Democracy Lab

Wooing Russia's Twitterati

How the U.S. ambassador in Moscow is using social media to get his message out.

In early December, Michael McFaul, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, embarked on a marathon question-and-answer session with Russian Twitter users. I watched as McFaul walked into an embassy press office and sat down at the computer where he would compose his responses to tweets from his interlocutors. Several aides sat at desks, glancing up at the wall where a flat-screen monitor displayed McFaul's personal Twitter page. As the session began, questions from users began to crop up in McFaul's feed. His curious followers wanted to know everything, it seemed, from his views on Russia and the world to the details of his personal life -- and he was happy to oblige, churning out answers (including a few jokes) in Russian and English. As a novice Twitter user myself, I was intrigued to watch a professional confront the conflicting imperatives of the medium, balancing the demand for maximum exposure with the need for diplomatic tact.

The themes of the conversation ranged from geopolitics to private emotions. Is there a danger of a nuclear strike in the Middle East? How's your broken finger? Will Obama attend the Olympics in Sochi? What's your favorite TV show? Notably, no one asked about Edward Snowden, the NSA leaker. McFaul's followers were more interested in Iran, Syria, visas to America, and U.S.-Russia relations. "I'm a bit worried that I'm going to run too long," McFaul told one of his aides. Diplomacy requires careful use of language -- but on Twitter, whatever the ambassador wants to say has to be expressed in no more than 140 characters. "I'm better live," McFaul joked.

Nonetheless, he confesses to a certain fondness for Twitter. "It's a medium that offers me great advantages as an ambassador trying to explain our policies to this giant country," McFaul told me recently. "I can just go to my computer and talk with a scholar in Vladivostok or to an ecologist in Novosibirsk." To some Russians, it's been a great shock to be able to communicate directly with the U.S. State Department -- an experience that seems to run counter to everything they've heard on Russian television about the U.S. trying to undermine the power of the Kremlin.

Before his arrival in Russia two years ago, McFaul didn't know what a tweet looked like. It was then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who urged him to use social media to engage with society. (The photo above shows McFaul with Clinton during his swearing-in ceremony in 2011.) A former professor at Stanford University, McFaul appears to be a quick learner: on the day we met, last month, he had more than 57,000 followers. Admittedly, that's just a quarter of the number of those following Kseniya Sobchak, the high-profile socialite and political activist. Yet it's also worth noting that McFaul's contingent of followers is nearly two and a half times more than that of one of his frequent debating opponents, Aleksei Pushkov, the Chairman of the Russian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

It's true that Russian Twitter users are a tiny minority in a country where the government controls all forms of media that have the greatest reach -- like national TV, far and away the main source of information for most ordinary Russians. (Lately, as some diplomatic sources note, the big, government-controlled Russian TV channels have been notably reluctant to invite McFaul on, perhaps because his open and engaging manner during his first appearances was a bit too effective for the Kremlin's taste.) Other Russian media, however, often cite McFaul's tweets and Facebook posts in cases where the embassy's press representatives haven't been contacted for comment. This isn't to say that McFaul never gets exposure in other Russian media; there are still several smaller private TV broadcasters and print outlets that are happy to interview him. But it's clear that the ambassador's shrewd use of social media is proving highly effective at spreading his message, in undiluted form, to even broader audiences.

When leading opposition activist Alexei Navalny was sentenced on alleged embezzlement charges last year, for example, McFaul's Twitter comment decrying the verdict as "politically motivated" was retweeted 578 times (and favorited 60 times -- although, to be fair, some 50 percent of the Russian responses to McFaul's remarks about the Navalny trial were negative). According to, McFaul's Twitter Q&A sessions reached an average of 300,000 accounts per session. The fact that he's spending his time engaging with the Russian public on Twitter Q&A sessions is already a diplomatic success in itself, one State Department official told me.

McFaul's popularity is especially noteworthy considering the recent tension between Washington and Moscow, not to mention the distinctly anti-American tone of the reporting by Russia's state-dominated mainstream media. "Pretty much every night somebody writes that U.S. government is aiming to destabilize Russia and overthrow the regime," said McFaul. The ambassador also noted that death threats sometimes crop up amid the messages he receives from the Russian public. He hastened to point out that Russian officials have always reacted to the threats with reassuring speed and efficiency.

Even after two years of tweeting, McFaul still can't explain his popularity. "We've embarked on a grand experiment here," he told me. "We're only two years in. Before us, there were almost no diplomats on Twitter or Facebook. Academics will be studying this experiment for years. What's important is to stay engaged on a daily basis." The ambassador was also at pains to explain that Twitter isn't the only way he interacts with his host country. Just like his predecessors, he still makes the official rounds, attending events, meeting Russian government officials, and seizing every opportunity to socialize with Russians from all walks of life.

McFaul's social media presence has won him more fame than other public figures -- but it has also confronted him with the tricky task of figuring out what's private and what isn't. Attending a recent concert at the Kremlin, McFaul took a photo of the event and was about to post it online when he suddenly had second thoughts. The event was closed to the public, and McFaul's security officials have counseled him against revealing his whereabouts in real time. "It's really hard to figure out where the boundary runs between the personal and public," says McFaul. "'Here's a picture of what I had to eat today and here are some photographs explaining diplomacy.'"

And there are moments when the heightened attention looks more like harassment. Last year, he set off to what he was expecting to be a private meeting with activist Lev Ponomarev. Someone, however, had leaked the details of the meeting. Upon his arrival, McFaul was confronted by TV journalists and a large, hostile group of nationalist demonstrators. (Caught off guard, an indignant McFaul vented at the TV crew -- and later had to apologize for some of his remarks.)

Yet most of his encounters with the citizens of his host country are far less confrontational. During the ambassador's two years in Russia, McFaul has spoken to audiences of all types, from graduate students to ordinary people in the street. The most difficult part has been learning to lecture in Russian. "I've given two-hour lectures in Russian," McFaul told me with pride a few days ago. "I wonder if any other diplomats have ever done that."

But speaking is easier than writing. Russians are far more critical of his written Russian; some of his less-well-meaning followers have been happy to seize on his occasional grammatical mistakes. To improve his Twitter skills in Russian and inspire his followers, McFaul has spent many a late hour with his Russian dictionary in his upstairs room in Spaso House, the historic residence of the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, struggling to compose faultless tweets. "Another thing is not to take myself too seriously," said McFaul. "I do have a sense of humor in real life, but on Twitter, it took me a while to come up with my own voice."

McFaul's approach to diplomacy irritates some Russian diplomats and Kremlin officials. "Our diplomacy is on the opposite side of the scale," says Sergei Markov, an old friend of McFaul's who works for the Russian government. "Right now we're reinventing our own exotic, imperialistic diplomacy with much more discipline, since that's what we need." That said, Markov still admires McFaul's talents and social media skills. "He's a trendsetter," says Markov, noting that McFaul was the first diplomat in Moscow to begin communicating with Russians on Twitter. "Even our own Ministry of Foreign Affairs is now following his example by using Twitter. McFaul is pushing everybody forward."

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Putin’s Mediterranean Move

The race is on to exploit off-shore energy around Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and Cyprus -- and Moscow is crashing the party.

On Christmas Day, Russian state-owned gas company Soyuzneftegaz inked a $90 million, 25-year deal with Damascus to start exploring for the first time some of Syria's offshore energy resources. On the surface, it represents another show of support from Russia for the beleaguered regime of Bashar al Assad. But the deal also fits into a larger pattern of Russian energy adventurism in one of the world's newest frontiers for oil and gas development. If the investments there work out as planned, they could help cement Russia's eroding hold over Europe's energy supply -- and help boost Moscow's standing as a global power on the rise.

At a time when the whole post-war architecture of the Eastern Mediterranean is crumbling, from the breakdown of Egypt's relations with Israel to tensions in the U.S.-Turkish relationship, Moscow seems to spy an opportunity to reassert itself in a region where it once loomed large, get a grip on a potentially big alternative to Russian energy, and make it easier to flex its military muscles. 

"They can kill two birds with one stone," Jeff Mankoff, Deputy Director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said of the Russians. "They want to be in the Eastern Mediterranean, and if they can get the added bonus of bolstering this relationship with Syria, that's two for the price of one."

Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, and now Syria are all agog over the seemingly vast reserves of natural gas discovered offshore; the U.S. geological survey estimates there could be as much as 120 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in the Levant basin, bigger than any single gas play in the U.S.

Israel, long plagued by energy poverty, dreams of turning its offshore finds into energy independence and export earnings. That's especially important now that Egypt cut off its gas exports to Israel. 

Cyprus has visions of becoming a regional energy hub, exporting gas to Europe and Asia, but never-ending tensions between the Greek south and the Turkish north cast a pall of uncertainty over gas exploration. Cypriot gas plans also bring Turkey, the champion of north Cyprus, and Russia, Cyprus's main backer, into conflict. 

Lebanon, for its part, eyes a potential economic boost by tapping hydrocarbons for the first time. Now Syria, undismayed by the ongoing civil war, is hoping to tap offshore gas resources to limit its own reliance on imported gas and boost revenues that have been hammered by the war and sanctions. Much of the country's on-shore production is in the east, and is either held by rebels or in contested areas.

Granted, turning those potential energy resources into actual production will be an uphill task. Economically recoverable reserves are likely only a fraction of the total gas trapped under the seabed. Offshore energy development is a lot more expensive and time-consuming that drilling for gas on land. Even once the gas is produced, the entire region will need massive infrastructure investments to ship it by pipeline to Europe, or liquefy it and ship to Asia. Gas development requires closer cooperation by neighboring countries, something in short supply.

Looming behind all those challenges is the region's sketchy security environment, which has only deteriorated since the beginning of the Arab Spring -- most notably in Syria, but also in Lebanon. 

Turkey has threatened Cyprus with warships and aircraft in a bid to dissuade it from drilling in disputed waters. Cyprus, which doesn't have any money or sailors, is spending precious cash to beef up its navy. Israel is buying a pair of German frigates to protect its own gas fields. For the third year in a row, the U.S., Israel, and Greece carried out naval exercises, including practicing to repel attacks on offshore gas platforms.

Why does energy-rich Russia need to dive into these troubled waters? After all, Russia is the world's second-largest gas producer. It's own fields in Western Siberia hold five times the gas resources as the Levant Basin.

The answer appears to be two-fold. First, Russia's traditional domination of European energy supplies is slowly coming under threat. There's  the advent of shale gas and rising volumes of liquefied gas; there are alternative sources of supply such as the Caspian; and there's the prospect of the Eastern Mediterranean turning into a spigot for southern and eastern Europe. Hungary, for one, has already talked up the prospect of using Israeli gas to substitute for reliance on Russia.

That explains why Russian firms such as Gazprom, Rosneft, and Novatek have been angling for a piece of the action in the Mediterranean. Russia's offered billions of dollars in bailouts to Cyprus in exchange for gas. Russian firms are lining up to bid on Lebanese gas concessions. And Gazprom scored a big victory earlier this year in securing the exclusive rights to export liquefied gas from Israel's Tamar field. Russia is keen to increase its share of the global LNG business, which is especially key to meeting Asia's rising demand for natural gas.

Grabbing access to Mediterranean gas would be a way for Moscow to try and maintain its energy hold over Europe, akin to Russian purchases of gas-distribution assets throughout southern and eastern Europe. At the same time, Russian involvement gives Moscow the ability to dictate the pace of some development in the region; some observers suspect Russian bids for Mediterranean resources are meant to slow down, not accelerate, the development of new sources of gas.

"The Russians aren't hurting for gas that they can send to Europe. They just need to make sure that other people aren't increasing supply in a way that competes with them," Mankoff said.

But more broadly, Russia's rush into the Mediterranean seems part of Vladimir Putin's plan to give Russia the kind of global, geopolitical heft that the Soviet Union had. During the Cold War, Soviet influence extended beyond the Middle East and well into the Mediterranean.

Indeed, the high point by some measures of Soviet naval prowess was the famous Fifth squadron that shadowed the U.S. Navy in the Mediterranean during the early 1970s. For centuries, Russian and Soviet leaders have seen the Eastern Mediterranean as a natural extension of the Black Sea, waters dominated by the Soviet and Russian navies.

Building closer energy and trade ties with key countries in the region, especially Cyprus, Israel, and Greece, gives Russia a way back in to an area it considers within its sphere of influence. That is already happening: During the Syrian civil war, Russian naval deployments to the region have reached levels last seen in Soviet times, with more than a dozen warships on station. 

Some experts see closer Russian cooperation with Cyprus over gas as a way to bolster potential naval capabilities in the region; Russian requests for air basing in addition to naval basing on Cyprus have caused a minor furor on the island. Finding an alternative naval base would be crucial for Russia's Mediterranean plans; its last overseas naval base is in Syria, right near the offshore blocks earmarked for exploration.

And the benefits go two ways. By building closer energy ties with Russia, countries such as Israel, Cyprus, and Greece win a big backer in their disputes with Turkey and other neighbors. Indeed, after Turkish threats over Cypriot gas exploration, Russia dispatched an aircraft carrier to the region. Local reports suggest that Russia offered security assurances to Israel in a private meeting last month between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu. 

"Given the environment the Israelis are in, they are more willing to work with the Russians. Since the relationship with Turkey has gone so pear shaped, they need other partners to work with," Mankoff noted. "They think if they can get Russia involved, that gives Russia a stake in their security."

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