IN the past week or so, the US ambassador to Russia has been harassed by state media, called arrogant by his host country’s foreign minister and had guests accosted outside his home by the Kremlin youth group Nashi.
American officials had been assured that the anti-US rhetoric streaming out of Moscow since the end of last year was part of Vladimir Putin’s campaign to return to the presidency, a populist move to blame Russia’s ills on a tested enemy of yore. But the continued attacks on Michael McFaul, who took up his post as ambassador in January, have raised questions about the fate of US-Russia relations under Putin’s presidency.
The latest incident came on Wednesday, when Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, chided McFaul for reacting “arrogantly” to Russian concerns over US plans to build a missile defence shield in Europe.
“Yesterday our colleague, the US ambassador, arrogantly announced there will be no changes on missile defence, even though it would seem that an ambassador should understand it is necessary to take the interests of the state in question into account,” Lavrov said.
While disagreements over missile defence remain, the personalisation of the conflict has prompted comparisons with Russia’s treatment of Tony Brenton, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, who faced a sustained campaign of harassment led by Nashi that coincided with a deterioration in UK-Russia relations.
Like Brenton, McFaul has been targeted by Nashi activists, who follow his movements and attempt to disrupt his meetings. Last week, the ambassador erupted with rage when people claiming to be from NTV a state-run television channel known for its propagandist programmes, accosted him outside the central Moscow office of veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomaryov.
“Your ambassador in our country goes everywhere without this, without his work bring bothered. But you’re always with me, at my home. Are you not ashamed?” he snapped at the crew in Russian. At least one woman in the group is believed to have links with Nashi. Several activists stood across the street holding signs denouncing the ambassador and Ponomaryov.
McFaul later took to Twitter to apologise for calling Russia a “wild country” in his exchange with the TV crew. But he also voiced concerns that journalists from NTV, owned by the media arm of the state gas giant Gazprom, were tapping his phone. “I respect press right to go anywhere and ask any question,” he wrote. “But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?”
The next day, Nashi activists stood outside the ambassador’s residence, videotaping and harassing guests who had arrived at the central Moscow mansion to attend a cultural event.
The US embassy issued an official complaint to the Russian foreign ministry last week.
Russian analysts insist the problem lies with McFaul, a longtime academic who focused on the former Soviet Union and democratisation before being recruited by Obama during the US president’s first election campaign. His arrival in the Russian capital coincided with a wave of protests in which tens of thousands of Muscovites took to the streets in the hope of preventing Putin’s return to the presidency.
“The problem is with him personally,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of Russia in Global Affairs. But he added: “It is an attack on America indeed because he is the most important representative here, and it’s unfortunately impossible to separate the two.
— The Guardian, London