The smear that killed the ‘reset’

Putin needed an American enemy. He picked me.

The smear that killed the ‘reset’

Putin needed an American enemy. He picked me.
Illustration by Lincoln Agnew for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images
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From the beginning of the Obama administration, we knew we wanted to reboot our relationship with Moscow. I coordinated Russia policy from the National Security Council, and Russia was one of the only other global powers, a crucial partner in world affairs. But the partnership had been badly strained by Vladimir Putin’s move toward greater autocracy, NATO expansion, the revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine, the war in Iraq, and Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008. President Barack Obama called this period a “dangerous drift.”

Outlook • Perspective
Michael McFaul, the director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a Hoover fellow at Stanford University, was the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014. He is the author, most recently, of “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” from which this essay is adapted.

Several months before Obama’s inauguration, Dmitry Medvedev took over in the Kremlin — a change we believed might help us “reset” relations with Moscow. By June 2010, when Medvedev made his first visit to Washington, we were succeeding beyond our expectations: We’d signed a treaty to shrink our nuclear arsenals, jointly imposed tougher sanctions on Iran and added a supply route to Afghanistan through Russia, reducing our reliance on Pakistan. Soon we would help secure Russia’s membership in the World Trade Organization. And in 2011, we even persuaded Medvedev to abstain on (rather than reject) U.N. votes authorizing force in Libya. No Soviet or Russian leader had ever acquiesced to Western military intervention in a sovereign country.

Illustration by Lincoln Agnew for The Washington Post; photos by Getty Images

U.S.-Russian relations were so much improved that, by the spring of 2011, I’d started to plan my return to Stanford. Job done. Obama had other ideas: We’d come so far in resetting relations with this historic enemy, he said. Didn’t I want to finish the project? He asked me to become ambassador to Russia to help see the job through. I couldn’t say no.

But during my confirmation process that year, momentum slowed. In September 2011, Putin announced that he was going to run for president the following spring, an election that, of course, he would win. Putin had little enthusiasm for the reset — he didn’t believe in the win-win approach we’d developed with Medvedev. Massive demonstrations a few months later over a falsified parliamentary election intensified Putin’s sentiment, since he blamed us for sparking those protests.

To rally his supporters and undermine the protesters, Putin would need an enemy, and he turned to the most reliable one in Russia’s recent history: the United States and then, by extension, me. As soon as I became the new proxy for Washington, Moscow launched a full-scale disinformation campaign alleging that, under my direction, the United States was funding the opposition and attempting to overthrow Putin. State propagandists and their surrogates crudely photoshopped me into pictures, spliced my speeches to make me say things I never uttered and even accused me of pedophilia.

Long before most Americans learned of Russia’s campaign to influence our 2016 presidential election, I personally experienced the power of the Kremlin’s techniques. The hallmarks of its new style were already evident: There could be no such thing as win-win outcomes with the United States; Russia’s domestic agenda (not NATO expansion, missile defense disputes or Syria) would drive its policy. Putin reversed the progress we’d made over three years almost overnight, because it was convenient for him to do so.

I had become ambassador to advance the reset, and instead I presided over its demise. But it was not because we changed our policy. It was because Putin changed Russia’s.

Michael McFaul is sworn in by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as ambassador-designate to Russia in January 2011. His wife, Donna Norton, looks on. McFaul had helped develop the Obama administrations reset policy toward Russia. (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

The December 2011 parliamentary elections were the beginning of the end of the reset. Putin’s party, United Russia, performed much more poorly than expected, despite enjoying unlimited national television coverage, abundant financial resources, the backing of regional governments and a bump from ballot falsification. It won only 49.3 percent of the vote, a significant drop from the 64.3 percent it had garnered four years earlier. And in 2011, smartphones, better-organized election-monitoring organizations, and social media platforms such as VKontakte, Twitter and Facebook combined to expose electoral irregularities that had previously been invisible. Popular demonstrations began that month — first thousands, and then tens of thousands and occasionally hundreds of thousands. The last time so many Russians had taken to the streets for political reasons was 1991, the year the Soviet Union collapsed.

Putin’s first reaction to these demonstrators was anger. In his mind, he had made these young professionals rich — gross domestic product had risen more than eight-fold since he took power, and the people in the streets were middle class — and now they had turned against him. His second reaction was fear: Never before had so many Russians protested his rule. (According to intelligence sources, Putin had been shocked by the speed at which Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi and other leaders targeted by the Arab Spring lost their grip on power just months earlier.)

Putin needed to defuse these popular protests and restore his standing in time for the March 2012 presidential election. Rather than engage with his opponents and attempt to co-opt them, he chose to repress and discredit his critics: He portrayed opposition leaders as traitorous agents of the United States. Putin always had been paranoid about American efforts to undermine his government. Years before, he developed the view that the United States intended to foment a “color revolution” against his regime, just as we allegedly did in Serbia in 2000, Georgia in 2003 and Ukraine in 2004. In 2011, Putin also believed that we wanted Medvedev to stay on as president. An off-the-record quip by Vice President Joe Biden that quickly appeared in the Russian media during his visit to Moscow in March 2011 — suggesting that Putin should not run for a third term — seemed to support that hypothesis.

Even before the parliamentary vote, Putin began to develop the argument about American manipulation of Russia’s internal politics. “We know that representatives of some countries meet with those whom they pay money — so-called grants — and give them instructions and guidance for the ‘work’ they need to do to influence the election campaign in our country,” he said in November 2011. This was false, but American interference seemed very obvious to him: “They try to shake us up so that we don’t forget who is boss on our planet.” The popular demonstrations a month later appeared to confirm his suspicions. Putin was particularly upset when then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized the parliamentary vote. He claimed that she “set the tone for several of our actors inside our country, she gave the signal. They heard that signal, and with the support of the State Department of the U.S., they began active work.”

In an Oval Office meeting on Dec. 9 to discuss these developments, Obama asked whose idea it had been to increase funding for Golos, a Russian election-monitoring organization Putin had criticized. “Mine,” I reported. When he asked who at the White House had cleared Clinton’s tough statement, I answered, “Me.” He supported what we had done but also urged the Russia team to remember the long game. We were going to have to deal with Putin for five more years, and we had a full agenda with Moscow. I understood my marching orders: As ambassador, I would not be attending any demonstrations in Moscow or taking sides with the opposition. I never did.

McFaul, third from left, attends a May 2013 meeting at the Kremlin between Secretary of State John F. Kerry, second from left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin, third from right. (Mikhail Klimentyev/RIA Novosti/Pool/AFP/Getty Images)

I landed in Russia just a few weeks after the December 2011 demonstrations began. A Moscow Times headline rightly declared, “McFaul Arrives to Keep ‘Reset’ Alive.” That most certainly was the mission that Obama sent me to Russia to pursue. But the Kremlin-loyal press described my assignment very differently. I was not Mr. Reset but an agent provocateur: a revolutions specialist sent by Obama to orchestrate regime change. For the rest of my time in Russia as ambassador, I battled nearly every day to dispel that myth — and never really succeeded.

I felt reasonably confident about my new job. Unlike most political appointees in other countries, or many career ambassadors at other posts, or even many of my employees at the embassy, this was not my first tour in the country. I had first lived in Russia in 1983, had logged roughly five years in the U.S.S.R. and Russia since then, and devoted a good chunk of my academic career to writing about Russian politics and U.S.-Russia relations. I did not need to read briefing books on Pushkin, the Bolsheviks, privatization or Putin. I knew thousands of people in Russia, including top-level officials in the government, billionaires, Duma deputies, journalists and leading figures in the intelligentsia. I spoke Russian, which I hoped would impress the old hands at the embassy. And, maybe most important, I knew the Obama administration’s Russia policy — a big leg up compared with many new ambassadors. I had helped to author it.

Still, I was also an outsider, parachuting in to lead a team of State Department professionals as well as dozens from other departments and agencies. (As ambassador, I would also be the de facto mayor of a small village in the embassy compound. Being Mr. Reset was not going to mean much to the personal trainers, hairdressers, electricians, barkeeps or Marines. Several hundred Russian employees now worked for me as well. They were going to judge me not by foreign policy outcomes, but by how quickly I could secure raises for them or get hot Russian food in the cafeteria. This last item — burgers vs. borscht — triggered a giant debate in our embassy community, complete with petitions, protest marches and color ribbons. My new job demanded that I seek compromises both on missile defense and lunch options.) And many of those who worked on policy had done so for 30 years. They were rightly skeptical of a White House political appointee and professor with little experience conducting formal diplomacy.

So I plotted a low-key first 100 days. Listening and learning seemed like the prudent way to start. I wanted to focus first on getting to know my new colleagues, learning the managerial side of the job and becoming a presence inside the compound. I would meet a few key Russian government officials but would save the big courtesy calls until after the Kremlin ceremony, scheduled for mid-February, when I would officially present my credentials to Medvedev. I planned to do a few personal-interest, policy-free interviews, playing up my past experiences living in Russia and my love for Russian culture and history.

My family and I arrived in Moscow on Jan. 14, 2012. Touring our palatial new residence, Spaso House, felt like visiting a museum. Black-and-white photos of previous Spaso House residents — including George Kennan, the author of America’s containment strategy toward the Soviet Union, and Averell Harriman, a former governor of New York — lined the walls. Images of Nixon, Kissinger, Brezhnev, Gromyko, Reagan, Bush, Gorbachev and Clinton testified to the incredible history of our new home. I eventually took down one photo of Joseph Stalin and presidential adviser Harry Hopkins from July 1941. Cooperation with Stalin during World War II was a part of our history, of course, but I didn’t have to look at Stalin — or compel my guests to — every time we had tea in the library.

But my plan for a slow, quiet start imploded when Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns decided to visit on my third day. Bill did nothing slowly. He was one of my closest partners in the government and a thoughtful mentor. We had plotted most of the moves of the reset together. As a former ambassador to Russia, he’d shared with me much wisdom about how to approach my new assignment. But I knew he would try to squeeze in as many meetings as possible. As ambassador, it was my job to accompany him.

When I reviewed Bill’s itinerary, assembled by embassy staffers, one meeting stood out. On his second day, he would have roundtables with opposition leaders and civil society activists. Given the recent demonstrations, I expressed some anxiety about this, but my new staff reminded me that dual-track engagement was our (my!) policy: When Obama had come in 2009, he’d met with civil society and political opposition leaders at two different events. So my only suggestion was to add a Communist Party official to the group, which we did. To save time, the two meetings were held back to back at two townhouses in the embassy compound, rather than having Russian organizations host them. Both sessions lasted only an hour, giving everyone about five minutes to speak. Right after they ended, Burns departed for the airport.

I don’t recall anything special about these events, except that the tone of the activists was surprisingly optimistic. After years of work with few results, it must have given them a real rush to stand on the podium before tens of thousands of demonstrators. They had a certain swagger. Even Boris Nemtsov, who was always upbeat, seemed more sanguine than ever. As I listened to one young environmental activist, Yevgeniya Chirikova, tell Burns why they were going to “win,” whatever that meant, I thought to myself that something new might be happening here in Moscow. We mostly just listened. I don’t remember Bill saying anything of great importance.

These two uneventful sixty-minute sessions, however, would have profound consequences for U.S.-Russian relations — and for me personally. As our guests entered and exited the embassy, television camera crews swarmed them. These weren’t normal reporters; they were from a state-controlled network called NTV, and they had a special assignment: collect evidence that the United States was seeking to overthrow the Russian government. Several other “journalists” there worked for a neo-nationalist, pro-Kremlin youth group called Nashi. The Russian government paid them all. And for the rest of my time as ambassador, news coverage from these meetings would be used to portray me as an enemy of the Russian state.

McFaul, right, and Kerry visit Moscow’s Red Square in May 2013. A few years earlier, the administration’s reset policy seemed to be working, but by this time it had faltered. (Mladen Antonov/AFP/Getty Images)

Kremlin propaganda outlets soon reported that these Russian civil society and political opposition leaders had come to the U.S. Embassy to receive money and instructions from me, the newly arrived usurper. (False, obviously.) Because I was a specialist in color revolutions (false), Obama had sent me to Moscow to orchestrate a revolution against the Russian regime (false), they alleged. NTV’s “special assignment” group produced numerous television clips and documentaries showing footage of Russian opposition leaders leaving the U.S. Embassy to promote that message. A documentary, “Help From Abroad,” and a series, “The Anatomy of Protest,” supposedly traced how the United States, including me personally, funded the opposition and the protests. The videos prominently feature the American seal outside the embassy. In another one, a deep, menacing voice narrated a story about the visitors’ mission inside: to sell out their country. In just a few days, more than 700,000 people had watched a clip of Russian opposition leaders coming to the embassy.

Some on my embassy team thought that the films made the Kremlin look bad and that we should not worry too much about long-lasting consequences. I disagreed. Putin’s strategy was clear — depict opposition members as puppets of the West and rally his electoral base against these bourgeois intellectuals. He had an election to win in two months. The 2012 campaign was his toughest ever; he was down further in the polls than he had ever been.

Judging by the detailed analysis of my biography and academic writings that Mikhail Leontiev presented on his television show on my second working day in Moscow as ambassador, this narrative about me had been planned well before my arrival. I’d known Misha, as I called him, 20 years earlier when he worked as a journalist for independent, liberal-leaning papers such as Nezavisimaya Gazeta and Segodnya. But like several others from that era, he had flipped. Privately, he still enjoyed his trips to America with his daughter, as he told me proudly when we bumped into each other at the Sochi Olympics one day. Professionally, he had evolved into the Kremlin’s chief hatchet man — a talented polemicist whose popular television segment on Channel One, “Odnako” (“However”), usually appeared during the evening news broadcast. Stylistically, “Odnako” was like “60 Minutes” but without fact-checkers. Leontiev gave the impression that he was uncovering some hidden truth for his viewers, revealing how things behind closed doors really worked. On Jan. 17, 2012, he devoted his entire show to me.

He told his viewers that I used to work for the National Democratic Institute (true), an organization with close ties to special intelligence services (false). During my last mission to Russia in 1990-91, I came to promote revolution against the Soviet regime (false). My new assignment was to do the same against the current Russian regime (false). He suggested that the “Internet-Führer,” opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was a good friend of mine (false; we’d met once, in Washington). Despite my many years of living in Russia, and my lengthy portfolio of writings on Russia, Leontiev explained to his viewers that I was not an expert on Russia or U.S.-Russia relations, but rather a specialist on revolutions. He compared me to the last noncareer diplomat sent to Moscow, Bob Strauss, who had supposedly also come to the country to destabilize the regime. (Strauss arrived in Moscow two weeks before the August 1991 coup began.) Leontiev ended his show by citing another one of my works, “Russia’s Unfinished Revolution,” and then asking provocatively, “Did Mr. McFaul come to Russia to work on his specialization; that is, to finish the revolution?”

I was amazed by Leontiev’s hit piece. As my embassy team explained, he would not have aired a segment of that nature about the new U.S. ambassador without instruction from senior Kremlin officials. That the piece suggested that leaders in the Kremlin were assigning a much higher probability to regime change than we were.

We at the embassy were not the only ones taken aback by this new Kremlin line. Several of my old Russian acquaintances, including even some loyal to Putin and his government, told me that they too could not believe the venomous, paranoid tone of Leontiev’s commentary. Some journalists even wrote about the significance of this message from the Kremlin. “If someone needs proof that the reset epoch between Russia and the U.S. is over,” Konstantin von Eggert wrote in Kommersant, “he/she should watch Odnako.” He added, “I can’t remember such an attack on the head of a diplomatic mission, especially on the U.S. embassy, even during Soviet times.”

McFaul, right, became a target of Russian anti-U.S. propaganda efforts soon after taking up his post in Moscow. (AFP/Getty Images)

As the attacks piled up, my first reaction was outrage. Most of the claims were untrue. I was not funding opposition organizations. The CIA was not running a covert operation to pay people to show up on the streets of Moscow. The Obama administration did not believe in promoting “regime change.” Ask our Republican critics!, I wanted to shout.

I also felt betrayed personally by being portrayed as an enemy of Russia. I loved Russia. I was not a Russophobe or a Cold Warrior. I was the architect of the reset. I was the White House adviser who had pushed for cooperation with the Kremlin when others were skeptical. Didn’t they remember Obama’s July 2009 speech (which I helped to write) in which he boldly declared that a “strong” and “prosperous” Russia was in the U.S. national interest? No U.S. president had ever said that before.

Of course, I understood that Putin needed an enemy in order to rally his base before the March presidential election. The less educated, less urban and less wealthy you were, the more likely you were to support Putin. That segment of the electorate could be scared into fearing us. Upon arriving in Russia, I immediately became part of this campaign. I was the perfect poster boy for America; some even criticized my blond hair and smile as subversive.

I took some comfort in knowing that the attacks were simply a political cudgel for Putin. Several Russians encouraged me to understand my fate along that line. Vladislav Surkov, one of the Kremlin’s most important campaign specialists, explained that my arrival in January was perfect for Putin’s reelection effort. He estimated that the campaign’s use of anti-American propaganda helped it pick up several percentage points. Medvedev delivered a similar message to me on the day I formally presented my credentials to him in the Kremlin. As we mingled, drinking champagne at the end of the ceremony in the ornate St. George Hall with a dozen other ambassadors, the Russian president pulled me aside and told me not to take the attacks too personally. After the election, everything would calm down.

But some salvos were impossible to shrug off. On Feb. 11, a video began circulating on YouTube suggesting that I sexually assaulted children. A person walked the streets of Moscow showing allegedly random people photos of an actual, convicted pedophile and me. Who looked like the pedophile? Everyone chose me. The clip ended with the stark statement, “McFaul is a pedophile.” We contacted Google, and the company took the clip down, but it later reappeared. (My wife joked to a Spaso House staffer that at least they hadn’t accused me of cannibalism. He responded earnestly that pedophilia was much worse, because cannibalism occurred, and was considered justified, during the siege of Leningrad.) A Yandex Web search for “McFaul is a pedophile” still produces 3 million hits.

That same week, remarks I’d made to a small group of board members from the U.S.-Russia Business Council at a Marriott hotel in Moscow were secretly taped and then edited to make it sound like the U.S. government had a plan to discredit Putin’s election victory the following month. I was shocked by the audacity of this act when the clip aired, as was the USRBC president, Ed Verona, who would later be subject to similar tactics.

On the night of the presidential election on March 4, 2012, a fake Twitter account that looked identical to mine tweeted out criticisms of the electoral procedures even before voting had ended. The Russian media went crazy, as did some Russian government officials, accusing me of blatantly interfering in the electoral process. This stunt was so well executed that it took us a while at the embassy to realize what was happening. Even I initially thought that one of my staff members had gone rogue, sending out tweets on my behalf. We eventually figured it out — the fake account was using a capital letter I in place of a lowercase L in the name associated with my Twitter handle, @McFaul (@McFauI looks so similar). We eventually explained the origin of the spurious tweets, but only after a few hours of hysterical news coverage. After this, Obama himself jumped to my defense: During a one-on-one chat on the sidelines of a nuclear summit in South Korea later that month, he told Medvedev, “Stop fucking around with McFaul.” He relayed the anecdote in the car afterward.

Denying that you are a pedophile, refuting accusations that you are plotting regime change, explaining to the world that you are not criticizing Putin on his election night — it all became so tedious, defensive and exhausting as I repeated those steps over and over for the rest of my time in Moscow. But Putin had decided that he needed America as an enemy again, and he wasn’t worried about the larger bilateral ramifications, let alone my personal frustrations. We all hoped that things would die down again after Putin’s reelection, as Medvedev promised, and that we could get the reset back on track. It was a false hope.


Credits: Story by Michael McFaul.