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dermokratiya
August 11, 2014 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Watching The Eclipse - "Ambassador Michael McFaul was there when the promise of democracy came to Russia—and when it began to fade."
In the three months between McFaul’s appointment and his arrival in Moscow, a great deal changed. Putin, feeling betrayed by both the urban middle classes and the West, made it plain that he would go on the offensive against any sign of foreign interference, real or imagined. A raw and resentful anti-Americanism, unknown since the seventies, suffused Kremlin policy and the state-run airwaves. As a new Ambassador, McFaul was hardly ignorant of the chill, but he launched into his work with a characteristic earnestness. “Started with a bang,” he wrote in his official blog. During the next two years, McFaul would be America’s primary witness to the rise of an even harsher form of Putinism—and, often enough, he would be its unwitting target.

McFaul: Putin The (Not So) Great
posted by the man of twists and turns (44 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
So tired of Putin (psycho) analysis from the Hoover Institution's McFaul, the New Republic's Julia Ioffe and Masha Gessen. (Mark Ames and others at the eXile used to regularly mock Ultimate frisbee star McFaul in their pages.)
posted by Auden at 10:28 AM on August 11 [6 favorites]


So, is Putin one of the all time greatest international "players" in the history of the world, or, or is he a representation of the national psyche of Russia and they deserve him?
posted by sammyo at 10:30 AM on August 11


Went to look for a funny shirtless Putin photo, my goodness there's a lot of tacky photoshoped versions.
posted by sammyo at 10:35 AM on August 11


So, is Putin one of the all time greatest international "players" in the history of the world, or, or is he a representation of the national psyche of Russia and they deserve him?

I don't know whether he's a player or not, but my understanding is that the state-controlled media is full of pretty reality-divorced propaganda which back Putin's policies and desires and is shaping the national psyche of Russia in ways which may not necessarily reflect what it might be if given unfettered access to multiple, truth-based news sources.

(Also, my understanding is that most Russians don't look outside the spoon-fed media for alternate views, and that many who have attempted to start online blogs and such have been harassed into silence.)
posted by hippybear at 10:41 AM on August 11


What a great read. Thanks for posting so it can be discussed! It should be mentioned that David Remnick has a long and deep relationship with Russia.

I used to work in international economic development, and have worked with many career diplomats and consular staff.

So, I am completely mystified about why McFaul would be appointed ambassador. Given his 80's and 90's background, it seems like such an unwise choice for so strategic a relationship.

Plus, how does a guy who has 30+ years as a Russian "expert" make a mistake like this?

Another time, McFaul went on Twitter to announce in Russian that he was headed to “Yoburg” for an event. He intended a slangy way of saying Yekaterinburg. Unfortunately, yob is the root of the verb for copulation and his tweet came off as “I am headed to Fucksville.”

And how and why was McFaul's replacement chosen?

Last month, Obama named a new Ambassador to Moscow: John Tefft, a career diplomat who has been Ambassador to Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia. This is a geography that will not necessarily enamor Tefft to the Kremlin.

So, so, so wrong.
posted by Nevin at 10:42 AM on August 11 [4 favorites]


In discussing international relations, many of us often make the error of treating a state as a unitary entity. In fact, it is usually the case that actions of a state are the result of various policy decisions, interests, and personalities; sometimes acting in concert with each other, sometimes in competition, and sometimes completely independently. This error can be compounded by then treating the leader of that state as equivalent to the state itself. This was a problem in 1914, for instance.

So my question is, who are the other players in Russia right now? Who are the various interests that surround Putin, where do their interests lie, and how are they influencing foreign policy in Russia? I had actually planned to ask this as an AskMe, but are there any Russia hands here who can comment in more detail?
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 10:46 AM on August 11 [7 favorites]


McFaul: Putin The (Not So) Great

Wow, I had not seen that. How and why can a former ambassador print this sort of thing? It may be the truth, but the piece may be regarded by the Russian leadership (and Russians themselves) as a direct message from the US leadership.

While I understand the importance of speaking truth to power, I also would rather we did not head towards a new cold war (or hot war) with Russia.

Calmer, more "diplomatic" heads ought to prevail here. It's one thing to enforce sanctions and launch a trade war, but it's quite another to purposefully humiliate a state leader.

What is the strategy here? What's the end game?

I don't want to die in a war.
posted by Nevin at 10:58 AM on August 11


Nevin, is your theory that the US should respect Russia's aggession against its liberated former conquered territories? Why? Will appeasing Putin and pretending that he didn't conduct aggressive warfare against a sovereign state make him knock it off?
posted by 1adam12 at 11:01 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Last month, Obama named a new Ambassador to Moscow: John Tefft, a career diplomat who has been Ambassador to Ukraine, Lithuania, and Georgia. This is a geography that will not necessarily enamor Tefft to the Kremlin.

So, so, so wrong.


I'm prepared to believe that Tefft is a bad choice, but "Putin wouldn't like him" doesn't seem to me to be an obvious mark against him. Are you really suggesting we should hand the leaders of other nations an implicit veto over our ambassadorial choices?
posted by yoink at 11:01 AM on August 11


yoink, you should know that I'm not an American, so I don't really think in your terms of "us and them."

And if you followed the politics of the former Soviet block countries, you would know that opposing Russia does not automatically make the opposition social democrats (the Remnick article here touches on this) palatable to MetaFilter.

Anyway, I'm saying that ambassadors must be able to develop trust and dialogue first, so that can play hardball later.

Then again, perhaps the US has never really been interested in forming strong links and partnership with Russia. American oligarchs like Soros have been monkeying around in places like Georgia and Ukraine for some time now.
posted by Nevin at 11:13 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


Nevin, is your theory that the US should respect Russia's aggession against its liberated former conquered territories? Why? Will appeasing Putin and pretending that he didn't conduct aggressive warfare against a sovereign state make him knock it off?

All I am saying is that when the stakes are high (the economic sanctions for one thing are going to result in a global recession), if you don't want an outright war, you need to focus on dialogue.

Unfortunately, the West is not prepared to go to war with Russia, and Russia knows that. So poking them in the eye with a stick is unwise.
posted by Nevin at 11:19 AM on August 11


How and why can a former ambassador print this sort of thing? It may be the truth, but the piece may be regarded by the Russian leadership (and Russians themselves) as a direct message from the US leadership...It's one thing to enforce sanctions and launch a trade war, but it's quite another to purposefully humiliate a state leader.

I'm not sure I follow you -- writing a factually accurate article after he leaves the ambassadorship is more significant than actual trade sanctions because it might be regarded as a direct message from the US leadership...that they want what? Trade sanctions? Which are already happening?

(And how does the article 'purposefully humiliate a state leader' in any meaningful way?)
posted by cjelli at 11:21 AM on August 11 [1 favorite]


which may not necessarily reflect what it might be if given unfettered access to multiple, truth-based news sources.

I am not really familiar with the Russian media, but there is no shortage of garbage media in North America and I would have a hard time describing it as "multiple truth-based news sources" at the best of times. Much of the media in the US and Canada post-9/11 was absolutely atrocious and has lead me to avoid reading or watching the news regularly for many years.
posted by Hoopo at 11:34 AM on August 11


yoink, you should know that I'm not an American, so I don't really think in your terms of "us and them."

That's neither here nor there. You're saying that it's a bad idea for the US to choose Tefft as an ambassador because the choice might upset Putin. I'm saying that seems a bad argument in general as to why any nation should or should not choose it's ambassadors to any other nation. "Might not be popular with the leadership" should not, in itself, be a criterion in the choice. Now, "might be unpopular for good reasons" would be. Or "might be unpopular and there's an equally good choice who will be popular and it's important for us to curry favor right now"--all of those would be sensible enough reasons. But while you hint at having some more specific objection to make to Tefft, the only one you've offered is one that seems absurd on its face.
posted by yoink at 11:35 AM on August 11


Are you really suggesting we should hand the leaders of other nations an implicit veto over our ambassadorial choices?

Leaders of other nations, in fact, DO have veto power over our ambassadorial choices. This happened recently when Robert Ford was to be ambassador to Egypt, but retired instead when, it is believed, Egypt objected.
posted by Jahaza at 11:35 AM on August 11 [2 favorites]


Leaders of other nations, in fact, DO have veto power over our ambassadorial choices.

Yes, that's an "explicit" veto, however. They can refuse to accept the ambassador's credentials. My question was whether we should try and second-guess that process by enacting a proactive "implicit" veto on their behalf.
posted by yoink at 11:42 AM on August 11


specific objection to make to Tefft

Interesting, both sides of the argument. An ambassador would seem to have to be on some point of a spectrum from functional through ceremonial. Being a career diplomat he would seem to be on the functional end. Now was he an activist in encouraging the liberal protests in Kiev?

Seems that at the moment a "boring" yet functional career diplomat rather than one that tries to raise the flag of change would be the most pragmatic choice in Moscow. At least there may be line of communication that could be open.

Came to argue for Nevin, looks like I reversed. Hmm.
posted by sammyo at 11:52 AM on August 11


> So tired of Putin (psycho) analysis from the Hoover Institution's McFaul, the New Republic's Julia Ioffe and Masha Gessen.

What exactly do you have against Masha Gessen? I've never found her anything but thoughtful and well informed.
posted by languagehat at 12:07 PM on August 11 [2 favorites]


So, is Putin one of the all time greatest international "players" in the history of the world, or, or is he a representation of the national psyche of Russia and they deserve him?

Putin is a last remnant of the old way of doing things, who has been buoyed up in his endeavors by the continuing high price of oil. Someday Russia will have a President who was born after 1990, and we'll see if that leads to real change.
posted by Kevin Street at 12:10 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


And in relation to the appointment of McFaul, here's an interesting quote from the first article:
Obama’s advisers and the Washington policy establishment have all spent countless hours trying to square the President’s admiration of George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft—classic realists—with his appointments of interventionists like McFaul, Rice, and Samantha Power. In the end, one leading Russia expert, who has worked for two Administrations, told me, “I think Obama is basically a realist—but he feels bad about it.”
posted by Kevin Street at 12:22 PM on August 11


Yes, that's an "explicit" veto, however. They can refuse to accept the ambassador's credentials. My question was whether we should try and second-guess that process by enacting a proactive "implicit" veto on their behalf.

Actually, it was an implicit veto. The US retired him instead of sending him to Egypt.
posted by Jahaza at 12:28 PM on August 11


Plus, how does a guy who has 30+ years as a Russian "expert" make a mistake like this?

Even native language speakers sometimes make language mistakes.
posted by Jahaza at 12:29 PM on August 11


Any way to know how often ambassadors are rejected?
posted by sammyo at 12:30 PM on August 11


What exactly do you have against Masha Gessen? I've never found her anything but thoughtful and well informed.

Mark Adomanis sums up my feelings about Gessen pretty well here in his defense of Gessen in Forbes in 2013: "Now let me be forthright in saying that I agree with Masha Gessen on almost nothing and that I think she is consistently hysterical and wrongheaded in her analysis of contemporary Russia. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see that she very often allows her visceral, seething, and very personalized hatred for Vladimir Putin to influence her analysis of Russian politics, and that she too often substitutes feelings for analysis."

While I also often disagree with him, I vastly prefer her brother's writings on contemporary Russia.
posted by Auden at 1:09 PM on August 11


That night, Channel One, the biggest television station in Russia, turned its rhetorical howitzer on the new Ambassador. Mikhail Leontiev, an acid-tongued conservative who hosts a show called “Odnako” (“However”), declared that McFaul was an expert not on Russia but on “pure democracy promotion.” In the most withering tone he could summon, Leontiev said that McFaul had worked for American N.G.O.s backed by American intelligence; he had palled around with anti-Kremlin activists like the “Internet Führer,” Alexei Navalny, an anti-corruption crusader who had, damningly, spent some time at Yale.
the problem being that probably the only people who believe that "democracy" advocating NGOs, who like to pal around with highly connected Americans and government officials, aren't actually connected to our intelligence and security apparatus (how about that 'our'?) are ladder-climbing doofuses like McFaul. I mean, he probably doesn't believe he's connected to the US security and intelligence apparatus.

basically, like the Russians say, we like to appoint diplomatic representatives to Russia who would be the equivalent of people who are used hanging out at Black Panther or Weathermen parties during the Nixon administration. and that says everything about our commitment to diplomacy wrt Russia and Eastern Europe.
posted by ennui.bz at 1:14 PM on August 11


Female journalist considered hysterical, emotional, and overly personal. Male contemporary considered superior. News at 11.
posted by equipoise at 1:20 PM on August 11 [10 favorites]


All I am saying is that when the stakes are high (the economic sanctions for one thing are going to result in a global recession), if you don't want an outright war, you need to focus on dialogue.

All the western countries have focussed on dialogue all the time. Russia has focussed on arming terrorists.

Then again, perhaps the US has never really been interested in forming strong links and partnership with Russia. American oligarchs like Soros have been monkeying around in places like Georgia and Ukraine for some time now.

There's some real cognitive dissonance in these two sentences. Estonia, for one thing, welcomed all the local culture supporting "oligarchs" simply to get away from the USSR. Forming strong links and partnerships with Russia is precisely what we will not do, for reasons which Russia is demonstrating daily today. The Baltic states have had a clear idea for the past roughly 70 years: get as far away from Russia as possible. This tactic has worked spectacularly well both economically and socially.

But as a supporter of Russian imperialism, I suppose the sovereign will of these nations does not matter to you, and all you can see is some "oligarchs" monkeying around in some random silly places that are uppity.
posted by Pyrogenesis at 1:29 PM on August 11 [4 favorites]


I find Keith's work preferable because I find his analysis and writing both more incisive and more accurate, not that I consider him superior because he's male. (Not that I ever used the word "superior" in my comment, I don't know where that came from.) Or that I find Masha's anti-Putin diatribes in any way connected with her gender. What a weird retort. I only mentioned him because I am familiar with both his and Masha's work on Russia.
posted by Auden at 1:40 PM on August 11 [1 favorite]


"Now let me be forthright in saying that I agree with Masha Gessen on almost nothing and that I think she is consistently hysterical and wrongheaded in her analysis of contemporary Russia. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see that she very often allows her visceral, seething, and very personalized hatred for Vladimir Putin to influence her analysis of Russian politics, and that she too often substitutes feelings for analysis."

Emphasis mine. The larger picture of a woman guided more by feelings than by analytical thought aside, that's a good word to avoid endorsing.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 3:10 PM on August 11 [3 favorites]



Mark Adomanis sums up my feelings about Gessen pretty well here in his defense of Gessen in Forbes in 2013: "Now let me be forthright in saying that I agree with Masha Gessen on almost nothing and that I think she is consistently hysterical and wrongheaded in her analysis of contemporary Russia. I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to see that she very often allows her visceral, seething, and very personalized hatred for Vladimir Putin to influence her analysis of Russian politics, and that she too often substitutes feelings for analysis."


Putin's just trying to take her children away, put her in jail, and invite thugs to beat her or maybe kill her like they do many a journalist. Why does she have to go make it personal?
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 3:33 PM on August 11 [5 favorites]


Sometimes I like to imagine what Russia might be like today if the 1991 hardliner coup hadn't happened and Gorbachev had been able to push forward with his reforms rather than handing things off to Yeltsin. I think there's a good chance we'd have ended up here anyway, but there could have been a shot at something much better.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 4:56 PM on August 11


Sometimes I like to imagine what Russia might be like today if the 1991 hardliner coup hadn't happened and Gorbachev had been able to push forward with his reforms rather than handing things off to Yeltsin.

Stephen F. Cohen wrote a very good book about just these kinds of missed opportunities throughout modern Russian history: Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War
posted by Auden at 10:35 PM on August 11


He really does kind of superimpose the way his system works onto the way he thinks our system works. He grossly exaggerates the role of the C.I.A. in the making of our foreign policy. He just doesn’t get it. Or maybe he does get it and doesn’t portray it that way. I struggle with that: is he really super-clever and this is his psych op, or does he believe it?

The converse also applies - Westerners superimposing their thinking onto Russians. Fun game: imagine that all else being equal the leader of your country had done any one of the following: (a) passed homophobic legislation (b) banned millions of citizens from travelling overseas (c) lost millions to corruption in the most expensive Olympics ever staged (d) banned most imported food. (Trying to list only things which the average Russian would agree happened). At what point did you think that Rutte, or Obama, or Merkel, or Cameron would be out on their collective ear?

Putin is at almost (last I checked) record popularity. Sure, owning the media helps, but maybe that's not all there is to it. I don't understand it myself, but I think trying to understand that mentality will be more productive than psychoanalysing Putin. The people of Russia will outlive Putin, as they have outlived much else.

Also, "Yoburg" is bawdy IMO but nowhere near as bad as "Fucksville". Maybe McFaul heard some trendy young things say it and misjudged the level of formality when communicating as an ambassador. A quick Twitter search shows plenty of people using it before and after him without any obviously insulting intent(Tweet in Russian).
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 2:17 AM on August 12 [2 favorites]


Stephen F. Cohen wrote a very good book about just these kinds of missed opportunities throughout modern Russian history: Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

Seeing these sorts of what-ifs remind me of Let The Past Collapse On Time
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:03 AM on August 12


> Stephen F. Cohen wrote a very good book

Ah, if you like Stephen F. "Soviet Nostalgia" Cohen, no wonder you don't like Masha Gessen.
posted by languagehat at 8:51 AM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Ah, if you like Stephen F. "Soviet Nostalgia" Cohen, no wonder you don't like Masha Gessen.

I'm hesitant to reply, but I will. I don't like Gessen because I think her analysis of modern Russia is simply strange and fantastical, ascribing motives and agendas to both Putin and the Russian state that - to me - appear completely at odds with logic, facts and history. (This article in Slate is a good example) She is regularly brought out in the media to perform her 2 minute Putin hate, supporting the given narrative and biasis of the American media and the US Government, as do many expats during times of foreign conflict. I think she warps and simplifies understanding of Putin, Russia, and the relationship between that nation, the US, and the EU.

You're right, I do like Cohen, though; he's probably my favorite Russian historian/analyst, along with Dmitri Trenin (Carnegie Moscow Center's Director). I don't think Cohen has "Soviet Nostalgia" at all, whatever that may be, and he has often expressed sadness that he won't see a true Russian democratic state "in his lifetime." His point of view is now almost totally excluded from the media in favor of people like Gessen, sadly (sad to me, at least. Yes, at the beginning of the Ukrainian crisis he did appear on TV and Radio for a brief spell). And he is a Russophile in interviews he's said his favorite country - after the US - is Russia. In his writings, I see the thoughtfulness and the historical understanding - and the empathy for Russia and Russians - that I see missing in Gessen. I'm tempted to say that Gessen (to me) seems somewhat unbalanced, which will probably expose me to more claims of sexism. It's clear that she has suffered persecution, and has shown great bravery in the face of it, and I'd be the first to admit it. But every time I read something by her, I'm baffled.
posted by Auden at 9:11 AM on August 12


I don't think Cohen has "Soviet Nostalgia" at all, whatever that may be

What I mean by it is that he still (I am sure) thinks things would have been peachy keen if only his man Bukharin had managed to take power instead of that awful Stalin. But you're right, there's probably not much point our discussing it, since I have as much contempt for Cohen as you do for Masha Gessen (who is always, I repeat, insightful and frequently moving—but if I go on about that you'll think me "hysterical" as well).
posted by languagehat at 12:34 PM on August 12


Oh, languagehat, I could never think you hysterical. You're a man.

(...also, I don't feel contempt for Gessen, although maybe it seems that way from my posts)
posted by Auden at 2:25 PM on August 12


> I don't feel contempt for Gessen, although maybe it seems that way from my posts

Thanks for saying that, because it did seem that way. (I'm a big fan of Keith too, by the way.)
posted by languagehat at 5:49 PM on August 12 [1 favorite]


Stephen F. Cohen wrote a very good book about just these kinds of missed opportunities throughout modern Russian history: Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War

I have trouble taking seriously a history of the region by someone who insists that there's no such thing as Ukraine or Ukrainians.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 10:56 AM on August 14


Just one of the myriad reasons I think Cohen is a fool or a villain, take your pick.
posted by languagehat at 1:02 PM on August 14


Actually, if you read Cohen's June 16 speech, as opposed to Chait's article, it's very interesting.
posted by Auden at 7:08 PM on August 14


I did. It was pretty appalling. I mean, there's not much "mysterious" about the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner, unless you're desperate to fuzz an issue that makes your side look bad. And while the first of his "facts" are sort of true, the second, third, fourth and fifth are just awful, appalling lies. To his credit, though, it was pretty funny to hear him spend so much time whining about being called a toady just because he dedicated himself to passing on every lie promulgated by a thuggish tyrant.
posted by ThatFuzzyBastard at 7:29 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


Two important facts about Ukraine:
1) Ukraine is a sovreign state
2) Ukraine is the land of Ukrainians
posted by the man of twists and turns at 11:16 AM on August 15 [1 favorite]


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