Smearing Michael McFaul

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You might not guess it from its ruthless suppression of dissent and its crushing of Russian democracy, but the Russian government is a delicate creature. As a case in point, two top Russian officials this week denounced the American ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, for supposedly violating diplomatic etiquette in some recent remarks he delivered.

Professing offense on the government’s behalf, Kremlin aide Yury Ushakov claimed that McFaul was sowing “discord” in the U.S.-Russian relationship. Ushakov cautioned that McFaul “should not try to be undiplomatic.” Next it was the turn of the Russian Foreign Ministry, which took to Twitter to pronounce itself “utterly shocked” at McFaul’s remarks, insisting that they were “far beyond the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette.”

So, what awful slander against the Russian state did McFaul utter? As it turns out, not much of one. In a lecture last Friday to the Higher School of Economics, McFaul said that in 2009 Russia had “put a big bribe on the table” to get the government of Kyrgyzstan to evict the U.S. from an airbase that it had leased to support military operations in Afghanistan. For a corruption-steeped government that routinely rigs elections, the suggestion that Russia may have paid a bribe was apparently beyond the pale.

Blunt phrasing aside, it’s not clear why the statement should have elicited a government uproar. McFaul’s statement was patently true and well known to be so. The “bribe” in question was a reference to the $2 billion Russian loan that served as a not-so-subtle payoff to Kyrgyzstan’s former dictator, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, who in return promised to shutter the U.S. base. But then the United States offered to triple its rent for the base – also technically a “bribe,” as McFaul acknowledged in his remarks, though on a smaller scale – and Bakiyev agreed.

It might be taken as a diplomatic gesture that McFaul did not go on to tell the remainder of the story, which arguably reflects even worse on Russia. After the U.S. upped its rent, Bakiyev reneged on his promise to Moscow. Deciding that it had been cheated, Russia proceeded to retaliate by fomenting a revolution inside Kyrgyzstan. To that end, Russian state media launched a full-on propaganda assault against Bakiyev, likening the client-state autocrat to a brutal dictator in the Genghis Khan mode (something that had not prevented Russia from cosseting him when it was convenient). As further punishment for Bakiyev’s perfidy, the Russian government threatened to expel the one million Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia. Most decisively, Moscow cancelled subsidies for energy exports to Kyrgyzstan. The resulting surge in energy prices sparked street protests that ultimately forced Bakiyev to flee the country in 2010.

While it’s hard to despair for the deposed regime, the episode was a prime example of what passes for diplomacy in Russia; the idea that the Russian government is in a position to be lecturing anyone about proper diplomatic conduct is hard to credit. But what makes the government’s faux-outrage at McFaul this week particularly preposterous is that for months the Kremlin has been waging a vicious and deliberately orchestrated smear campaign against the ambassador and the U.S. generally that makes a farce of its appeals to diplomatic politesse.

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  • koran kid

    Barry Mydrone, the reincarnation of Bugsy Malone as a community rights activist suddenly catapulted off the streets of Chicago into the White House, against Vlad the Merciless, the reinvention of Ivan the Terrible as one time KGB hit man and Moscow mafia boss who managed to bribe his way into the Kremlin, both gangsters at icy heart, who love to whack their enemies. It must be like in the scene in the Sting on the golf course, 'take a long look at that man, Basher Assad, if he and any of the other robin hoods hear that I've been duped by a simple puppet dictator like Bakiyev, I'll have every marxist revolutionary from the Caspian Sea to Wasington DC trying to muscle in on my Russian installed dictator racket.’ Common likes? Summary executions handed down from on high. Common hates? Freedom fighters, who sniff out their type, and expose them for what they are. Shared and pointed insult? Polish concentration camps. Common fears? Same as you and me. We all have to die, then what? Hey, I’m the first out of the blocks to see Barry and Vlad’s Merciless Productions Hollywood blockbuster of Laskin’s book The McFaul Guy, if he comes to a sticky end. He should keep his trap shut. But who should really be shixxing their pants? Anyone in Georgia who gets the thumbs up for market based democracy from Donald Trump!

  • Ghostwriter

    I wonder how long will it before the Vladimir Putin fan club comes here to "explain" their point? Probably not long.

  • Serafino

    The busybodies of the Russian Government should mind their own domestic business and stay out of the US affairs. We were never friends and never will be. Half of the Russian population, according to the Russian independent press, is anti-Putin yearning for a decent, reasonable administration. Putin, meanwhile, sends his goons to collect public opinion among female voters about his sex appeal while laughing all the way to the bank. Unreal.

  • htmlcolorname

    Mike epitomizes America's democratic spirit, free inquiry, unfettered debate, and respect for the right to question authority.

    Poppycock. Why'd he try to have the Exile banned from Johnson's Russia List, then ? Was that American Democratic spirit, free inquiry or unfettered debate ?

    This isn't so much of an article as it is a blow-job in writing.

  • wctaqiyya

    So, Jacob Laksin is upset because the Russian dude complained about how the Americans paid a bigger bribe? So what? I'm afraid I see no white hats being worn in this scenario. Americans are constantly paying bribes overseas and meddling in the affairs of all sorts of countries. I won't shed any tears for Obama, Hillary or their flunkies. I don't have any tears for the Russians either.

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    seems the Russians have no sense of humor.

  • fammy nur

    This is politics, I personally do not really understand politics. But I understand that someone who go into politics must have strong mental and careful in speech. If one person in the name of an institution can not maintain his/her talking or responding to a statement by the reckless (especially on behalf of the state), it will be very dangerous.


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  • flea bites

    Yes ! Russians have no sense of humor.