McFaul's Costly Mistake in Russia

Why the American ambassador's meeting with the Russian opposition was in no one's best interest.

In Russian and U.S. political circles, tongues are wagging over the harsh comments of Mikhail Leontyev expressed on Russia’s Channel One, in which the government owns a controlling stake, regarding the meeting of U.S. deputy secretary of state William Burns and newly appointed ambassador Michael McFaul with members of the radical opposition.

Leontyev is known for his proximity to Russian authorities, and his TV remarks left many assuming that he was partly expressing their general position on this meeting. But it would be wrong to attribute his words solely to his occupation. Leontyev is a journalist with his own position, and he does not merely parrot the positions of the authorities. He is known to formulate opinions on a variety of domestic and international issues and, importantly, expresses the views and moods of certain socio-political circles in Russia. This means that his judgment on Ambassador McFaul and his meeting does not just mirror official sentiment but also reflects the views of a considerable part of the Russian population.

For Americans, nothing special really happened. American diplomats, in accordance with their principles and following official protocol (and probably with the knowledge of the Russian Embassy in Washington and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow), met with leaders of the opposition. They have done this before, and not only in Russia, so they were understandably dismayed at the harsh reaction expressed on Channel One. But Moscow sees their actions in a different light.

The recent history of Russian-American relations causes anxiety among a number of Russians. For many who are well read in this history, Russian-American relations in the 1990s were tainted, especially when the economy and foreign policy were conducted by young reformers such as Yegor Gaidar, Anatoly Chubais, Andrey Kozyrov and others. The perception was widespread that all important decisions regarding personnel and key domestic and foreign matters were taken either directly in or with the approval of Washington. During this period, many Russians felt deeply humiliated due to their de facto loss of sovereignty at the time when the ex-superpower was undergoing an economic, social and psychological catastrophe. It found itself forced to negotiate all sorts of domestic and foreign policies with Washington just so it could receive the next transfer of IMF funds or political support for Yeltsin and the young reformers against the communist and great-power patriotic opposition.

Since the 1990s, therefore, many Russians have harbored an aversion toward American meddling in Russian affairs—or otherwise put, toward American participation in managing Russian affairs either directly or through U.S. political and economic advisers.

Putin’s presidency is widely seen as having restored Russian self-sufficiency domestically and on the international scene as having resurrected Russian sovereignty and reconstituted Russia as a strong partner of the West in foreign affairs.

Now Russia has entered a new phase in its domestic political development, which coincides with the start of a new electoral cycle. Putin, who will run for president again in March as a member of the party in power, retains a high level of trust among many Russians. But against this backdrop, there have been major societal divisions, mass protests and demands for more responsiveness from the authorities and more dialogue with society.

Together with the moderate demands of the highly educated part of the population—for development and deepening of the interaction between the government and the people and reforms to increase the inclusivity of the political system—there are also radicals in the protests and in society who call for the resignation of Putin and regime change.

In this context, the meeting of the American diplomats with representatives of the radical opposition strikes the acting authorities in Moscow and also other circles whose opinion Leontyev expresses as not just any routine meeting with the opposition but rather as an attempt by Washington at meddling in sovereign matters to push for regime change.

Now throw in the fact that the record of both the United States and Ambassador McFaul provide a basis for such assumptions. Regardless of his alleged authoring of the “Reset” policy, McFaul is famous in both the United States and Russia as a supporter of the American policy on democracy promotion worldwide and is known to be close to those circles in Russia calling for regime overhaul. I don’t think it is necessary to rehash the details of the American record on regime change from the last few years. It is known throughout the world.

Few serious Russian politicians and analysts view this meeting as deliberately orchestrated to provoke the Russian authorities or inspire leaders of the opposition to take further steps in the direction of overthrowing the regime. I think that it is unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future, that there will be any new reactions by the authorities until the elections and the inauguration of the new president. But it is obvious that, in the current political context, this meeting benefits neither the new ambassador nor the radical opposition. If the government wishes, it can play the nationalist-patriotic card on this occasion, presenting Putin as a true patriot and defender of the independence, sovereignty and dignity of the Russian State. It is only too easy to play the intrusive Washington card, decrying a foreign entity that took care of its favorites Boris Nemtsov, Vladimir Ryzhkov and others as in the 1990s—only now fighting the Putin regime.

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