- - Sunday, June 3, 2018


By Michael McFaul

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30, 506 pages

President Vladimir Putin perhaps had good reason to view Michael McFaul with a tad of suspicion when he arrived in Moscow as American ambassador in 2008.

The Stanford University professor, whose interest in Russia dated to his high school days, was fluent in the language. He spent five years in Moscow as a graduate student and scholar. He had worked with various U.S. organizations, some government funded, to encourage democracy in a politically turbulent country still emerging from communism.

He attended mass demonstrations of dissidents, and considered many of the principals as friends.

As the point man for Russia in the Obama White House, he fathered the “reset” option that hopefully would restore civil relations between the U.S. and Russia.

But his academic specialty had been “revolution,” and recent American policy had stressed “regime change” in many countries. The Obama administration also supported the “Arab Spring” that toppled dictators in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere.

Mr. McFaul had felt Mr. Putin’s displeasure several years earlier, during a visit to Moscow as part of President Obama’s foreign policy team.

Mr. Putin was obviously aware of Mr. McFaul’s background. He looked at him “with his steely blue eyes and stern scowl to accuse me of purposely seeking to ruin U.S.-Russia relations,” Mr. McFaul writes.

“I was genuinely alarmed. The hair on the back of my neck stood on end and sweat covered my brow as I endured this tongue-lashing from one of the most powerful people in the world.”

Thus, when Mr. McFaul became ambassador, Mr. Putin felt that Mr. Obama “had sent me to Moscow to orchestrate a revolution against the Russian regime.” The state-controlled Russian media charged that Mr. McFaul was a covert CIA agent.

The new ambassador, despite his longtime admiration for Russia and its people, found himself the target of a Putin-approved smear campaign that violated the bounds of common decency, much less diplomatic protocols.

The most disgusting charge was that Mr. McFaul was a pedophile. (He is married with two sons.) The slur was voiced on a video circulating on YouTube.

“That’s hard not to take personally,” Mr. McFaul comments wryly. A protest to Google resulted in the video being moved. But numerous links remain that refer to the charge, although the original video does not come up. (At least I could not find it.)

There was much more. A recording of remarks Mr. McFaul made to a U.S.-Russia business council was edited “to make it sound like the United States government had a plan to discredit Putin’s election victory the following month.”

False tweets bearing Mr. McFaul’s name were circulated on election night criticizing voting procedures — even before the polls closed.

Russian police began harassing persons using the American embassy parking lot — including even Mr. McFaul’s wife. Tires on embassy cars were slashed.

Gangs of thugs were a menacing presence when Mr. McFaul made public appearances around Moscow; they even demonstrated outside the embassy.

There was debate in the U.S. government whether “Putin truly believed these tall tales of American subversive activities in Russia, or whether he just deployed these arguments to mobilize domestic support.”

The conclusion was that Kremlin spin doctors “were a cynical bunch, but they weren’t stupid.” Their efficient intelligence service knew that the U.S. was not meddling. Nonetheless, state-run TV and newspapers directed a “constant barrage of lies, fake news and disinformation at America.”

But years later, Mr. McFaul concluded that Mr. Putin and his advisers sincerely believed “that we were seeking to subvert his regime.”

The bogus charges caused Mr. Putin to keep his distance for any political activity in Moscow. He “never went within ten miles of any demonstration or political event.”

Mr. McFaul ultimately concluded that the constant diatribes from the Kremlin “made [Mr. Putin] look paranoid.” He felt that Mr. Putin “worried irrationally about domestic instability.” Thus, he “needed the United States as an enemy again.”

Unsurprisingly, the United States’ earnest attempt to foster better relations with Russia came to naught. One turning point was Mr. Putin’s decision to annex Ukrainian territory, which Mr. McFaul called “a clear breach of the most basic of international norms.” Any hopes of Russian integration with the West, “already deeply damaged came to a halt.”

One must conclude that Mr. Putin and his crowd made a serious misjudgment in denigrating Mr. McFaul. In terms of having a deep knowledge and understanding of Russia, he was perhaps the most qualified ambassador to Moscow since George Kennan.

Being rebuffed by a hostile and unduly suspicious Mr. Putin deeply hurt Mr. McFaul. He writes that he “was not a Cold Warrior itching to get back into the arena with a Kremlin adversary.” He had long held aspirations for smooth bilateral relationships.

As he concludes, “we were entering a new confrontational era, a hot peace.”

Such is the situation the United States now faces with Mr. Putin’s Russia. Should our fingers be crossed?

• Joseph Goulden writes frequently on intelligence and foreign affairs.

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