Obama to name McFaul as ambassador to Russia

President Obama’s pick for the next U.S. ambassador to Moscow is a trusted adviser who helped engineer the “reset” in U.S.-Russia relations three years ago, while also frequently chiding Kremlin leaders for backsliding on democratic reforms.

An administration official confirmed on Sunday that Michael A. McFaul will be nominated for the key diplomatic post, replacing John Beyrle, who has held the job since July 2008.

If confirmed by the Senate, McFaul would be the first non-diplomat in three decades to serve as the chief U.S. representative in Moscow. Yet, as a member of the White House’s inner circle and a key architect of its Russia policy, McFaul would be uniquely positioned to convey Obama’s views on issues ranging from missile defense to the conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

There was no official announcement from the White House or State Department on the move, which was first reported in Sunday’s editions of the New York Times. The newspaper reported that Obama had conveyed his intentions to Russian President Dmitri Medvedev during last week’s meeting between the two leaders in France.

A Kremlin spokesman, in a statement to Russia’s state-owned news agency RIA Novosti, denied that Medvedev had been told of the plan to nominate McFaul. But other Russian officials and security experts hailed the choice as a positive sign for bilateral relations.

“Since McFaul is a person from the presidential staff, his appointment would show that Washington pays serious attention to Russian politics,” said Alexander Konovalov. president of the Institute for Strategic Assessments, the influential Moscow think tank.

Konovalov told the news agency that McFaul would be an ideal choice since “he knows Russia well [and] is familiar with the problems of national security.”

Joseph Cirincione, an arms-control expert who worked with McFaul when both men were advising then-candidate Obama on foreign policy, said McFaul helped salvage U.S.-Russian relations at a time when they were “back to Cold War levels.”

“He is one of the leading lights guiding nuclear policy with Russia and someone who could drive the bureaucracy in the direction the president wanted,” said Cirincione, now president of the Ploughshares Fund.

McFaul was named special adviser to the president on Russian matters in 2009, and was a principal architect of the administration’s efforts to repair ties with Russia after years of strain. Despite occasional setbacks, the two countries have achieved several diplomatic breakthroughs, most notably a new strategic arms control treaty, a more coordinated policy on Iran, and improved transit rights for U.S. military cargo planes headed for Afghanistan.

Prior to joining the administration, McFaul was a frequent critic of Kremlin policies. The 47-year-old former Stanford University professor has chided Russian Prime Minister Vladi­mir Putin over issues ranging from Russia’s military intervention in the Caucasus to the government’s ongoing crackdown on dissent.

But shortly after joining the administration, McFaul became a champion of the White House’s “reset” policy, saying ideological differences should not prevent the two countries from practical engagement.

“We want to actually do real business with the Russians on things that matter to our national security and our prosperity,” McFaul said during a 2009 visit to Moscow.

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