U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who served in his post in Moscow for just two years, resigned on Wednesday and flew to California, where his family and a teaching position at Stanford University await.
Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, Ambassador McFaul and Foreign Minister Lavrov are having an informal meeting. Photo: White House / Pete Souza
According to media reports, the White House has yet to decide on his replacement. Among the most likely candidates are three career diplomats - John Tefft, Steven Pifer, and Carlos Pascual - as well as Rose Gottemoeller, a leading expert on disarmament and nuclear security.
The U.S. ambassadorship in Russia is a tough job. A wrong step to the left or the right is reputational suicide: one day the Kremlin hauls you in for a debriefing, the next the media brands you a spy for an injudicious meeting with the opposition.
With the best interests of Russian-U.S. relations in mind, Russia Direct decided to help McFaul’s successor, whomever he or she might be. We asked a number of experts to advise the new representative of the U.S. State Department on how to win over the Russians.
They did, however, immediately warn that it would not be easy. According to Dmitry Suslov, deputy director of the Center for Comprehensive European and International Studies at the Higher School of Economics, the development of Russian-U.S. ties has little to do with the new ambassador.
In the coming years, the relationship between the two countries will almost certainly remain at the level of “selective cooperation” — in other words, the two countries will cooperate where they have common interests and compete where they disagree, primarily in the post-Soviet space.
Here, the ambassador will have no say. But he or she can do something else to move forward the relationship.
With that in mind, here are 10 tips for the next U.S. ambassador to Russia:
1. Do not let past statements influence the way the Russians view you
Before making the appointment, the U.S. president and Senate should scrutinize the candidate’s past publications and statements. “The hostility to Michael McFaul was due to the fact that in 2005 he published an article on the need to restrain Russia in Central Asia. By itself, the appointment of such a notorious figure complicated relations,” said leading research fellow at the Institute of International Security Problems Alexei Fenenko.
2. Analyze the experience of previous ambassadors
The successful candidate should begin the new job by carefully studying positive U.S. experience of diplomatic work in Russia. The most successful ambassador of recent times was Jack Matlock (1987-1991), according to deputy director of the Institute of U.S. and Canadian Studies Valery Garbuzov.
He says that Matlock managed to “establish successful contacts with the then Soviet leadership, society, and various public organizations.” An understanding of how it was done could help the newcomer.
3. Clearly articulate your positions
It's not a matter of diction, accent, or poor knowledge of the language. The problem is that the pronouncements of Washington sometimes sound completely different in Moscow. And vice versa.
Alexei Malashenko, member of the Academic Council of the Moscow Carnegie Center, encourages the new ambassador to “state as clearly and as distinctly as possible what the U.S. president wants, and adequately convey it to the Russian ruling class and society.” Valery Garbuzov adds: “Only U.S. State Department information that corresponds to Russian realities should be given by the ambassador.”
Meanwhile, deputy director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies Jeffrey Mankoff calls upon the new ambassador not to shy away from important issues: “Just because we don't like to talk about geopolitics doesn't make geopolitics irrelevant, especially when you're in Moscow.”
4. Do not provoke the Russian authorities
The concept of two-pronged cooperation with the authorities and civil society, advocated by the U.S. State Department, is clear and understandable. But Russian officials have a tendency to take offense where in fact there is none.
Especially when it comes to the U.S. In this regard, Malashenko advises, “Do not peddle the topics of Ukraine and Syria... Convey an opinion, but don’t discuss it publicly.”
Mankoff concurs. He exhorts the new ambassador: “Don’t say in public what could be more effectively communicated behind closed doors.” His words are echoed by Dmitry Suslov: “The ambassador will stay sure-footed as long as he doesn’t meet with the Russian opposition on the second day of arrival and concentrates more on working with the Russian Foreign Ministry and political leadership instead of statements in the media and social networks.”
5. Do not interfere in domestic affairs
There really is a lot going on in Moscow, including the political sphere. “The temptation to get involved is overwhelming sometimes,” says Malashenko.
However, it should be avoided. And if that’s not possible, proceed with “extreme caution.”
Alexei Fenenko puts it even more bluntly: “A diplomat should be a diplomat, not an acting politician. It is wise not to comment too much on the political situation in the host country.”
6. Respect Russia
According to Garbuzov, the ambassador’s task “first and foremost is to learn about the host country — both government and society. It is a sign of respect for the people who live there.”
Malashenko suggests that in order to win authority and popularity in Russia, the ambassador must “know and understand the culture, history, and current affairs of Russia.”
He says that all previous ambassadors possessed these qualities and, moreover, could speak Russian. To secure the respect of the Russian people, it is important not to make the blunder of playing the role of U.S. imperialist.
“Russia should be treated with the utmost respect,” assures Malashenko.
7. Sing and dance
The U.S. embassy is not just a building in downtown Moscow. It is a symbol and, to some extent, a showcase of another world. The more attractive this other world appears, the sooner the two countries will build bridges.
“Previous ambassadors have always tried to create a domestic atmosphere inside the embassy — with music and sometimes even dancing,” recalls Alexei Malashenko. “That tradition should continue, since the U.S. ambassador should be the center of attraction for the Moscow elite. And that does not necessarily mean members of the opposition or the Kremlin.”
8. Be open to dialogue
The main tool in the work of the ambassador is communication. Through it, people must learn about America and its politics. He must explain complex and controversial issues. In the opinion of Garbuzov, success here is “half the job.”
“The ambassador should not sit inside the embassy. He should meet with representatives of culture and science, and give lectures to students. He can involve his wife in the public process. Every effort should be made to create an image of the ambassador and his country that facilities dialogue with Russia,” the expert asserts.
True, Mankoff cautions against banking too heavily on the words of “The Godfather” Vito Corleone: “It's nothing personal; it's just business. Personal relationships will only get you so far.”
9. Travel to the Russian regions
Many of the experts interviewed describe McFaul’s active attempts to communicate with the Russian opposition as a mistake. In Moscow, such actions are perceived as hostile and regarded as support for the protest movement. However, for the U.S. it is an important part of the ambassador’s job: “Over time and with great tact, the new ambassador should reach out to a broad segment of Russian society, including opponents of the regime, something that Americans expect of their ambassador and something that is essential to his maintaining credibility with the American political establishment,” says managing director at Kissinger Associates Thomas Graham.
In this case, Suslov counsels the new ambassador to “focus on communicating with the regions, their leaders, and members of local parliaments” and says that to “concentrate on opposition NGOs at the present moment would be the height of folly.”
10. Carry on diverse non-politicized activities
In a climate where any meetings with politicians outside the inner circle are considered almost an act of betrayal, it is necessary to look for other ways to interact with civil society.
Suslov suggests that the U.S. embassy should act as a “mediator or even sponsor of cooperation projects between Russian and American universities.”
He believes that Russia faces the challenge of integrating itself into the international scientific community. Therefore, such initiatives “would meet no resistance on the part of the Kremlin and would really strengthen the dialogue with civil society.”
Fenenko, in turn, notes that the Council on Foreign Affairs holds a major Russia-EU scientific conference every year, but that a major Russia-U.S. scientific conference is as yet unheard of. The U.S. embassy could arrange such an event.