In the early days of the Obama administration, Michael McFaul made his mark as the architect of the so-called reset of relations with Russia.
Now, as the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, McFaul may need to reset relations once again as the two countries go through another rough patch.
The U.S. and Russia have been in a war of words over Syria, Sudan and many other international issues. There are growing complaints inside the Kremlin that the U.S. is trying to stir up trouble, supporting protests that have eroded Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's popularity as he seeks to reclaim to the president's post in a March election.
Putin at one point accused Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of sending the protesters a signal to take to the streets. The U.S. rejected that charge and insists it is still committed to good relations with Russia.
Clinton also praised McFaul as the right person for the job when she swore him in recently at the State Department, with an audience that included just about every Washington-based expert on Russia.
"The coming months and years will be crucial for Russian democracy. Russians from all walks of life and every corner of this great country are making their voices heard, both face to face and in cyberspace, expressing their hopes for the future," Clinton said.
"Few Americans know Russia or know democracy better than Mike McFaul," Clinton said of the envoy, a former Stanford professor and a think-tank analyst who has written extensively about developing democracies.
A Facebook Introduction
McFaul quickly reached out to Russia's Facebook generation with a video introducing himself — but was skewered just as quickly in the official Russian media.
On Russia's Channel One, commentator Mikhael Leontiev claims McFaul is not a specialist on Russia but purely a specialist in one thing — promoting democracy.
Some see that as a plus, including Lilia Shevtsova, one of McFaul's former colleagues at the Moscow Carnegie Center.
"He has a lot of friends in Russia among different political forces," she says. "He knows also the algebra, the textbook of democratic transition, which by the way creates a lot of consternation among some political forces in Russia. You know there's a suspicion on the part of the political establishment that Mike has come to Russia in order to teach Russians how do to the Orange Revolutions."
Shevtsova was referring to the street protests in Ukraine after a disputed election in 2004. McFaul has already met with opposition figures in Moscow, feeding into this stereotype.
One of his predecessors, former U.S. Ambassador James Collins, says the reaction in the Russian state-run media was predictable and shouldn't deter the U.S. envoy at all.
"This was a shot across the bow. Don't interfere in our electoral politics. Be aware that we have a limited tolerance for this. But the fact of the matter is he has a responsibility to remain in touch with all dimensions of the political spectrum," Collins says.
Low Expectations This Year
The reset of relations has had some accomplishments on arms control and cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran.
But Collins has low expectations for this coming year, with both countries holding presidential elections and focused on their domestic politics. In addition, the uprisings in the Arab world have touched off disputes, including a sharp one over Syria.
The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, recently raised concerns about reports of continued Russian arms shipments to Syria.
"Unfortunately, there is not an arms embargo against Syria, which we certainly think is overdue, in part because, as you well know, some members of the council, including Russia, have indicated opposition to any form of sanction, even those that mirror what the Arab League has already implemented," Rice says.
Meanwhile, Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, has been complaining that U.S. support for uprisings could lead to a "very big war."
Shevstova, the analyst, says perhaps it's time for McFaul to work on that reset of relations again.
"It will be a great challenge for Mike, as one of the architects of the reset, to prepare the platform to reset the reset," she said.
McFaul seems ready for the challenge. On his Twitter feed, he recently wrote, "This is going to be fun."
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