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Our Man in Moscow

Amb. Michael McFaul compared to pedophile, targeted for harassment while in Russia

Michael McFaul / AP
• February 11, 2014 11:00 am

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The outgoing U.S. ambassador to Russia cited that government’s wiretapping of his phone calls in a recent interview as just one example of the constant pressure and harassment he faced during his tenure in Moscow.

McFaul, a democracy advocate and Russia expert, announced in a blog post last week that he would be leaving his post after the Winter Olympics conclude in Sochi.

McFaul has been unusually outspoken for a diplomat during his time in Russia, tweeting opposition activists like Alexei Navalny and telling students at a Moscow university that the Kremlin had "bribed" Kyrgyzstan into kicking America off a military base.

State media outlets and groups with ties to Putin have responded by hounding McFaul at public appearances and comparing him to a notorious pedophile and serial killer.

He told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on Sunday that the Russian government has a "tremendous capacity" to wiretap phone conversations. McFaul’s statement came in response to a question about accusations that the Kremlin recently leaked a video with top U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland.

A voice resembling Nuland’s in the video says "F— the EU" in an apparent reference to the European Union’s passive response to mass protests in Ukraine.

"I've had one of [my phone conversations] put on the web before when I was—a couple years ago," McFaul told Zakaria. "And most certainly we respect their capacities. We don't respect what I consider if it's true, to be a real breach of diplomacy. That's just not the way we do business between countries."

McFaul also said he has yet to arrange a parting meeting with Putin. He was a harsh critic of the Russian president before becoming ambassador in January 2012.

"I hope I get to see him before I leave Russia to thank him," McFaul said. "I've had a fantastic time here as a U.S. ambassador."

McFaul’s stint in Moscow began during a time of heightened alert for Russian officials. Tens of thousands had protested the month before in opposition to parliamentary elections marred by allegations of fraud and Putin’s announcement that he would seek another presidential term.

Russian officials reportedly felt they could use McFaul’s candid nature to their advantage. He was often accused of seeking to generate a revolution ahead of the March 2012 presidential elections.

Groups allegedly linked to Putin released a pair of videos a month before the elections where pedestrians were asked whether they could tell the difference between McFaul and Pedro Alonso Lopez, one of the world’s most prolific pedophiles and serial killers.

McFaul then lashed out at a pro-Kremlin television reporter in March who had followed and harassed him. He exclaimed that Russia "turned out to be a wild country" and asked how the reporter seemingly obtained his schedule in violation of the U.N. Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

McFaul told Foreign Policy in 2012 that the harassment toward him "didn’t even happen in the Soviet Union."

Randy Scheunemann, a lobbyist and U.S. foreign policy expert who supported McFaul’s nomination as ambassador, said in an interview that McFaul’s efforts to promote democracy and human rights in Russia were hamstrung by the Kremlin’s smear campaign against him.

The Obama administration also sought closer U.S.-Russian cooperation on issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and Syria’s civil war, he added.

"Unfortunately because Putin was so worried that McFaul was sent there to start a color revolution, they boxed him in literally from day one with surveillance threats and gave him extremely limited maneuvering room," he said. "When you couple that with a president who only cares about realpolitik and doing deals with Russia, Mike had little room to maneuver."

The State Department did not respond to a request for comment.

McFaul was one of the principal architects of the so-called "reset" in U.S. policy toward Russia that eventually deteriorated over a ban on U.S. adoptions of Russian children and the country’s harboring of NSA leaker Edward Snowden.

Russia has also been criticized in recent weeks for potentially violating a longstanding arms control treaty, inadequately pressuring Syria President Bashar al-Assad to relinquish his chemical weapons, and coercing Ukraine into not signing deals with the European Union.

Scheunemann said the breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations reflects the broader outlook of Putin’s government.

"The fact that U.S.-Russian relations are now at a new permanent low point is not dependent on who is the ambassador," he said. "Russia perceives its interests in a way that is a zero-sum game, and either they win and we lose or vice versa."

McFaul will return to his wife and two sons in California and resume his work as a political science professor at Stanford University, where he has been on leave.

Scheunemann said McFaul, who studied in the country as an undergraduate and graduate student, will likely speak even more freely about Putin’s Russia once he is back in the United States.

Published under: Russia, Vladimir Putin