target of opportunity. It could also include a degree of calibration—sending the same signal at lower risk—and a direct warning to McFaul that he will be under close scrutiny.