The Undiplomat: Obama’s ambassador to Moscow has gotten a rude welcome in Putin’s Russia. But he’s not going to take it anymore
June 1, 2012
This winter, Michael McFaul discovered a number of surprising things about himself. He was imposing odious American holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, on the Russian people. He personally whisked Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny out of the country to Yale on a fellowship. He was inviting opposition figures to the U.S. Embassy “to get instructions.” And he was a pedophile. Or so his online tormentors claimed.
This was McFaul’s welcome to his new job: United States ambassador to Russia. Along with being attacked on state television and having picket lines across from the embassy, he was being followed — and harassed — by a red-haired reporter from NTV, the state-friendly channel. One day, a horde of activists from Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, showed up at the embassy gates in white jumpsuits, and played dead: They did not want to be the victims of a revolution, like the unfortunates of Egypt, their posters said. As a result, the ambassador’s security had to be tightened.
“What I did not anticipate, honestly, was the degree, the volume, the relentless anti-Americanism that we’re seeing right now,” McFaul told me in February, a note of real hurt ringing in his normally chipper, measured voice. “That is odd for us. Because we have spent three years trying to build a different relationship with this country.” He added, almost stuttering, “I mean, I’m genuinely confused by it.”
A month later, he lost it.
The explosion came when McFaul arrived at the office of For Human Rights, an NGO in Moscow’s historic center. He was going to see his old friend, veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, whom he’d known since he was an international studies graduate student running aroundperestroika-era Moscow. It may have been late March, but it was cold and the stuff that fell from the sky was neither snow nor rain: a long cry from McFaul’s California home. As ambassador, though, he didn’t have to bother with a jacket: he had his black Cadillac.
Had he known that the redhead from NTV would again be waiting for him with a camera crew, however, he may have dressed a little warmer.
What was McFaul going to discuss with Ponomarev?, the redhead asked as the camera bounced to follow the moving ambassador.
“Your ambassador moves about without this, without you getting in the way of his work,” McFaul said in slightly crooked Russian. He was clearly angry but maintained a wide, all-American smile. “And you guys are always with me. In my house! Are you not ashamed of this? You’re insulting your own country when you do this, don’t you understand?”
“We understand,” the redhead said, before going on to inquire which opposition politicians McFaul supported. McFaul, who had already turned to walk into the building, wheeled around, the huge smile now touched with a cartoonish disbelief.
“I met with your president yesterday,” he said, sarcastically nodding at her. “I support him, too. It’s the same logic. If I meet with him, it means I support him, right? It’s called diplomatic work. It’s how it works everywhere.”
He offered the redhead a formal interview, where they could “calmly” discuss everything and anything she wanted, before he remembered something. “I’m not wearing a coat. This is just rude!”
The redhead took no notice and pressed on. What had he discussed with opposition veteran Boris Nemtsov?
McFaul’s smile, now huge and aggressive, looked like that of a man unhinged. Didn’t they read his story in Moskovsky Komsomolets, he asked? Didn’t they read his Twitter feed?
And then he snapped.
“This turned out to be a wild country!” he burst out, reaching up to the gray heavens. “This isn’t normal!” This behavior was unacceptable, he went on, in all “normal” countries: the United States, Britain, Germany, even China. How did they manage to be everywhere he was, anyway? How did they know his schedule? This, he contended, his voice rising, was in violation of the Geneva Convention. (In the heat of the moment, he misspoke: He meant the Vienna Convention, which tightly regulates the obligations of the states sending ambassadors, and those receiving them.)
In fact, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, passed by the United Nations in 1961, stipulates certain things — the inviolability of embassy grounds, as well as of ambassadors’ communications, the duty of the receiving country to ensure the ability of the ambassador to work unmolested, and “to prevent any attack on his person, freedom, and dignity” — that seemed to have been overlooked by Moscow in the last few months.
And the incident in front of the For Human Rights office was merely the last straw: There were rumors of mysterious individuals trespassing on the grounds of Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, of repeated security threats. The apparent interception of his schedule was almost confirmed by NTV, which said, through a spokeswoman that “the ubiquity of NTV can be explained by its broad network of informants, which is well known to every public figure in this country.”
Those informants — whoever they are and wherever they sit — of course obviate the need for any illicit activity on any redheaded reporter’s part, which is why, the spokeswoman said, “NTV’s employees obviously do not hack into anyone’s phones or read e-mails.”
And though the State Department filed an official complaint with the Russian Foreign Ministry after the NTV tussle, it was McFaul’s undiplomatic lament about the wildness of the country that made headlines in Moscow. On Twitter, he wrote, “I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.” And in an interview a few days later, he went even further, saying, “I really regret that I expressed myself inaccurately.” And then he pulled out the card he hoped he wouldn’t have to use: “I’m not a professional diplomat.”…