Vladimir Putin needed an Amer­i­can en­emy. He picked me.

For­mer U.S. am­bas­sador to Rus­sia Michael McFaul on the smear cam­paign that killed the ‘re­set’

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Twitter: @McFaul 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

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.”

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.

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.

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.

Ilanded 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 toplevel 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.

Vladimir Putin chose to re­press and dis­credit his crit­ics: He por­trayed op­po­si­tion lead­ers as trai­tor­ous agents of the United States.

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.

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, lib­er­al­lean­ing 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.”

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 an­tiAmer­i­can 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.

I un­der­stood that Putin needed an en­emy in or­der to rally his base be­fore the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. Upon ar­riv­ing in Rus­sia, I im­me­di­ately be­came part of this cam­paign.


Am­bas­sador Michael McFaul, third from left, at­tends a 2013 Krem­lin meet­ing be­tween Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry, se­cond from left, and Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, third from right.



U.S. Am­bas­sador Michael McFaul, right, be­came a tar­get of an­tiAmer­i­can pro­pa­ganda ef­forts soon af­ter tak­ing up his post in Moscow in 2012, as Vladimir Putin was cam­paign­ing for the pres­i­dency.

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