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Michael McFaul, a laid-back Yankee in trouble in Putin's court

Michael McFaul, the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, is one of the world's leading experts on Russia and has already become a lightning rod for Kremlin suspicions that he's come to foment revolt. NBC's Jim Maceda speaks to him about his new posting.

 

At first glance, Michael McFaul seems an odd fit for the post of U.S. ambassador to Russia. Pushing 50, McFaul, a political scientist and tenured professor at Stanford University, has spent almost all his career in the halls of academia, not in diplomacy.

And he hardly looks like a threat; on the contrary, he’s engaging and jovial, combining a plain-speaking folksiness with a laid-back attitude he must get from his Montana and California background. Yet Professor, now Ambassador, McFaul has hit the Russian tarmac with all the force of a howitzer shell.


Just two days on the job (he arrived in mid-January) and he’d become headline news on Russia’s Kremlin-controlled Channel 1, which ran a story about a string of Russian opposition leaders lining up outside his new residence at Spaso House that day, suggesting they were coming to get their instructions from the man who once wrote "Russia’s Unfinished Revolution."

The Russian reporter’s suggestion was that McFaul, a fluent Russian speaker, had come back to finish business.

A red flag of anger suddenly waved defiantly across the national media. McFaul hadn’t yet found his work-out gear in his boxes and he was already being compared to those evil ambassadors of yore, conniving in the shadows to topple the host regime.

Siberia-style cold shoulder
But McFaul has taken the Siberia-style cold shoulder in stride. In fact, he says, he was only at that meeting for protocol.

Both Russian government and opposition leaders had come to see the visiting Deputy Secretary of State, William Burns, not him.

And he points out the Russian media never mentioned the rest of his second day on the job.

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"I had some very warm, cordial and substantive meetings with people like the Foreign Minister, Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin’s foreign policy adviser, President [Dmitry] Medvedev’s foreign policy adviser, so when I read that it was unwelcome – well, we didn’t have the camera crews out for those so I guess that’s the problem, right?" he says.

The real problem, of course, is that, with presidential elections in March, McFaul’s past advocacy for a more democratic Russia has become easy prey for the Kremlin propaganda machine.

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In the same vapor breath, thousands of pro-Putin protesters who braved sub-zero Moscow temperatures in early February could be heard chanting "No Orange" (referring to the 2004 pro-democracy Orange Revolution in Ukraine) and "No U.S. Embassy!" 

But, typically, McFaul is brushing off his rude welcome. In a veiled apology, he says he’s learning from his mistakes (while not naming any).

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'Invigorating!'
And he’s raring to go. "If you stop learning, to me as an academic that’s the most insulting thing you can say about anybody.’’

How does he sum up his first month as Ambassador? "Invigorating!"

And McFaul is already making his presence felt in other ways. He’s checking official records, but believes he’s the first resident of Spaso House to set up a Nerf Basketball hoop in one of the giant reception rooms.

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He thinks he’s also the first to play badminton in the salon. McFaul is confident the chilly "first impression" will change.

"We’ll find our way and I think also Russia and our Russian guests will find their way in dealing with a different kind of group at Spaso House," he says.

And if it doesn’t get any better, Ambassador McFaul can always resort to his two secret weapons: basketball and badminton diplomacy.

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