U.S. Ambassador's Rough Welcome in Moscow: Is the Reset Failing?

Newly appointed Michael McFaul gets an unusually hostile reception in Russia.

McFaul Jan23 P.jpg
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul / AP

Michael McFaul wrote in a blog entry on Russia's popular LiveJournal web site that his first day as U.S. ambassador to Moscow "started with a bang." In fact, the real bang came on the second day, when the new ambassador was harshly denounced on Russia's principal state-television channel after meeting with opposition politicians and civil-society activists. Though U.S.-Russian relations will surely survive the incident, it puts the fundamental challenges and dilemmas of the reset, and previous efforts to improve the relationship, into sharp focus.

Mikhail Leontiev, a television personality known for his inflammatory commentary, attacked McFaul at length on his program Odnako ("However") on ORT, Russia's Channel One, assaulting the new ambassador's career as a scholar and an advocate for democracy in Russia and elsewhere. Leontiev also asked rhetorically whether McFaul had arrived to "finish the revolution" in Russia (a play on the title of one of McFaul's scholarly books, Russia's Unfinished Revolution). Leontiev's commentary followed video footage of opposition leaders and activists leaving the U.S. embassy in Moscow, as if in reaction to the meetings. Given how Russia's state-television channels operate, the broadcast was likely coordinated with government officials.

While Moscow is always sensitive to any perceived interference in its internal affairs--especially by American officials--and is doubly sensitive in the uncertain environment after December's protests and before Russia's March 4 presidential election, Leontiev's report was interestingly disproportionate to events. First, McFaul was a participant in the meetings but not the host; the sessions were arranged for Deputy Secretary of State William Burns, himself a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. In that context, McFaul's presence was routine and ancillary. Second, the meetings were not McFaul's first in Moscow, as some Russian reports have implied (including state-controlled media that should know better). He presented his diplomatic credentials at the Russian Foreign Ministry the previous day and then accompanied Burns to appointments with an impressive array of top officials in the Kremlin and in Russia's White House (where the prime minister and his aides work) as well as with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Finally, Russian officials know well that visiting senior U.S. officials virtually always meet with opposition figures and, as is common in the diplomatic world, were informed of the meetings in advance.

Other aspects of the controversy also raise questions, including the presence of cameras outside the U.S. embassy to secure video footage of the departing Russian guests. Right-wing pro-Putin Nashi protesters also happened to be outside the embassy to hurl on-camera verbal abuse at the civil-society activists, some of whom responded in kind rather than trying to be models of democratic tolerance. The whole package looked like a set-up.

Why did they create this stunt? Russia's leaders surely are attempting to discourage what they see as not just U.S. interference in Russia's politics but also direct support for those seeking to prevent Putin's reelection. This is the transparent first-level message of Leontiev's attack, which Russian officials can expect their American counterparts will recognize as government sanctioned. Senior Russian officials have already said this publicly and privately to the White House, but they must be either dissatisfied with the results or acting from an abundance of caution in their country's tense pre-election environment. Burns went to great lengths to insist that the United States had no such intent, telling the newspaper Kommersant that "we have no interest--zero interest--in interfering in Russian politics."

Notably, Leontiev specifically attacked McFaul rather than Burns, the senior American present with responsibility for his own schedule. This probably reflects appreciation for Burns, who managed to be quite effective as ambassador without offending Russian officials, and the fact that McFaul's reputation as a democracy advocate made him a suitable target of opportunity. It could also include a degree of calibration--sending the same signal at lower risk--and a direct warning to McFaul that he will be under close scrutiny.

Moscow may well be sending a second-level message too. Strikingly, Russian officials have said little about the affair--the media, Nashi and bloggers (including in comments on McFaul's LiveJournal post) have led the charge. Russia's leaders seem to be saying "have a little taste of democracy" to the United States. (McFaul might have picked up on that when responding to Leontiev on Twitter, writing "Odnako had no word about the 3 years of reset. Yesterday my mtgs with WH/Kremlin officials could not have been warmer. pluralism!" He clearly noted and reported the contrast--and its implications.) Fueling concern about Russia's opposition parties appears to have been a long-term strategy of successive leaders; facing plunging popularity when seeking reelection in 1996, Boris Yeltsin tried to make the same argument to the United States by demonizing Russia's Communist Party. Likewise, many suspect that the ill-named Liberal Democratic Party of Russia has been and remains a government-endorsed effort to discredit the opposition.

While McFaul's pregovernment writings and statements are a source of suspicion for Leontiev and others in Russia who are skeptical of U.S. motives and actions, his position at the National Security Council may well have provided the Obama administration with greater flexibility in pursuing its reset policy. While there are limits to the political impact of any special assistant to the president, McFaul's reputation gave his superiors a certain Nixon-to-China credibility. This was readily apparent when both human-rights activists and neoconservative Republicans rallied to support his confirmation as ambassador in the face of Senate delays.

In this sense, the admittedly minor Leontiev drama and McFaul himself symbolize a major unresolved dilemma of the reset--and of each previous attempt at U.S.-Russian post-Cold war rapprochement. How do we obtain Moscow's cooperation on U.S. security priorities while simultaneously pushing its officials to do other things that contravene either their personal interests or views of Russia's national interests? Washington has not yet answered this question.

McFaul's first days in Russia put this problem at center stage. Deputy Secretary of State Burns was in Moscow to seek Russian support on a variety of issues including Iran, Afghanistan and Syria. (Burns, a former assistant secretary of state for the Middle East, also visited Egypt and Turkey on the trip.) After their meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, a spokesman said that Russia would "oppose any new resolution" with sanctions on Iran.

A long-running challenge has been balancing U.S. security priorities related to Russia and U.S. goals in other areas, ranging from Russia's democracy to NATO expansion and U.S. intervention in places like Libya and the former Yugoslavia. Washington's inability to address this tension was a major factor in the collapse of previous efforts by the Clinton and Bush administrations to build a cooperative relationship with Russia. Needless to say, Russia's conduct also contributed. Of course, U.S. and Russian policies have also been deeply intertwined and intensely reactive to one another's real and perceived actions and intentions.

Prior to his government service McFaul, along with former Clinton-administration official Stephen Sestanovich, promoted the "walk-and-chew-gum" school of thinking in U.S. policy toward Russia, which has also been known as "selective engagement." In brief, they argued that the United States can and should cooperate with Russia where possible, while simultaneously doing what they see as necessary in areas of disagreement, even over determined Russian opposition.

While this approach seems logical and reasonable on its face, it has proven difficult to implement in practice. (The Clinton administration did the greatest damage, piling considerable baggage on the shoulders of its successors.) The United States can indeed "walk and chew gum" in the sense that government officials are fully capable of constructing a policy that puts cooperative measures in one box and sharp disagreements in another. What Washington cannot control, however, is Russia's reaction--or, for that matter, China's or Pakistan's reactions to analogous policy approaches. The root problem is that we have deeply different national interests, priorities and perceptions. The "walk-and-chew-gum" policy may look more like "shake hands and spit" to those on its receiving end.

Many will argue that the United States must pursue key national interests even if Washington and Moscow differ, or that administration officials have no choice other than to be public advocates for democracy and human rights in Russia because of U.S. domestic politics. U.S. officials must indeed seek to advance and defend vital national interests--meaning those strictly necessary to America's security and prosperity--regardless of what anyone else thinks. But the United States has many other interests that do not rise to this level, and one of the president's core responsibilities is to establish clear priorities. None of America's post-Cold War presidents has succeeded in this task.

Polling regularly demonstrates that America's political elite is far more interested in promoting democracy abroad than the American people, who typically rank democracy well below issues like nuclear proliferation, terrorism and energy security. Moreover, the argument that U.S. foreign-policy must be subordinate to our domestic politics seems bizarre when made by people who often want other governments to ignore their own domestic politics (not only Russia, but also China and Pakistan). They seem to think that we cannot change our own domestic politics but have great hope that we can change others.

Like all great policy questions, such as the choice between freedom and security, or the proper size and role of government, the tensions between cooperation and disagreement is ultimately a matter of balance--rather than either/or. And because Americans' answers may differ over time, an equilibrium point from the last century, last decade or last year may not work today. As the United States increasingly confronts tough fiscal decisions and thus may want to rely more on diplomacy to pursue its international goals, getting the balance right merits serious consideration.

This article originally appeared at NationalInterest.org, an Atlantic partner site.