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Our unlikely man in Moscow takes on Putin over human rights, spying and Snowden

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow, Russia, May 15 2013.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul leaves the Russian Foreign Ministry headquarters in Moscow, Russia, May 15 2013.Yuri Kochetkov / EPA file

MOSCOW -- As fugitive National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden evaded capture in Hong Kong and fled to Moscow, disappearing in an airport transit lounge, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul was on the front lines of efforts to arrest him.

According to multiple accounts, McFaul tirelessly worked the phones and social media, focusing pressure on Russian President Vladimir Putin to "do the right thing" and hand over the 29-year-old former NSA-contractor. Putin – typically defiant – refused.

It was an odd, confrontational role for a diplomat – but then again, McFaul isn't a typical one.

Ever since the former Stanford University academic and Russia expert arrived – about a year and a half ago – in the Spaso House, the traditional residence for U.S. ambassadors, McFaul has been a lightning rod for Russian anger against the West, and specifically, America.

McFaul, a laid-back, 49-year-old Californian as fluent in Los Angeles Lakers basketball as he is in strategic nuclear arms, likes to say he is "no Cold War soldier."

But he hadn't even unpacked his bags when Russia’s main, Kremlin-controlled TV station Channel One ran a lead story about a group of opposition leaders lining up outside Spaso to meet the man who wrote a book titled "Russia’s Unfinished Revolution."

The reporter suggested McFaul had been appointed by President Barack Obama to finish that business.

McFaul has taken it all in stride: the angry chants of "Down with the U.S. Embassy" at pro-Putin demonstrations; the growing anti-Americanism of Putin’s third term as president; his crackdown on U.S. institutions like USAID and Voice of America; the evisceration of the anti-Putin movement and the jailing of its key leaders.

Recently, there has also been a tit-for-tat over human rights, with Russians accused of abuses being banned from travel to the United States and Americans prohibited by the Kremlin from adopting Russian children.

Above it all is Russia’s military and financial support for Syrian strongman President Bashar Assad.

But, while many in the Obama administration have been criticized for doing little in the face of Putin’s surge, McFaul has turned into a prodigious blogger and tweeter, slowly winning over the hearts and minds of young Russians with his jovial chatter – he often tweets in Russian.

For example, the tweet below in Russian says: "President Putin on Snowden: 'the faster he chooses the final destination point, the better it will be for us and for him.'"

At the same time, McFaul also knows how to pick his fights. When a group of so-called "private security" agents raided the offices of the non-governmental organization For Human Rights and forcibly evicted 71-year-old activist Lev Ponomaryov, leaving him covered in cuts and bruises, McFaul took to Twitter and called the move "another case of intimidation of civil society."

The Putin regime has responded in kind. In May, just as the U.S. ambassador had launched the#AskMcFaul hashtag, a question-and-answer session on Twitter, he was bombarded with questions -- too many to be unplanned -- about the news that Russian authorities had detained a U.S. Embassy employee named Ryan Christopher Fogle.

Fogle allegedly tried to recruit a Russian intelligence agent for the CIA. McFaul managed to ignore the online harassment and focus for a full hour on the positive: good cooperation in law enforcement; the "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations; and his love of the opera. Fogle was later released.

And, this week, even as his boss, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, was named point man for U.S. efforts to arrest Snowden, McFaul has unleashed his rapid-fire tweeting during the latest stand-off over Snowden’s fate.  

Reacting to Putin’s claim that he couldn't extradite the American because there was no such treaty between the United States and Russia, McFaul fired off this reminder: "Over last 5 yrs US has returned 1,700 Russian citizens to Russia w/ 500+ of them being criminal deportations" – a shrewd talking point followed by more chatter about basketball.

In the end, Snowden may well escape, finding asylum in Ecuador or elsewhere. But it won’t be for lack of effort from America’s unlikely man in Moscow, battling – and taking the knocks – from behind the scenes.

Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Moscow.