The Kremlin has apparently banned former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul from entering Russia. Yet, at the same time, Russia remains hopeful about a new reset under President Trump.

Pictured: Ex-U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul leaves the Foreign Ministry in Moscow. Photo: AP

Last week former U.S. Ambassador to Russia and Stanford professor Michael McFaul confirmed that the Kremlin had banned him from entering Russia and denied him a visa.

The Kremlin has apparently banned former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul from entering Russia. Yet, at the same time, Russia remains hopeful about a new reset under U.S. President-elect Donald Trump.

“I am on the Kremlin's sanctions list because of my close affiliation with Obama,” the well-known expert on Russia and the key architect of the 2009 U.S.-Russia reset wrote on his Facebook page.

Today, during a period of sanction wars between Russia and the West, the creation of so-called “black lists” of undesired persons or organizations can hardly astound anyone. Such practice has become commonplace, and has been an important part of the conflict between Moscow and Washington ever since the adoption of the 2012 Magnitsky Law, which imposes sanctions on Russian officials, involved in the alleged murder of Sergei Magnitsky, an anti-corruption campaigner. In fact, the Magnitsky Law gave the Kremlin a reason to give up on the reset policy, which contributed to future confrontation.

For the last four years, both sides have been imposing mutual restrictions, with the “black list” of undesirable figures expanded in the wake of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. The former U.S. Ambassador might have become persona non grata at that time, but he only found out about it recently. However, this incident is not a matter of routine. After all, several factors make the Kremlin’s stance both important and symbolic.   

The news about the ban of McFaul from entering Russia comes during a time of increasing uncertainty in U.S.-Russia relations. After the astounding victory of Republican candidate Donald Trump in the 2016 American presidential race, nothing is clear. In such an environment, even the most insignificant move attracts a great deal of attention and might be the foundation for far-reaching conclusions.

According to McFaul, he knew about the visa denial only recently, but he might have believed that Moscow would lift the sanctions against him and allow him to come to Russia in the event of a victory by Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. The former ambassador might have plans to visit Russia in December to understand the situation in the country before the new administration entered the White House.

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The Clinton team was likely to bet on McFaul, because he is one of the most famous and competent U.S. experts on Russia. It is not ruled out that the Clinton administration planned to involve him in the work with the Kremlin on creating a new stage of U.S.-Russia relations. However, unexpectedly, Trump won and there was no reason to come to Moscow, yet Moscow still didn’t lift the ban. 

What we can learn from this story are the intentions of Clinton to establish dialogue with Russia. She was going to involve in this process the previous team, which initiated the first reset. And, in fact, Clinton didn’t care about the fact the Kremlin is not a big fan of McFaul (the Russian authorities relentlessly alleged that the former ambassador sought regime change in Russia through the so-called “color revolutions” by involving the opposition).

When asked about the reasons for banning McFaul from entering the country, Russia’s Foreign Ministry bluntly responded by explaining that McFaul is persona non grata due to what the Kremlin sees as “active participation in the destruction of the bilateral relationship and relentless lobbying in favor of a campaign to pressure Russia."

Such accusations against McFaul are more than strange. Although during his diplomatic tenure he preferred communication with the representatives of Russian civil society and liberal opposition to the Kremlin, it could not be the reason of the deterioration in the Moscow-Washington bilateral relations. After all, communication with the opposition is a diplomatic routine in other countries. And if the Kremlin found McFaul’s contacts with opposition suspicious, it means the relations were not in good shape because of another reason - a more fundamental reason, not because of McFaul.

The Russian Foreign Ministry should be more optimistic about the previous role of the Stanford professor and recall the fact that, thanks to McFaul, the U.S.-Russia reset took place in 2009, when he worked in the Obama administration. The failure of the reset results not from the activity of McFaul, but from the incompatible interests of Russia and the U.S.

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Most importantly, McFaul’s criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin is a very inappropriate reason to deny him a visa and entry into the country. If the Kremlin consistently follows this logic, Moscow will have to ban thousands of foreign critics of the Russian authorities and officially forbid any criticism within the country.  

Amidst Trump’s victory and the Kremlin’s aspirations to launch a new reset in U.S.-Russia relations on different conditions, the situation looks very poignant. Oddly enough, but many Russians believe that the United States will admit their mistakes and start taking into consideration Russia’s interests in the new stage of its modern history. This, they believe, will quickly resolve all bilateral conflicts.

Thus, the ban of McFaul becomes symbolic in such an environment. The Kremlin sees the Stanford professor as the embodiment of Washington’s old approaches toward Russia and by openly denying him a visa, the Russian authorities seem to be carrying out a sort of mystical ritual. 

However, the problem is that the Kremlin pins too many hopes on the Trump administration. The thaw in Moscow-Washington relations might never take place at all under Trump, at least because his foreign policy team includes such politicians as John R. Bolton, former United States ambassador to the United Nations under George W. Bush, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Vice President-elect Mike Pence, who can hardly be seen as big fans of Russia. This is in contrast with McFaul, who sincerely loves Russia’s culture, people and knows the country very well.

If those included in the Trump administration are able to reconcile Russia’s and America’s interests, then experts will have to totally reassess their understanding of good and bad as well as the entire system of international politics. However, given Trump’s victory and Brexit, anything now seems to be possible.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.