Michael McFaul: The first 100 days in Moscow as an ambassador

U.S. Ambassador in Russia Michael McFaul. Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines

U.S. Ambassador in Russia Michael McFaul. Source: Russia Beyond the Headlines

Several days ago, one of my Twitter followers pointed out that 100 days have passed since my family and I arrived in Moscow. I was quite surprised by that figure - glad someone is keeping track! The tweet, however, also prompted me to reflect on what I have done during these first 100 days, and what I want to get done in the next 100 days and beyond.

The first thought I had was to keep focused on the action verb. I did not come to Russia “to be” an ambassador. Rather, I came to Russia “to do” things on behalf of President Obama, his administration, and the American people. In particular, the president asked me to become his representative in the Russian Federation so that I could help continue and deepen the “reset” in relations between our two countries that he launched in 2009. As a foreign policy advisor to Senator Obama’s campaign and then for three years as President Obama’s advisor on Russian affairs at the White House, I had the opportunity to help develop and execute the Obama administration’s reset policy towards Russia, a new approach that we believe has benefited the American people (and we assume of benefit to the Russian people as well, or else presumably, President Medvedev would not have engaged with President Obama in such a significant way in charting together this new policy course).

Developing new supply routes through Russia to support our soldiers and civilians in Afghanistan, who are there to combat terrorist groups and nurture a more stable and secure state of benefit to the United States, Russia, and the world; the New START Treaty, which reduces nuclear weapons and launch vehicles to record low levels; the 123 Agreement on civilian nuclear cooperation; the creation of the Presidential Bilateral Commission, now with 20 working groups on everything from counternarcotics cooperation to collaboration on innovation and rule of law; a new visa regime facilitating travel for tourism and business between our two countries; the amended Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement; close cooperation on nuclear proliferation challenges posed by Iran and North Korea; and working together to finalize Russia’s accession agreement to the World Trade Organization – these are but a few of the many concrete results of the “reset.”

By the beginning of Obama’s fourth year in office, this record of achievement made maintaining momentum more challenging. Resolution of these “easier” issues (though they didn’t seem easy at the time!) meant that only the harder problems remained. In addition, unexpected new agenda items in our bilateral relationship, such as Syria, also tested the reset. So did Russia’s electoral politics, which generated anti-American rhetoric. For some outside analysts, the transition from President Medvedev to President Putin also fueled doubts about continuity in our bilateral relations. When I arrived 100 days ago, all of these factors intersected to create an uncertain moment in U.S.-Russia relations.

One hundred days later, however, it is clear to me that the basic trajectory in U.S.-Russia relations is continuing, not changing. Russia and the United States continue to cooperate on Iran, North Korea, and Afghanistan. Even our approaches to Syria are much closer today than they were at the beginning of the year. Now that Russia’s elections are over, the hyperbolic and inaccurate attacks on my country in the press and Internet have receded, though of course sincere criticisms of our foreign and domestic policies remain. And most importantly, we have received clear signals from Russian officials that the change in presidents in Moscow will not lead to a change in policy towards the United States.

For some of our critics back in the United States, this continuity will give reason to criticize our Russia policy, especially in an election year. And that’s healthy and an important part of the democratic process. I firmly believe that constructive criticism from thoughtful opponents has made U.S. policy towards Russia better over the last three years.

As ambassador, I have sought to advance our foreign policy objectives by focusing first on engaging senior Russian government officials, many of whom I have worked with closely over the previous three years. In these last three months, I have had the honor of participating in three meetings with President Dmitry Medvedev, both in Moscow and in Seoul, with President-elect Putin when National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon visited Moscow last week, as well as with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov; First Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Denisov; Deputy Foreign Ministers Sergei Ryabkov, Grigory Karasin, Igor Margulov, and Mikhail Bogdanov; Secretary of the Security Council Nikolai Patrushev; Presidential Advisors Arkady Dvorkovich and Sergei Prikhodo; Foreign Policy Advisor to the Prime Minister Yury Ushakov; Prime Minister Putin’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Dmitry Peskov; First Deputy Prime Minister Igor Shuvalov; Deputy Prime Minister Vladislav Surkov; Deputy Prime Minister Dmitriy Rogozin; Minister of Economic Development Nabiullina; Minister of Education and Science Fursenko; Minister of Agriculture Yelena Skrynnik; Deputy Defense Minister Anatoliy Antonov; and Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation Director Mikhail Dmitriyev. I also have met several Duma and Federation Council members, including the chairs of both of those bodies’ International Relations Committees, Alexei Pushkov and Mikhail Margelov. I was very pleased to participate recently in a lively roundtable, organized by the Federation Council and hosted by Mikhail Margelov, on issues related to Russia’s WTO accession and Jackson-Vanik.

Some of the agenda items in these meetings have been tough— conflicting assessments of the capabilities of our missile defense systems, disagreements over to how to try to end the violence in Syria, disputes over intellectual property rights violation, and competing interpretations regarding the cancellation of the U.S. Department of Energy loan to Severstal. Nonetheless, my overwhelming impression from these engagements over the last 100 days is that Russian officials want to work with me and my government to pursue win-win outcomes of benefit to our two countries in particular and international security and prosperity more generally.

In parallel to these meetings with Russian government officials, I also have sought to engage non-governmental leaders, consistent with our policy of dual track engagement that President Obama and Secretary Clinton have encouraged U.S. diplomats all over the world to practice. I have had the privilege to meet with some of Russia’s most innovative and active civil society organizations, including For Human Rights, Perspektiva, Golos, Human Rights Watch, Transparency International, Rus Sidyashchaya, and Business Solidarity. The work they do is a vital component of a strong and vibrant Russian state.

I also have had the honor and privilege to meet with religious leaders, including the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church Kirill; Chief Rabbis of the Jewish Community of Russia and Moscow Berel Lazar, Adolf Shaeyvich, and Pinchas Goldschmidt; and Chairman of the Council of Muftis Ravil Gaynutdin.

Increasing trade and investment between our two countries is one of President Obama’s highest priorities, so I have devoted special attention in my first 100 days to meetings with leaders of the American business community here in Russia. They are doing some amazing work to provide great products and services, generate wealth, and create jobs for both Russians and Americans. In 2011, U.S.-Russia trade reached an all-time high of $42.9 billion. That’s a great improvement over the past, but still too small a figure. One or my most memorable experiences over the past three months was having the opportunity to board Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner airplane, which touched down in Moscow earlier this month. Several critical components of this beautiful aircraft are produced in Russia, demonstrating that that Russians and Americans can cooperate to produce win-win economic outcomes as well. In meeting with American companies, I have devoted particular attention to explaining the Obama administration’s commitment to work with the U.S. Congress to terminate the application of the Jackson-Vanik amendment to Russia.

 {***}

Source: Youtube / usembassyru

I have also had several fascinating meetings with some of Russia’s foremost business leaders including from Rosnano, Sberbank, Severstal, VTB, Skolkovo, Alfa Group, N Trans, SIBUR, Summa Group and Phosagro. Meanwhile, I’ve forged productive partnerships with the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) and the U.S. Russia Business Council (USRBC). President Obama seeks to increase trade and investment between our two countries – first and foremost as a way to create jobs and wealth in the United States and Russia, but also as a foundation on which to construct a more stable bilateral relationship. Although businesspeople making business decisions are the key drivers of this economic activity, one of my top priorities as ambassador is to facilitate their work. To do so, I have to learn more about the Russian economy, and plan to do even more of these kinds of meetings in the near future. I am especially eager to learn more about the various activities in Skolkovo and see if there are ways to build new relationships with academics, businesses, and investors from the Silicon Valley and other centers of high-tech and innovation in my country. I also look forward to renewing my contacts with Russian business associations and trade unions, from whom I also can learn a great deal.

I also have had the opportunity to increase cultural connections between our two countries. In my previous job at the White House, I didn’t have much time to participate in cultural outreach. Here, I have found this set of activities to be one of the most rewarding aspects of my job. “American Seasons” is the name we have given our yearlong effort to showcase to Russians the depth and diversity of culture in the U.S. Although many concerts and performances associated with American Seasons had occurred before I arrived in Moscow in January, I did catch a truly inspiring performance at Moscow’s International House of Music by the Aeolians of Oakwood College, who had Russians and Americans singing “Amazing Grace” together. At Spaso House, we hosted a country-Western group from my home state of Montana called “Wiley and the Wild West,” and had the whole house dancing, Russians and Americans together. And last week, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s (CSO) tour of Moscow and St. Petersburg wrapped up our year-long celebration of American culture in Russia to broad acclaim. The CSO received as much media coverage for its “Citizen Musician” activities, such as master classes and performances for alternately-abled young people, as it did for the concerts themselves. Music director Riccardo Muti brought down the house in Moscow and St. Petersburg with his encore of Verdi’s “La Forza del Destino.” Still to come: the wrap-up of our festival of traditional American folk music, including gospel, zydeco, Cajun and bluegrass, and jazz legend Herbie Hancock. I love this part of my job!

Beyond programs associated with our “American Seasons,” I have had the chance to expose my family to some Russian culture and history, including visits to the Pushkin Museum, the Museum of Contemporary Russian History, and the Central Museum of the Great Patriotic War; a trip to Sergiev Posad; and a couple of fantastic performances at Igor Butman’s jazz club. I hope in my next 100 days we will have time to do more of these activities.

As a means of engaging more directly with the Russian people, I have opened accounts on Twitter and Facebook. In just three months, my number of Twitter followers has grown to nearly 25,000, while my number of “friends” on Facebook has climbed to 3,459, with over 500 subscribers. These media are new for me. Sometimes, in trying to be open and spontaneous, I have tweeted thoughts that could have used more reflection and refinement. But on the whole, I am very pleased with how much I can learn from these platforms through direct interaction with Russian citizens all over this giant country. Follow me on Twitter at @McFaul and Facebook at www.facebook.com/amb.mcfaul. As Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in her speech on the “Foundations of Smart Power” at the Virginia Military Institute: “part of doing business differently means using new tools to engage more people in more places, and reaching beyond governments to talk directly to people. This is what we call 21st century statecraft. So our ambassadors are now blogging, and yes, tweeting. Every embassy has a Facebook page. And we’re doing more than just talking. We’re listening and hearing from communities we’ve never been able to reach before.”

I truly value our interaction through our various social media platforms, and will be more disciplined about responding to your questions and comments. This is the advice I have followed during my first 100 days in Moscow, and it has been a very rewarding experience. At the same time, I also want to be more active in the Russian press. I have done a few television interviews, including Vladimir Posner’s show on Channel One and with Sergei Brilev at Spaso House for “Vesti v Subbotu,” an interview with Alexei Venediktov on Ekho Moskvy radio, and print interviews with Kommersant, Vedomosti, and Ekspert As my Russian language improves, I plan to do more.

During these past three months, new communications technology has allowed me to participate virtually in all major policy meetings on Russia taking place in Washington. I am pleasantly surprised at how closely connected I still feel to my administration colleagues back home (though the time difference does make for some late nights at the embassy). This is a great advantage of our time that ambassadors from previous eras could not enjoy.

I also consider it a vitally important part of my job to support the American community living here in Moscow. We had a town hall meeting at Spaso House for American citizens, including students, artists, and business representatives. At that event, I deputized all Americans living in Moscow and beyond to serve as citizen ambassadors for the United States, since the daily interaction with their Russians neighbors, colleagues, and partners makes a profound and lasting impact on breaking down stereotypes and misperceptions. My wife and I thoroughly enjoyed that gathering and plan to make it an annual event.

Whether supporting Russia’s American community or advancing our foreign policy interests, I have felt fortunate to be working with a talented team of diplomats, both at our embassy in Moscow and in our three consulates, in St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg and Vladivostok. Before I came to Moscow, I was told that our Russian Embassy attracted the best and brightest, not only from the Department of State, but also from the over a dozen U.S. Government agencies also represented in Moscow. Well, it is true. This is an all-star team, of which I am proud to be a member.

Wow. That’s a lot! I hope my next 100 days in Russia will be as active as my first.

Moving forward, I especially want to devote more time to meeting government officials, civil society groups, business leaders, professors, students, and cultural figures outside of Moscow. My leaders back home depend on our reports to understand your country. I have to do a better job of reaching these communities so that Washington senior officials back home have a more complete understanding of the political and economic dynamics underway here.

Over the next year, as both of our countries move beyond our respective election cycles and transitions of government, we have an important bilateral agenda ahead of us. I look forward to engaging with our Russian colleagues in those areas of paramount importance to both our countries, searching for ways to enhance our mutual security, expand our markets and investments, enhance stability and peace to regions suffering from conflict, and increase mutual understanding and dialogue on contentious issues. As two important powers in the world, we have a tremendous responsibility to work together to achieve these outcomes. I am honored to be involved in this process.

And as I try to contribute to these important bilateral and international issues, my family and I also want to continue to enjoy all that Russia has to offer. Give me your recommendations of trips, events, or experiences that we should try to do in the next 100 days. I’ll report back 100 days from now on our adventures!

First published in Michael Mcfaul's LiveJournal blog. Read the original.  

Michael Mcfaul is the U.S. Ambassador in Russia.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.