Smearing Michael McFaul

The Russian government launches a crude propaganda campaign against the American ambassador and architect of Obama's "reset" policy.

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.

No sooner did McFaul assume his post this January than Russia’s state-owned Channel One ran a slanderous program claiming that he had come to Russia to organize a “revolution.” (This even as Russia actually did stir up revolutions to destabilize out-of-favor-regimes.) The welcome campaign continued when McFaul met with opposition leaders at the embassy. Although the meeting was a mere diplomatic formality, the government tried to capitalize on it for propaganda purposes when the opposition leaders were ambushed by pro-government apparatchiks posing as television reporters as they walked out of the meeting. Footage of the encounter was then posted on the Internet with the implication that the Russian opposition was being orchestrated by the United States, a crude propaganda tactic dating back to the Soviet days.

And the government smear machine was just getting into gear. In February, Russia’s YouTube channel featured video of an anonymous pollster showing passersby on Russian streets a photo of McFaul and a Russian pedophile and asking them to choose which was the pedophile. The video showed everyone pointing to the picture of McFaul. The stunt bore all the hallmarks of the pro-Putin youth group Nashi, which has used similar tactics to destroy the reputation of government opponents. In this case, of course, the target was the U.S. ambassador. If the government thought this was "beyond the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette," it didn't say so.

The government’s refusal to condemn the scurrilous campaign against McFaul and the U.S. is hardly surprising, since similar attacks have issued from none other than President Vladimir Putin himself. As mass anti-government protests have erupted over the past year, drawing thousands onto Moscow’s streets for the first time since the dying days of the Soviet Union, Putin has been at pains to portray the demonstrators as "lackeys" in an ongoing U.S. plot to destabilize Russia. When last year's fraudulent December 4 parliamentary elections drew thousands to Moscow’s frozen streets, Putin claimed that the State Department was instigating the protestors. Putin went so far as to accuse Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of directly inciting the protesters, claiming that she was “giving the signal” for the demonstrations. In another context, that may have been an extraordinary charge. For Putin, reflexive anti-Americanism is par for the course, a useful way to drum up popular support.

Seen in this light, the government’s feigned distress at McFaul’s comments is really just the latest in a series of clumsy propaganda attempts. The irony is that in turning its ire on McFaul, the Kremlin is antagonizing a potential ally. So far from seeking to undermine the government, McFaul is the architect of the Obama administration's "reset" policy of repairing relations with Russia. The fact that McFaul, for all his good intentions, is now the target of government smear merchants is an indication of how well that policy is working.

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Tags: Russia, Putin