A Tormenting in Moscow

Why is Russia harassing President Obama’s new ambassador?BY LEON ARON | APRIL 12, 2012

Russians are known for their warm welcomes, rolling out thered carpet for honored guests and ensconcing them in bear hugs, complete withthree hearty kisses on the cheeks. Perhaps the new U.S. Ambassador to RussiaMichael McFaul didn’t quite expect the same gracious reception given the frostyrelationship between Washington and Moscow these days, but hisfirst few months on the job have been unusual, if not downright hostile, a lotmore Cold War than Russian Reset. Upon arriving in Moscow,the ambassador greeted his guests with aneffervescent — even hokey — YouTube video introducing himself, a longtimestudent of and friend to Russia.In response, he was met with an Arctic propaganda blast reminiscent of theearly 1980s, and harassment likely without precedent for U.S. ambassadors — eitherin the Soviet Union or in post-Soviet Russia.

The Obama administration has sincecomplained to the Russian governmentabout the harassment of McFaul. “Everywhere I go,” McFaul tweeted,”[the Gazprom-owned national television network] NTV is there. Wonder who givesthem my calendar. They wouldn’t tell me. Wonder what laws are here for suchthings.” By crowding the U.S. ambassador and filming his comings and goings, NTVreporters act not unlike former KGB myrmidons, clearly seeking to intimidatenot only McFaul but even more so his Russia interlocutors, whom they try tointercept and “interview.” It wouldn’t be the first time that the Kremlin hassuccessfully snooped into the affairs of the U.S. Embassy — in fact, there’s along tradition of mutual suspicion and spycraft between these old adversaries,but the host government sharing his open schedule with flunkies just to intimidatethe ambassador seems a new low in what was hoped to have been a new period ofmutual respect and good relations.

It is always sad and maddening to hear about insults tohuman dignity by paid propagandists and thugs of authoritarian regimes. Yet thehounding 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 themost popular professors at Stanford University, but McFaul is widely regardedas a man of profound intellectual and personal integrity. In at least 20 yearsthat I’ve known and deeply admired Mike, I’ve met no one who did not hold himin highest esteem, even those who disagreed with him professionally.

A native of Montana and a Californian by professionalchoice, Mike epitomizes America’s democratic spirit, free inquiry, unfettereddebate, and respect for the right to question authority. He is also asparkling, often ebullient conversationalist. Anyone who spends even a fewminutes in his company finds his discourse utterly infectious.

That he is a Russian speaker and, with his shock of blondhair, Hollywood-handsome, does not hurt him a bit among Russian televisionviewers — not to mention his legion of longtime admirers among pro-democracyexperts and intelligentsia. It is all of this — but particularly the last bit– that makes McFaul such a stark and embossing contrast to the intellectualgrayness of Putinism, the vulgarity of its propaganda, and the pettiness of itscat-and-mouse games with intellectuals and pro-democracy opposition.

From the start of his ambassadorship a few months ago,McFaul seemed determined to treat Russiaas a normal country: he proclaimed himself willing to speak to anyone – evenhis 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 myemail and listen to my phone?”

But there is more to it than that. McFaul was among the keyarchitects of the reset in the U.S.-Russian relations. Whatever this effort hasor has not achieved and whatever built-in flaws handicapped the reset from thebeginning, there is little doubt about McFaul’s sincerity, good faith, andpassionate commitment that the effort would make both countries more secure andprosperous. Among other things, he worked tirelessly on the New START nucleararms treaty and helped to secure Russia’sentry 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 “sovereigndemocracy” (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 thereset and his unshakable faith in Russia’s democratic future that have made hima target of choice.

Just as “all politics is local” so, too, is much of foreignpolicy domestic politics. With the Kremlin’s legitimacy badly damaged in theparliamentary and presidential elections this past December and March, it hasagain resorted to tried and true tactics of all authoritarian institutions:creating an alleged external danger to rally the people around the flag and tosmear and marginalize opponents as agents of foreign enemies. Putin’s enemy of choicehas always been the United States. Anduntil it feels completely in control again (which does not seem to be likelyanytime soon), the Kremlin’s policy will be informed largely byanti-Americanism — in order to lend as much credence as possible to the narrativeof protecting the Motherland against the scheming enemies of Russia on theoutside, and the fifth columnists within. That McFaul is highly respected and personally liked by those “fifth columnists”makes him a particularly dangerous man in Moscow.

Conceptually, the reset is clearly at odds with Putin’sdependence on anti-American rhetoric to galvanize his support base and tosatisfy the myriad bureaucratic interest groups that, in one way or another,benefit from perceptions of Russia asa “besieged fortress.” Hence, we now see an anti-American propaganda the likesof which, in crudeness and shamelessness, we have seen since 1985. Witness a”documentary” on a state-controlled national television channel, shortly afterMcFaul came to Moscow, in which his writings on democracy promotion were usedto bolster an accusation that, in essence, he was sent by the CIA to foment acolor revolution. Thus the calling out of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asa “signaler” to anti-Putin opposition. And finally, an utterly base “Anatomy ofthe Protest” documentary (on the same NTV network) that showed allegedly U.S.officials distributing money and cookies (yes: evil, wanton democracy cookies)to the anti-Putin protesters. Welcome to Moscow, Mr. Ambassador…

The recent collapseor likely future downfall of authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East– some of which had (Libya) or still have (Syria) close ties with Russia — andthe relatively recent color revolutions in the countries of the former SovietUnion have generated heightened sensitivity in Moscow about the stability ofPutin’s managed democracy. The Kremlin knows that vast majority of Russians areaware of an apparent irony: their country has defied global trends that havebeen marked by leadership transitions by way of revolution, ballot box, orauthoritarian succession.

Even China, which isfar more authoritarian today than Russia, will at least see some new facesassume the reins of its principal governmental structures this year. In Russia,meanwhile, Putin will formally return to the Kremlin next month and his cadreof largely siloviki-turned-oligarchsassociates will continue to dominate the country both politically andeconomically. This paradox isn’t lost on Putin. The attacks against McFaul,with his exemplary background in democracy promotion, represent in part aknee-jerk attempt by the Kremlin to drown in lying hysteria the realizationthat the country is becoming more detached from the norms and values of whatRussians still call the “civilized world” — to which tens of millions of themwant to belong.

There is a recent video of McFaularriving at a meeting with pro-democracy activists. Wet snow is falling. Gettingout of his car, without an overcoator hat, the ambassador is about to enter the building, when he suddenly turnsaround and steps outside to talk to his interviewer harassers. He asks them,smiling all the time, why they do this to him and how they happen to know wherehe would be. His host tries to pull him indoors, but McFaulholds his ground. He tries to explain, in Russian, how this behavior isin “violation of the Geneva [Convention].” To which he’s met with a flurry of denials and catcalls.

Next time you ponder what happened to the reset and wonderwhat to expect after Putin’s self-coronation in May, remember those graysleeting skies over Moscow: the U.S. ambassador’sattempt at explanation and dialogue — and the haranguing and jeers inresponse.

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