MOSCOW – Despite high hopes for a “re-set” of U.S.-Russia relations under U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, the Russia expert and scholar is leaving his diplomatic post after a little more than two years, with those relations in what some would argue is a deep freeze.
McFaul’s tenure in government has been marked by a slew of challenges – whether Putin’s return to power with his anti-Western stance, or Russia’s granting of asylum to U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden. Add to those the diplomatic differences over Syria, controversial anti-gay laws and a ban on the adoption of Russian children by Americans – it’s not been an easy ride by any standards.
But it’s drawing to a close: After attending the Sochi Winter Olympics Closing Ceremony as part of the official U.S. delegation on Sunday, McFaul will be heading back to the U.S. next week.
Some analysts would argue that he’s leaving with his tail between his legs, but the Stanford professor insists his decision is a personal one and that he’s going home to Palo Alto, California to spend more time with his wife and two boys.
Still, with the exception of, perhaps, George Kennan, that influential Cold War thinker who was sent packing after only five months for speaking out against Joseph Stalin in 1952, few official “Faces of America” have been more controversial.
Something happened on way to Spaso House
McFaul’s cartoon caricature makes frequent appearances on the op-ed pages of Russian and foreign editions. He’s even been the target of street protesters, overheard, early in his stint here, chanting “Rossiya Bez McFaula” or “Russia Without McFaul!”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. After three years of fine-tuning a “re-set” of U.S.-Russian relations in his advisory role for the White House in D.C., McFaul’s departure for Moscow was meant to solidify warming relations.
“I think his mission was doomed to fail.”
“So I was sent out here to be the ambassador to continue the cooperation that was called the “re-set,” McFaul explained during a recent interview.
At that time, it was the new normal. Then-President Dmitri Medvedev’s government was sending out signal after positive signal that Russia was ready to recalibrate U.S. relations on a stronger – more cooperative – footing. A joint U.S.-Russian decision, for instance, to back U.N. sanctions against Iran was seen as a major step forward.
But something happened on McFaul’s way to the Ambassador’s Residence at Spaso House: Vladimir Putin was re-elected.
“Medvedev was out, Putin was in, and Putin had a completely different understanding of what the U.S.-Russian relationship would look like,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of “Russia in Global Affairs,” a national current affairs magazine. “I think his mission was doomed to fail.”
Admittedly, McFaul, 50, was carrying a lot of baggage to his new digs. A tenured professor and expert on democratic movements and revolution, he already had a proactive reputation with the Kremlin based on multiple articles about Putin, as well a book entitled “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution.”
In fact, his family and goods hadn’t yet arrived at Spaso House when state-run TV Channel 1 asked, in an on-air commentary, “Has Mr. McFaul come to Russia…to finish the revolution?”
But McFaul laughs at the idea of being a “Trojan Horse” and instead, has tried to project a kind of down-home Americanism that comes naturally to the Montana native.
“I really enjoy living in Russia,” he began. “I’m really proud to be the president’s and the people of America’s representative here, and I’m gonna miss the job. There’s no doubt about it.”
‘Don’t leave, Mr. Ambassador.
He’s also become a prolific social media user. There’s hardly been an encounter with some aspect of Russia that McFaul hasn’t tweeted about – in English and Russian – with a photo attached. And, he says, that’s paid off.
The Kremlin may still be giving him the cold shoulder, but the Russian people have clearly warmed up to him.
“When I announced I was leaving, there were literally thousands of messages on Twitter and Facebook,” he recounts in between sending out tweets. “And they were crying out ‘Don’t leave, Mr. Ambassador. We love you. We’ve never had an Ambassador like you!’”
This would sound self-serving if McFaul weren’t equally obliging to talk about what he sees as his worst failure here: Syria. And what he calls his inability to persuade Russia to be more cooperative when the violence there began three years ago.
“Not now, now we’re cooperating in important ways and doing important work with the Russians,” he said. “But had we been more successful in the international community, in the Security Council, pressuring the regime back then, maybe 100, or 130,000 lives wouldn’t have been lost.”
There are some Russian observers, like Sergei Strokan, a veteran foreign affairs correspondent at the daily, Kommersant, who has interviewed McFaul. He has suggested the ambassador is leaving suddenly in the middle of his boss’s second term because he’s realized he couldn’t move the ball forward on any of the big ticket bi-lateral or multi-lateral issues, like missile defense, Iran or Syria.
“Do you not find it highly symbolic,” Strokan asked, “that when the so-called ‘re-set’ is in the doldrums, in a complete mess, that Ambassador McFaul chooses to leave Moscow?”
Still, McFaul insists the timing has nothing to do with work and everything to do with a promise he made his eldest son, years ago, that he would graduate from high school in California.
“I could easily have spent three more years here or 10 more years here, and still feel like I was doing the work that an ambassador does,” he said.
I’m gonna miss the job. There’s no doubt about it.”
Future book may reveal what really happened with Snowden?
Experts and students of US-Russian relations are already lining up to get their hands on McFaul’s next book. Though he hasn’t quite decided on its content, he’s tempted to reveal what went on behind the scenes with Snowden, and Syria.
“And what really went on with me!” he added. “There are so many things people don’t know about my experience here.”
McFaul says he’s taking many memories back with him – especially one magical moment during an Embassy-sponsored concert in Moscow by an African-American gospel choir.
“At one point they started singing ‘Amazing Grace’ and people – Americans and Russians in the audience, including me – stood up and sang along in two different languages,” he recounted. “And people had tears in their eyes – including me – and it was just a powerful moment of transcending our differences. Man, we really do have some things in our souls that are in common.”
McFaul, who was never able to win over the Kremlin, and could never shake his Cold Warrior image with many Russians, turned and smiled…teary eyed.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News foreign correspondent based in London who has covered Russia and the Soviet Union since the 1980’s.