U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, long an advocate of democracy in Russia, arrived in Moscow two months ago, and he walked straight into a groundswell of anti-Americanism. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin was running for president and his supporters accused the new ambassador of supporting anti-Putin street protests. Putin won the election easily three weeks ago, and now McFaul talks about where he thinks U.S.-Russia relations go from here.
In February, McFaul said it felt like he was back in the Cold War when he moved into Spaso House, the Moscow residence of American ambassadors since 1933.
"It has been surprising that there was so much anti-Americanism, because we thought we were building a different kind of relationship, and it makes some people nervous that it could so quickly and reflexively go back to - in terms of rhetoric - an era that we thought was behind us," said McFaul.
There were video attacks on the Internet, demonstrations outside the embassy, and charges by Putin supporters that the new American ambassador was backing the street protests for democracy.
After Russia’s March 4 election, McFaul went back to Washington last week and met with Vice President Joe Biden.
Biden's new marching orders, he said, were that he should stay the course.
"'Keep to your guns. Keep to your guns, McFaul.' He likes to call me McFaul. He said, 'Keep to your guns. You are doing exactly what our policy is [to] keep the engagement both with the government and with society out here in Russia,'" said McFaul.
Now, three weeks after the Russian political campaign concluded, how much of the anti-Americanism was campaign rhetoric? And how much was a new policy toward Washington by President-elect Putin? The ambassador weighs in.
"We have no interest in going back to some kind of Cold War - bitter, bickering rhetoric. We don't think that serves the American national interest. Russian government officials have signaled to me personally - and to other members, senior leaders in our government - that they think the same. And that they want, they seek continuity. And so, you know, in the next weeks and months, I think we are going to test that proposition to see if we can get back to doing, you know, real business that's in our mutual interest together," said McFaul.
Seeking agreement amid contention
A first test will come Monday in South Korea, where President Barack Obama and Russia's Dmitry Medvedev - in office as president until Putin returns to his old post in May - are to meet at a nuclear security conference. Even before leaving Moscow, Medvedev signaled his agenda by once again attacking the American plan to build a defense system in Eastern Europe to knock down rockets from Iran.
"Missile defense is a sticking point. I think we have more work to do in helping the Russian government officials understand exactly what our system can and cannot do. And not just the system today, but the system that has not even been constructed," said McFaul. "By the way, the thing that most animates the discussion here in Moscow is about a missile - the SM3 Block 2B - that does not even exist. It only exists on paper. So we don't believe that there is a fundamental conflict of our national interest and Russia's national interest as it pertains to what we're actually planning to do with missile defense. And at the same time, it's clear that we have not convinced our Russian colleagues of that yet."
Obama now has to build a relationship with Putin, often a harsh critic of Washington. The American president telephoned congratulations to Putin - five days after the election.
"President Obama has his policy towards Russia very clearly stated. He's been working at it for three years, and he has no reason to think that he needs to change it, and we look forward to engaging with President Putin on those same set of issues that we've been working on for the last three years," said McFaul.
As a presidential candidate, Prime Minister Putin charged that Washington was backing democracy rallies and funding opposition political groups in Moscow.
McFaul said that Washington will continue to fund non-governmental, non-political groups in Russia. He spelled out the rules.
"I want to be very clear, none of this money is intended for any political organizations whatsoever. Not political parties, not movements, not those organizing demonstrations, not political leaders, and I think there's been a big confusion here in Russia about that fact. We don't do that and that's our policy and we're quite militant about that policy in drawing a line," said McFaul.
He said the goal is to help build civil society in Russia.
"Not partisan, independent, non-governmental organizations that are doing things to advance civil society, to make society stronger here, to deal with a myriad of issues that civil societies all over the world deal with, whether it's environmental, ah, situations, maternal health care, human rights issues, we believe that is in our interest and Russia's interest just to have a robust civil society,” said McFaul.
But just as Russia’s presidential election season ends, the American presidential election season starts up. The ambassador could find himself steering US-Russia relations down a bumpy road.