Twitter / McFaul: "Ambassador Michael McFaul

"Ambassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia―and when it began to fade."

Vladimir Putin's New Anti-Americanism

That night, Channel One, the biggest television station in Russia, turned its rhetorical howitzer on the new Ambassador. Mikhail Leontiev, an acid-tongued conservative who hosts a show called “Odnako” (“However”), declared that McFaul was an expert not on Russia but on “pure democracy promotion.” In the most withering tone he could summon, Leontiev said that McFaul had worked for American N.G.O.s backed by American intelligence; he had palled around with anti-Kremlin activists like the “Internet Führer,” Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who had, damningly, spent some time at Yale. (The listener was meant to interpret “some time at Yale” as roughly “some time inside the incubator of Russophobic conspiracy.”) Leontiev also noted that McFaul had written a book about the Orange Revolution, in Ukraine, and another called “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution: Political Change from Gorbachev to Putin.”

“Has Mr. McFaul arrived in Russia to work in his specialty?” Leontiev said. “That is, to finish the revolution?”

Obama’s advisers and the Washington policy establishment have all spent countless hours trying to square the President’s admiration of George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft―classic realists―with his appointments of interventionists like McFaul, Rice, and Samantha Power. In the end, one leading Russia expert, who has worked for two Administrations, told me, “I think Obama is basically a realist―but he feels bad about it.”

On February 4th, McFaul announced that he would step down as Ambassador following the Sochi Olympics. Angered by the anti-gay-propaganda laws, the Obama Administration had scaled back its delegation to the event.

In March, after Putin annexed Crimea, McFaul wrote what he saw as his “Kennan” manifesto for the Times’ Op-Ed page. He endorsed the Administration’s policy―sanctions, isolation, expulsion from international organizations like the G-8―but he also admitted that the U.S. “does not have the same moral authority as it did in the last century.” He recalled that when he was Ambassador and challenged his Russian interlocutors on issues of international law and a commitment to sovereignty, he was met with “What about Iraq?” And, in a subtle jab at Obama, he wrote, “We are enduring a drift of disengagement in world affairs. After two wars, this was inevitable, but we cannot swing too far. As we pull back, Russia is pushing forward.”

Although McFaul feels a deep sense of outrage about Putin, he also understood the mind-set of resentment and conspiracy. “I didn’t go to foment revolution,” he said. “I went to take the reset to the next stage. That was my mandate.” He added, “Obama people don’t sponsor color revolutions. Other Administrations had done this. Has the U.S. used covert operations to foment regime change? The answer is yes. I don’t want to get in trouble or go to jail, but has the U.S. supported the opposition to bring about political change? Serbia is a paradigmatic case: direct money to the opposition to destabilize things, and it was successful.” He also cited the overthrow of Mossadegh, in 1953, in Iran, and the support for the Nicaraguan Contras.

“Putin has a theory of American power that has some empirical basis,” McFaul went on. “He strongly believes this is a major component of U.S. foreign policy. He has said it to the President, to Secretary Kerry. He even believes we sparked the Arab Spring as a C.I.A. operation. He believes we use force against regimes we don’t like. . . . By the way, he damn well knows that the government of the Soviet Union used covert support. He worked for one of the instruments of that policy. He really does kind of superimpose the way his system works onto the way he thinks our system works. He grossly exaggerates the role of the C.I.A. in the making of our foreign policy. He just doesn’t get it. Or maybe he does get it and doesn’t portray it that way. I struggle with that: is he really super-clever and this is his psych op, or does he believe it? I think he does believe that we are out to get him.”

Last month, Obama named a new Ambassador to Moscow: John Tefft, a career diplomat who has been Ambassador to Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia. This is a geography that will not necessarily enamor Tefft to the Kremlin.

Prokhanov and Dugin were entirely in tune with the reigning propaganda. All blame lay with Obama and the “illegal regime” in Kiev. “America did this―with a hand from Ukraine,” Prokhanov told me. “How could it be otherwise? A catastrophe like this helps America, not Russia. It serves to demonize Novorossiya and the forces there. It demonizes them to look like Al Qaeda. It brings us back to the sort of moment when Ronald Reagan called us the ‘evil empire.’ It tightens the international noose on Russia and it brings powerful pressure to bear on Putin, pressure designed to break his will. And, by blaming this on us, it helps our liberal intelligentsia consolidate their forces, the way the Orange Revolution and the Bolotnaya demonstrations did. There is a history to such conspiracies. Or have you forgotten your General Colin Powell at the U.N. with his ‘evidence’ and his theories about Saddam Hussein?”

“Just when I thought relations between the U.S. and Russia couldn’t get any lower, this tragedy happened,” McFaul said. “Of course, Putin could use this tragedy/accident/terrorist attack to distance himself from the insurgents that he has been supporting. It gives him a face-saving out. He could say, ‘They went too far, enough is enough. Time now to get serious about deëscalation and negotiation.’ I assign this possible outcome a small probability. More likely is that he will not change his course, the U.S. will then increase sanctions, and the war will continue. Neither scenario, however, offers a way to reverse this negative trajectory in U.S.-Russia relations. I really don’t see a serious opening until after Putin retires, and I have no idea when that will be.”

“In the long run, I am still very optimistic about Russia and Russians,” he went on. “In my two years as Ambassador, I just met too many young, smart, talented people who want to be connected to the world, not isolated from it. They also want a say in the government. They are scared now, and therefore not demonstrating, but they have not changed their preferences about the future they want. Instead, they are just hiding these preferences, but there will be a day when they will express them again. Putin’s regime cannot hold these people down forever. I do worry about the new nationalism that Putin has unleashed, and understand that many young Russians also embrace these extremist ideas. I see it on Twitter every day. But, in the long run, I see the Westernizers winning out. I just don’t know how long is the long run.”