Several months before Obama took office, 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. Security Council 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 spring 2011, I'd started to plan my return to Stanford. 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.
But during my confirmation process that year, momentum slowed. In September 2011, Putin announced that he would run for president the following spring, an election he of course 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 supporters and undermine protesters, Putin needed 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 there: 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. The progress we'd made over three years was reversed almost overnight, because it was convenient for Putin to do so. I had become ambassador to advance the reset, and instead I presided over its demise. But it was not because we'd 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, 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 Moamar Gadhafi 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, he chose to repress and discredit them, portraying opposition leaders as traitorous agents of the United States. Putin always had been paranoid about U.S. 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 we wanted Medvedev to stay on as president. An off-the-record quip that quickly appeared in the Russian media by Vice President Joe Biden during his March 2011 visit to Moscow, 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, claiming 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'd 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.
I landed in Russia 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 an agent provocateur, a revolutions specialist sent by Obama to orchestrate regime change. As ambassador I battled nearly daily 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 didn't need to read briefing books on Pushkin, the Bolsheviks, privatization or Putin. I knew thousands of people in Russia, including top-level government officials, billionaires, Duma deputies, journalists and leading figures in the intelligentsia. I spoke Russian. And, maybe most important, I knew the Obama administration's Russia policy -- a big leg up compared with many new ambassadors. I had helped write it.
Still, I was also an outsider leading a team of State Department professionals and dozens from other departments and agencies. Many had worked on policy for 30 years and were rightly skeptical of a political appointee and professor with little experience in formal diplomacy. (I would also be de facto mayor of a small village in the embassy compound, where being Mr. Reset meant little to the personal trainers, hairdressers, electricians, barkeeps and Marines. Several hundred Russian employees now worked for me as well; they would judge me not by foreign policy outcomes but by how quickly I could secure raises or get hot Russian food in the cafeteria. This last item -- burgers vs. borscht -- triggered a giant debate in the community complete with petitions, protest marches and color ribbons. My new job demanded I seek compromises both on missile defense and lunch options.)
So I plotted a low-key first 100 days. Listening and learning seemed the prudent way to start. I wanted to focus on getting to know my 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 in February, when I would officially present my credentials to Medvedev. I planned 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 Jan. 14, 2012 in Moscow. Touring our palatial new residence, Spaso House, felt like visiting a museum. Photos of previous Spaso House residents -- including George Kennan, 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.
But my plan for a slow, quiet start imploded when Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns visited 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. 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 new 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 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 recall nothing special about these events, except that the activists' tone 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 Bill why they were going to "win," whatever that meant, I thought that something new might be happening in Moscow. We mostly just listened. I don't recall 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. Television camera crews swarmed our guests as they entered and exited the embassy. 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 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 the films made the Kremlin look bad and we shouldn't worry 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 by Mikhail Leontiev 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 Leontiev 20 years earlier when he was a journalist for independent, liberal-leaning 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. 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. "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 viewers 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-F├╝hrer," opposition leader Alexei Navalny, was a good friend of mine (false; we'd met once, in Washington). Despite my many years in Russia and my portfolio of writings on Russia, Leontiev said, 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?"
My embassy team said he would not have aired such a hit piece about the new U.S. ambassador without instruction from senior Kremlin officials. That the piece even aired 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 they couldn't 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. I loved Russia. I was not a Russophobe or a Cold Warrior. 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 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 anti-American 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 as if the U.S. government planned 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 awhile at the embassy to realize what was happening. Even I initially thought one of my staff members had gone rogue, tweeting 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 related 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.