Abandoned in Moscow

Julia Pettengill

What will it take for the Obama administration to realise that their treasured “Reset” is the foreign policy equivalent of Monty’s Python’s dead parrot? The insults and harassment heaped upon Michel McFaul, the American Ambassador to Russia, apparently aren’t enough.

Ever since his appointment in December, Michael McFaul has been subjected to a steady stream of overall hostility from Kremlin-sponsored front groups and the media. Now, the Foreign Ministry itself has joined in. Their latest salvo has taken the form of a twitter war. Russian officials have issued a barrage of tweets berating McFaul for remarks he made to an audience of students on US-Russian relations, calling them “unprofessional” and full of “deliberate falsehoods.”

The speech was in fact a rather anodyne list of all the ways in which relations have supposedly improved as a result of the “Reset” policy. Indeed, the presentation’s only discernible offence is being tremendously over-earnest: it actually ends with a slide saying “Let’s keep talking.” The idea of depicting McFaul’s address-more reminiscent of the cheesy American game show “Let’s Make a Deal!” than Reagan’s “Evil Empire” speech- as somehow combative demonstrates either paranoia or a wonderful sense of humour.

McFaul has previously been subjected to harassment by the Kremlin-sponsored youth group Nashi, as well as the state-owned television channel NTV, which McFaul has accused of hacking into his personal diary, as the channel’s camera crew had developed a knack of knowing the Ambassador’s exact schedule. In one YouTube video, thought to bear all the hallmarks of a pro-Kremlin media hit job, McFaul was even compared to a paedophile.

The timing of this escalation in hostility is a crude message from the newly-returned President Putin: the reset is over-if it ever actually existed in any real sense-and we’re not afraid to bully you.  With popular protests against Russia’s kleptocratic, authoritarian state continuing to attract large crowds, whipping up anti-American sentiment is a desperate attempt by Putin to deflect attention from his own diminishing popularity.

As has become a pretty regular occurrence, McFaul has taken to Twitter to defend himself. Yet the Obama administration has barely raised any public protest at the verbal attacks or harassment the Ambassador has faced. The spectacle of an American ambassador being harassed and treated with visible contempt by his host country is bad enough; the American government’s anaemic response insults not only McFaul, but the American people.

This behaviour is a small example of a much larger problem, and a reality the Obama administration refuses to face: Russia is an authoritarian state that relies on coercion to survive. America can bend over backwards to accommodate them, and still find its hand slapped away because, fundamentally, the Putin regime judges Russia and America’s mutual interests to be few and far between. President Obama need only consider Russia’s culpability in the brutality raging in Syria to see what kind of state they are dealing with.  What will it take to convince the Obama administration that their dreams of comity will not materialise as long as Putin prevails, and to stand up against their bullying-both against the Ambassador and abroad?

Julia Pettengill is the Co-Chair of the Russia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, and author of the report The Russia Opposition: A Survey of Individuals, Groups, Strategies and Prospects

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