National Security Council official Samantha Power and Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia advisor are among the “very long shots” to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State, the Wall Street Journal’s Matthew Kaminski reports.
But the U.S. envoy to Moscow will be too preoccupied with more pressing matters to spend much time pondering future career options.
The Kremlin’s threat to retaliate if the U.S. Congress passes the Magnitsky bill, a proposal to freeze the assets of Russian officials complicit in human rights abuses, coincides with a renewed campaign of harassment against McFaul.
“There was a time when Soviet officials would plant stories in their pliant press or concoct honey-traps to bring down an out-of-favor diplomat. These days, the Russian state heads straight to Twitter,” the Guardian’s Miriam Elder reports from Moscow, citing the Russian foreign ministry’s “unprecedented attack” on the US ambassador.
But McFaul gave as good as he got, Elder suggests, taking to Twitter to reply that the talk to which the Kremlin objected had “highlighted over 20 positive results of ‘reset,’ that our governments worked together to achieve” and later releasing slides from the talk, which highlighted improvements in US-Russia relations.
The attacks on McFaul are “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.”
The Kremlin unleashed its media acolytes and Nashi youth movement to harass McFaul upon his arrival in Moscow, but many observers believe he is well-suited to the post.
“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.
“McFaul’s background as a democracy specialist arguably made the Kremlin suspicious of him from the outset,” she says. “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.
In some respects, McFaul is the archetypal “undiplomat,” according to Julia Ioffe’s must-read profile in Foreign Policy:
“A good diplomat is going to say enough and start enough conversations that will help make his case, not get into arguments that permanently cast him as an enemy,” says Stephen Sestanovich, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations and a veteran of the diplomatic world. He is also McFaul’s close friend. “A diplomat has to figure out the terrain he’s operating on and to make sure he makes good use of it. He knows there are a lot of minefields out there and he has to be careful.” ….
“Actually, I think that Mike has become a pretty disciplined diplomat,” says Sestanovich. “He does this ‘aw, shucks I’m not a professional diplomat,’ but he’s gotten pretty good at managing public statements, at managing public-policy process. He’s found his balance pretty quickly.” Nor does Sestanovich [a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy] buy into the talk of McFaul’s naïveté. “My children grew up hearing Mike talk about knife fights in Montana mining towns,” he says. “The idea that the world is dominated by misunderstanding that can just be dispelled by dialogue is not Mike’s worldview.”
McFaul’s background as a scholar and practitioner of democracy assistance raised Kremlin suspicions, Ioffe notes:
“There’s this notion out here that all I taught was regime change,” McFaul told me that February afternoon at Spaso House, referring to the infamous commentary on state-owned Channel 1, which alleged that McFaul, an expert in revolutions, was coming to finish the job he started in 1991. McFaul did, in fact, teach a class in revolutions at Stanford, but, he points out, he also taught a course on U.S.-Russia relations and on the political economy of the post-communist world. As for the Channel 1 allegations, McFaul says they are “absolute nonsense.”
“I’m not here to foment a revolution,” he says. “If we were here to foment revolution, we’d be doing very different things. I know exactly what we did in other countries. I’ve written a lot about how external actors impact on domestic change and the punchline of most of my work is that it’s always incredibly marginal and, in big countries, almost negligible.”
McFaul’s facility with digital social media also gets the Kremlin’s back up, notes Ioffe:
Alec Ross, a senior advisor to Clinton and one of the architects of this policy of social media diplomacy, disagrees that direct engagement with the people via Facebook and the like sets American diplomats up for disaster. “I don’t agree that it’s going over Putin’s head,” he told me. “Russian officials are very aggressive users of social media themselves. Look at [Russian Prime Minister Dmitry] Medvedev, look at [Russian diplomat and politician Dmitry] Rogozin. They started tweeting years before Ambassador McFaul. And the content of his Twitter feed is about his playing basketball. This is not exactly the Radio Free Europe tower.” Ross made sure to add, “Ambassador McFaul enjoys the full support of the State Department.”
And yet this initiative, coupled with McFaul’s unshy public image, played right into the hands of the Kremlin, suddenly rickety and feeling pressed by this winter’s pro-democracy protests, and just when it needed a big and convincing win in the March presidential elections. “They’re using McFaul as a resource,” says Sergei Markov, a United Russia deputy and trustee of Vladimir Putin. “It would be a sin not to use it.”
A prominent political technologist and former Kremlin insider, Markov worked with McFaul at the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute, and they have remained friends despite their political differences.
When I met Sergei Markov, [Ioffe continues] the United Russia Party foreign-policy hawk and Putin enthusiast, he was on crutches and had a cast on his left foot — a motorcycle accident in January had left him with a broken ankle. We talked as he waited in the freezing green room of a Russian television studio. He had set up an invisible conveyer belt from the refreshments table to his mouth. “The reset has fulfilled its mission, which was to remove the foolishness of the Bush era,” he said, inhaling a mushroom pastry in one bite. “Now it’s time for the Americans to meet us halfway.” That means: Get rid of Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili, develop their military strategy with Russia’s interests in mind, and change the anti-Russian “regimes” in Latvia and Estonia. (How? Well, that is up to the Americans, he told me.)
Even with these beliefs, Markov thinks McFaul is the right man for the job. “He’s the perfect representative of America,” he told me, devouring a cucumber spear. “He is open, friendly, generous. He’s very democratic. He has a strong moral compass, and he really wants to help.” Markov knows all this firsthand.
It is one of those strange twists of fate that this man was once McFaul’s close friend and colleague. The two were observers of the ferment of Moscow in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Markov was a philosophy graduate student at Moscow State and active in Democratic Russia, an early shoot of the Russian democracy movement, and McFaul was studying international relations at Oxford. Together, they chronicled the collapse of the Soviet Union, interviewing scores of participants in the events of the time for a book called Russia’s Unfinished Revolution. (Markov’s then wife earned some extra money transcribing the interviews.) They had tea at Russian nationalist Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s tiny apartment in Moscow’s northern suburbs. They went to see the hard-core “Pamyat” (or “Memory”) movement, where one activist greeted the two students in full SS regalia, and another nearly killed Markov for accidentally sitting on the group’s flag. Markov recalls McFaul noting afterwards that it was his first time seeing a real racist, in the flesh.
Markov began to work with the U.S.-funded National Democratic Institute– a decade-long gig. He went to McFaul’s wedding in California, where he — unsuccessfully– hit on another Russia scholar and friend of McFaul’s, Condoleezza Rice. In 1994, McFaul and Markov helped found the Moscow Carnegie Center, which hosted regular discussions and seminars featuring a novel feature to draw an audience: free dinner. A few years later, Markov was pushed out of Carnegie because he was viewed as the propagandist of the second Chechen War. McFaul defended him and the two have remained friends to this day, “which can be kind of difficult at times,” says a mutual friend who had been part of their crew in the 1990s. “The last time I was in Washington, I stayed with McFaul,” Markov told me. “We debated vigorously.”
The National Democratic Institute is a core institute of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.