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.