Josh Black looks back at an eventful two years in Moscow for the academic and diplomat, Mike McFaul.
The US Ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, is to leave his post soon after the Sochi Olympics. McFaul, best known outside of diplomacy for his book The Unfinished Revolution, which explains Russia’s lack of democratic progress over the 1990s largely in terms of external contingencies, may view his own two-year term at Spaso House in a similar light. What could helpfully be described as an unfinished ambassadorship leaves behind a sense of missed opportunities.
McFaul, who is probably the last US official who is not afraid to use the word ‘Reset’, said in a blog post announcing his departure that he left with a “strong feeling of satisfaction for how our administration handled these issues without compromising our interests or values.” Yet despite easing Russia’s entry into the WTO, there were little in the way of achievements and the much-vaunted Reset appeared to be consigned to history when Barack Obama openly snubbed Vladimir Putin at the G8 last year.
After advising the Obama ’08 campaign unpaid, McFaul left his post at California’s Stanford University in 2009 to join the new administration’s National Security Council, where he became a key exponent of the policy of ‘resetting’ relations with Russia, having charged the Bush administration with pushing democracy in the region so aggressively that it had provoked a defensive and ultimately destructive response from Russia. After Russia’s war with Georgia, it was felt that America’s poor relations with Vladimir Putin’s regime were worrying enough to justify building new ties.
Unfortunately, the Reset never had the lasting impact that McFaul hoped. A droll mistake by the State Department saw it launched with a novelty button to be pressed by Hilary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov. Much to Lavrov’s amusement, the button road ‘overload’, rather than reset in Russian.
Despite allowing the US to withdraw from Central Asia with peace of mind and winning Obama the Nobel Peace Prize for his services to disarmament, the Reset was always hostage to external influences. Obama and McFaul had gambled on the complete opposite, hoping that privileging the clique around placeholder president Dmitri Medvedev would embolden him to run against Putin in 2008.
Yet when US Senators passed the ‘Magnitsky List’ – targeted sanctions designed to punish those in the security services perceived as responsible for the death of Russian investigative tax lawyer Sergei Magnitsky – Russia responded with a ban on the adoption of Russian children by Americans. The country’s media gleefully pointed to examples of neglect by American parents, charging the country provocatively with moral decline.
Since becoming Ambassador in 2012, roughly at the same time as Putin returned to the Russian presidency for his third term, McFaul has been hounded by state tv, criticised for his lacked of fluency with Russian and generally ignored by the foreign ministry. He has been forced to watch the introduction of increasingly repressive legislation and a rollback of Russia’s approach to gay rights.
Despite his attempts to engage with ordinary Russians through Twitter and events at Spaso House, it is far from clear that America’s reputation has been burnished by his efforts. Anti-Putin protesters in 2011 and 2012 carried flags calling for a ban on NATO, as well as fair elections.
McFaul says that his family were the reason for his desire to return to Stanford, but the Reset itself has long been abandoned. Perhaps the final straw was America’s apparent unwillingness to engage with Russia over Syria. Obama delayed his trip to the G8 summit last year to avoid a private summit with Vladimir Putin, leaving it to arch-diplomats Lavrov and John Kerry to broker a non-military solution. The snub made America look petty while allowing Russia to take credit for the outcome of talks.
McFaul says he will continue to work on “some specific projects for President Obama and his administration”, adding mischievously “More on that later. ” This rather precludes the possibility of a tell-all book, a shame given the Ambassador’s willingness to rethink prevailing interpretations and undeniable expertise in the field. His departure could pave the way for a more hardened diplomat to takeover relations with Russia – the Edward Snowden affair being just one area on which America may take a tougher stance the Kremlin.