To Russia with suspicion
Amb. Mike McFaul is sworn in by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on January 10, 2012
January 20th, 2012
03:14 PM ET

To Russia with suspicion

By Jill Dougherty

Just before Secretary of State Hillary Clinton swore in Mike McFaul on January 11 as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, she told the audience packing the State Department's Benjamin Franklin Room that "Mike's reputation precedes him."

Yet it's that very reputation that has Russia eyeing McFaul with suspicion, wary that the ambassador, who arrived last Saturday, is looking to create a Russian version of the Arab Spring.

From the start, McFaul's mission to Moscow has been different. As Clinton explained to the audience that day, rather than send the Russian Foreign Ministry a diplomatic note announcing the appointment, the president took it upon himself to tell Russia's president, in person, about it.

"When President Obama saw President Medvedev at the G-8 summit in Deauville in May he simply said, 'I'm planning to nominate Mike to be the next ambassador to Russia,'" Clinton explained, "and President Medvedev responded immediately with a tone full of respect, 'Of course. He's a tough negotiator.' And that was that."

But it isn't his negotiation skill that has Russia nervous.

On McFaul's second day on the job in Moscow he was slammed by Russia's government-controlled Channel 1 television. "The fact is that

McFaul is not an expert on Russia," said a Russian commentator. "He is a specialist solely in the promotion of democracy."

The program noted his previous work in Russia with the National Democratic Institute, a U.S. Congress-founded, non-governmental organization that the channel said was linked to U.S. intelligence services.

James F. Collins, U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, now director of the Russia and Eurasia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told reporters Thursday that McFaul, as ambassador, "has a responsibility to be in touch with all elements of the political spectrum at this time" in Russia "and the Russian government knows perfectly well that that's the policy and that's the way the embassy pursues its role in an electoral period."

"I did it," Collins said, "my successors have done it and my predecessors have done it."

"The fact that they choose to make this an issue or to raise this question, I think, is simply a part of the political campaign, it's part of the anti-American card," he added.

Presidential elections are scheduled in both countries this year - Russia's March 4 and the U.S. election November 6 - and "cold war" rhetoric is rearing its head yet again.

Mike McFaul, 48, is not a career diplomat but has been hooked on Russia ever since studying Russian in Leningrad - now St. Petersburg - as an undergrad at Stanford University. Later, as a professor at Stanford, he became one of the best-known American experts on the country, author and co-author of academic tomes on weighty subjects like "Dictatorship and Democracy: Russian Postcommunist Political Reform" and "After the Collapse of Communism: Comparative Lessons of Transitions."

In the rarified and sometimes musty world of Russia experts Mike McFaul stood out: young, brash, irrepressible, able to make Russian studies, well, fun.

During the 2008 election, McFaul threw his lot behind Barack Obama, advising him on Russia. When Obama was elected, McFaul became special assistant to the president and senior director for Russia and Eurasian affairs at the National Security Council, where he helped develop the "reset" policy.

He was in Geneva with Secretary Clinton in March 2009 when Clinton handed Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov a big red button, meant to symbolize the reset, which staff personnel mistranslated into Russian as "overloaded." The "reset" survived, racking up some success, including the New Start agreement

But relations recently have been rocky, with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's announcement that he will run again for president unleashing a torrent of criticism from Putin's opponents, who attacked his "managed democracy." Pro-democracy/anti-Putin demonstrations, organized through social media like Twitter, Facebook and the Russian site "," are transforming the political environment.

McFaul's closeness to Barack Obama could serve him well in his new post; Russia's leaders know he has the ear of the president. But his expertise in democracy issues and regime-change in non-democratic states could raise questions in Moscow, where some close to the Kremlin worry about an Arab Spring-style democracy movement spreading to Russia.

They probably won't be asking for autographed copies of his book "Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can."

A leading newspaper, Kommersant, in an online version January 11, featured this headline: "The US sends a specialist in Color Revolutions to Moscow." The reference to "Color Revolutions" includes Ukraine's 2004-2005 Orange Revolution, which upended Moscow-friendly leaders in its neighborhood.

In December, President Putin himself accused Hillary Clinton of fomenting revolution among his opponents: "They heard this signal," Putin said, "and with the support of the U.S. State Department began their active work"

For McFaul, however, it's full steam ahead to Moscow. He arrived Saturday with his wife, Donna, and two young sons to take up his post. In a YouTube video meant to introduce him to average Russians, he pledges to travel the vast country, getting to know its citizens.

"I'm interested in meeting not only government officials but people from other political parties and movements," he says in the video.

"Business men and women, civil society activists, and regular Russians just like you."

soundoff (28 Responses)
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  5. Matt

    Ah you are indeed a Russian expert my son.

    January 30, 2012 at 12:34 am | Reply
  6. America's Greatest Fairy; J. Edgar Homo

    America doesn't have the balls to fuck with Russia. Or China, either. No – America can only bully those who can't defend themselves. It's the American way. One day,we'll be stupid and arrogant enough to pick a fight with someone who can, and will, fight back.

    Then we'll hear some real screaming.

    January 23, 2012 at 11:30 pm | Reply
  7. Adrian

    I find alex very entertainig.

    January 23, 2012 at 9:27 am | Reply
  8. Andor

    Following on Twitter several of the opponents who were invited to see McFaul on the second day of his Ambassadorship, and will meet him again very soon, I could see a trend. Most of them are absolutely delighted. Ms. Chirikova declared that now they will be able to use the US against Putin. She is the member of the invited group who also mentioned in her Twitter, "The fact that McFaul met the opposition before meeting Putin tells us much". In my opinion it tells the world much, too, about Mr. McFaul 's goals in Russia.

    January 21, 2012 at 8:34 pm | Reply
    • AlexShch

      And what is the goal?

      January 22, 2012 at 12:17 am | Reply
  9. Bill

    "He is a specialist solely in the promotion of democracy."

    The fact that the present government of Russia considers this a concern is confirmation we sent the right man for a job that even the Russian imply by their squawking needs to be done. Why should any government elected by Democratic means (as Russia asserts it's President is) be concerned when a person that promotes democracy shows up ? Wake up sheeple. We well know Putin and his cronies have hijacked the democratic process in Russia and Putin has not been especially nice to us. So we serve notice we do not like it as well as send a effective agent of change into their backyard. In the old days the 2nd Assistant to the Assistant for Cultural Affairs would arrange an "accident" or "medical emergency". Ask me how much I care what the Russian tin plated demo-dictator and his media mouthpieces thinks about who or why we appoint ambassador. The embassy is there for diplomatic communication and to look after the interests of the USA. We sent a message and apparently Putin heard it loud and clear and is butt hurt. QQ more Putin. Kisses and Hugs. Ohhh, almost forgot, Hey Putin! Make your ambassador over here an expert on any type of political change/system you want. And good luck with that as our current clown show will be very hard to beat as we cherish it so much if for nothing else than entertainment value.

    January 21, 2012 at 1:07 pm | Reply
    • AlexShch

      Very well said.

      The problem is that NOBODY is Russia cares what is going on in the US, nobody cares about US
      presidential election campaign, republican caucuses, and nobody cares about who will be the next
      US president. After all, the difference between Bush and Obama is insignificant, especially if one
      takes into consideration Obama's surrounding, i.e. Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, etc.. I personally
      have sympathy to Obama and believe that he is the best president US political system can ever
      produce, but having said that, I am realist and I understand that Obama personally can make only
      so much change, which is in fact very little.

      Because NOBODY cares, it is completely pointless for Russia to send an ambassador to US who
      who will attempt to influence internal affairs in the US one way or the other, and this is not the job
      for diplomats.

      The main point is that US Dept. of State simply forgot what diplomacy is about. I may sound
      very old fashioned, but I understand the tasks for the US diplomats in Russia as follows:

      1) represent US interests in Russia, such as create/improve/facilitate conditions for the
      advancement of US businesses and trade in Russia;
      2) objectively inform US Government about actual tendencies in Russian society, economics,
      and other aspects of life, so informed decisions and meaningful policies on relevant
      subjects can be formulated and pursued by the US Government (note: this is very
      different from feeding US Government with "sweet dreams" which have no relationship
      to the reality);
      3) serve and protect US citizens who are in Russia for various reasons;
      4) serve Russian citizens who are intending to travel to US;
      5) communicate with their Russian counterparts to resolve or smooth out "delicate issues"
      (such as arrange mutual exchange of spies who got caught, etc...);
      6) spying (although technically it is not consistent with diplomatic status, but most diplomats
      do, and besides, more than 90% of intelligence gathering is done legally by simply
      collecting and analyzing information from legal open sources).

      Am I missing something?

      Note that none of the tasks above includes "promotion of democracy": it is simply not job
      for the diplomats - there are plenty of other organizations and NGOs who are more suitable
      for this task.

      What McFaul is doing is pretty much failing in tasks 1) through 6), and it is even counterproductive
      for the purpose of "promoting democracy": many Putin supporters were accusing opposition for
      being puppets of US Dept. of State, but were always empty handed in their arguments. Now, after
      this McFaul's blunder they got the evidence in supports of what they say.

      Regarding the alleged weakness of Putin (the argument that "the fact that Putin does not like
      someone coming to promote democracy, it means he is afraid, so he is weak"): at first Putin
      is not weak at all - he still gets about 50% support, decisively more than any other politician
      and I believe it is quite normal for a politician to loose some popularity if he stays in power for
      a long term: fresh charismatic people always get more support, but also wear it out quickly.
      Putin is doing better than Gorbachev an Eltsyn combined (even though during his peak of
      popularity during the period of summer-fall 1991 Eltsyn enjoyed more support than Putin
      ever had, Eltsyn lost pretty much all of it in just three years; Putin is long runner).

      Besides this action of McFaul only works for Putin, not against him. Some may argue
      that the source of political strength of Putin comes from his ability to create political
      vacuum - the argument that Putin is not perfect, but there is nobody better than him.
      Then accuse Putin in going after and suppressing any of the opposition leaders way
      before they achieve any prominence. In reality the opposition leaders (Nemtsov,
      Navalny, Kasparov, Kasyanov, etc.) just always do the stupid actions on their own
      (perhaps with some help from McFaul in this partucular occasion, but mostly on
      their own) which simply leads to nothing else but their own demise. In any case
      they are not forced or provoked by Putin. So there is clearly political a vacuum
      situation right now, but this has nothing to do with Putin and it is not his fault.

      Having said the above, I have to clarify that the overall situation in Russia right
      now is very different from 1991 or 1996, or from Ukranian situation in 2004.
      At first, Russian economy is not in crisis.
      Secondly, the contradictions within the society are nowhere near so deep, relatively
      to the past.
      Thirdly, in 1991 and 2004 opposition had natural leaders (Eltsyn an Yushchenko
      respectively) and was able clearly express what it wants (it may end up being short
      lived after their victory, but they were always having very clear goals at the beginning).

      Right now the opposition in Russia may, at most, only express some criticism
      to what they call Putin's regime, and some of this criticism may be even valid.
      But Putin may also respond to the valid portion of their complains by dismissing
      the most notorious cronies and by inviting some of the "sane" opposition leaders
      to play some role in his political system (e.g., to became a Governor of a district)
      or even play a role in his own election campaign (which he did several times
      already). As the result, what will be left of opposition is just people who are able
      to chant slogans on the street, but not going beyond that.

      January 21, 2012 at 5:35 pm | Reply
      • PRW

        Who on earth would read this dissertation?

        January 22, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
      • Dick Cheney Is Scum

        @PRW – apparently, you did. I just scrolled down.

        January 23, 2012 at 11:25 pm |
    • AlexShch

      @PRW "Who on earth would read this dissertation?" - well, some red necks prefer to go to stupid wars only because they have false expectations that it is going to be "cake walk" and they will be greeted as liberators. Eventually they always learn hard way that the situation on the ground is very different. Ten years later they end up desperate looking for a way to get out with "dignified end" - basically save their faces by avoiding admission straight failure on their own.

      Others prefer to read dissertations and learn it a cheaper way.

      The choice is always yours.

      January 22, 2012 at 11:11 pm | Reply
      • Bill

        Who on earth would read this dissertation?

        Well, I did, and found it an intelligent (rare) and thoughtful (rare) analysis/opinion well worth reading. I disagree with a lot of it but that does not diminish it at all. Unlike a troll, Alex seems to be a person worth having a conversion with. Ta.

        January 23, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  10. another

    We shouldn't look to negatively on Russia- as they are they're own worse enemies. As an American- and living in a country – that hands down dominates the world in monetary, military economics- a countermeasuring entity is not a bad thing, and let's remember the cold war never actually went hot, that means we stepped back from the brink and hae no reason for deep seated mistrust. It's all political hub ub- not actual. I truly believe Russians, een the leaders look at the US in a mentoring light, they know in they're heart of heart america is right. We should use the Russian situation, to our advantage, as it would be there's as well.

    January 21, 2012 at 7:58 am | Reply
  11. Man

    Russia is a dangerous country, he may find there is death

    January 21, 2012 at 7:15 am | Reply
  12. rudi

    Fuck you McFucker

    January 21, 2012 at 7:13 am | Reply
    • DavidN

      Look whos talking BONEHEAD!!!

      January 21, 2012 at 11:10 am | Reply
    • Whisker Biscuit

      McFucker? Is that the new breakfast sandwich at McDonalds? "Why, yes, I'll have a McFucker"...

      ...with extra jizz.

      January 24, 2012 at 11:44 pm | Reply
  13. Sayan Majumdar

    Respect the ‘Bear’. There is enough room in the world for the ‘Bear’ and the ‘Eagle’ to co-exist peacefully and indeed cooperate for global balance and stability.


    January 21, 2012 at 7:08 am | Reply
  14. RagMcmuffin

    Dang, this hooker went from an NBA star up the anal to a russian mig in the twat in a 12 hour span? Guess Bill want question is is again for a while

    January 20, 2012 at 9:45 pm | Reply
  15. AlexShch

    QUOTE: On McFaul's second day on the job in Moscow he was slammed by Russia's
    government-controlled Channel 1 television. "The fact is that McFaul is not an expert
    on Russia," said a Russian commentator. "He is a specialist solely in the promotion
    of democracy." - YES, I SAW IT.

    "The fact is that McFaul is not an expert on Russia" is the mildest aspect of what a Russian
    commentator (whose name is Michail Leontiev, by the way) said.

    The point is not what was said, but what WAS SHOWN. There are wide spread rumors in
    Russia that the so-called democratic opposition to Putin is controlled and finances from
    Washington, DC. So it should be discredited on this ground alone, at least in eyes of all
    Russians. As a matter of fact, Russian Law does not prohibit financing of various
    non-governmental organizations (NGOs) from abroad, and there are plenty of them in
    Russia which are openly financed from the US. However, what is explicitly prohibited
    by Russian Law is that any party or organization participating in any election of any level
    receiving any financial help from abroad, whether directly or indirectly (e.g., if a person, who
    is, say, a member of Human Rights Watch Group financed from abroad, US or elsewhere
    also becomes a member of political party participating in election, and finances received
    from abroad by the Group are used to advertise the party, that would be against the law,
    leading to automatic disqualification of the party from the election).

    In practice, however, all opposition leaders - Nemtsov, Navalny, Kasparov, etc.. - deny
    that they receive any help from US or elsewhere. And, it is always hard to prove because
    the foreign funds are always destined to the affiliated NGOs rather than opposition parties
    directly. They are careful, after all...

    ...And now all these guys, one-by-one, are caught on camera in front of US Embassy in
    Moscow where they are going to meet with McFaul. Furthermore, when confronted by
    journalists, all of them are ashamed and try to cover their faces. Same happens when
    they exit the Embassy. And the whole thing is paraded on channel 1 of Russian TV.

    What else proof is needed to show that all these opposition leaders are merely puppets
    of US Dept. of State whose goal is nothing else but truing to destabilize Russian society?

    What a shame! Obviously a major screw up of US diplomacy. Very sloppy act by McFaul.

    January 20, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Reply
    • russ

      How does the Communist Party who also protested the election results receive American funds? Leave Putin alone. Better the devil you know. Suppose out of this democratic uprising you get a real nut case?. How bout a civil war with nukes? Too many unforseen variables. Suppose Putin doesn't want to give up power, cracks down? Russia becomes a police state? Then the Cold War returns. Let the Bear hybernate.

      January 22, 2012 at 9:53 am | Reply
      • AlexShch

        Communist party does not receive any funds from US. Neither any of the communist party
        leaders were invited by McFaul. Why did you ask? I did not mention communists in my post.
        I only mentioned "democratic opposition" - Nemtsov, Navalny, Kasparov, etc...

        Lets clarify this:

        The opposition in Russia consists on:

        A. Parliamentary "official" opposition (Communists, Fair Russia and LDPR parties who got elected to Duma).
        With the exception of a small presence of people from Fair Russia, these parties did not participate in the
        meetings on Bolotnaya and Sakharova street. LDPR explicitly oppose these opposition meetings;
        Communists had staged protests on their own in a different place.

        B. So called "systematic" opposition - parties who participated in election, but did not get into Duma.
        They are called systematic because they are potentially electable. Primarily this is Yabloko. Potentially
        the party of Right Cause, if they get organized, may be included.

        C. So called "non-systematic" opposition - a wide spectrum of individuals and groups who
        did not participate in elections because they are, technically not electable parties, but who
        came to the protest meetings. These include:

        "Solidarity" movement headed by Nemtsov along with the affiliated human right watch (pro western);

        Alexey Navalny, Yevgenia Chirikova, Bozhena Rynska, and their followers.

        Leonid Parfenov, Boris Akunin - just bright individuals who are not part of any organization and
        actually refuse to join when are approached and asked. They actually enjoy huge respect in

        pro-western individuals who just give interviews to western media whenever they have
        opportunity, but otherwise not influential at all. Garry Kasparov is an example. Few
        journalists associated with Eho Moskvy.

        Xenia Sobchakk, a party girl, just to show up for self-advertisement.

        "Ultracommunists" - essentially those who believe that official Communists in State Duma
        betrayed the ideas of Comminism and became bureaucrats. Two unrelated movements leaders
        of whom actually hate each other - National Bolshevic Party of Edward Limonov on one side,
        and activist Sergey Udaltsov on the other (he is informal leader of what used to be Anpilov's an
        Gen. Makashov Labour Russia movement, who at some point branched of from the official
        communists. (CNN actualy mentioned Udaltsov in an article recently).

        ULTRANATIONALISTS of various kind. A LARGE number of different groups who radically
        anti-western, anti-Putin (some groups are actually monarchists), and for whom Zhirinovsky
        is just a Jew not fit to be nationalist. Not so many bright leaders among them. Demuskin in one.
        Not a bright speaker. Their presence in the protest meetings is visible by Black-White-Yellow
        flags all over the place. [Alexey Navalny had some very loose association with some of these
        groups in the past for which he was kisked out from Yabloko party.]

        The bottom line is that of the whole spectrum of the opposition McFaul singled out just
        a few groups who are pro-western and pro-democratic, but who actually represent a very
        small fraction of the opposition.

        January 22, 2012 at 1:23 pm |
      • Henry1471

        "Better the devil you know. Suppose out of this democratic uprising you get a real nut case?." Really? This is the logic used to support brutal dictators around the world for decades and we wonder why their people do not like us! Sorry, I forgot for a minute that the US does know whats best for the rest of the world!

        January 22, 2012 at 5:13 pm |
  16. mipolitic

    well we on this side of the pond talk about putin and the russians on the other side of the pond in russia they talk about obama . the math is simple , if putin were to appear weak we would approach him with consideration of his weak appearance . the appearance is measured by many observations. when speaking about the appearance of a leader or politican is what the american people are doing now considering the person for the presidential election. the person as a presidential candidate is measured on many levels including their history. well if we think that we scrutinize this politicians just imagine how the russians and americans measure each others leaders.
    no matter who the ambassabors are if the leaders appear weak than it is a game changer. if a bank security were to appear vary weak and another strong where would you put your money.

    January 20, 2012 at 4:26 pm | Reply

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