U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul's decision to resign comes against a backdrop of worsening of U.S.-Russia relations. Some pundits suggest McFaul is leaving because his project – the U.S.-Russia reset – is over. Yet several also argue that despite difficulties, the reset was at least partially a success.

Michael McFaul. Photo: Russia Direct

U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul announced his resignation on his own blog, saying he plans to leave shortly after the 2014 Sochi Olympics.  “After more than five years working in the Obama administration, it is time to go home,” he wrote. McFaul said his primary motivation is to rejoin his family in California.

“I simply need to be with my family again,” he explained. “Anyone who has followed my blogs over the last two years knows how deeply I value my time with my wife and sons.  It’s time for us to be reunited.”

Yet according to Jeffrey Mankoff, fellow with the CSIS Russia and Eurasia Program and a visiting scholar at Columbia University, “there is also a political context” to McFaul’s departure.

“With U.S.-Russian relations in something of a down period, major agreements with Russia are not likely to be a priority in the near future, meaning there is not likely to be much McFaul could accomplish if he stayed,” Mankoff told Russia Direct.

“From the administration’s standpoint, the current lull or trough in the relationship is also a good time to bring in someone else who can start with a more or less clean slate,” Mankoff said. 

Mankoff argues that McFaul “accumulated a lot of baggage during his time in Moscow, and to the extent the White House is looking to create new momentum for the relationship, it is liable to have more success with a new face at the embassy.”

Andrey V. Kortunov, President of the New Eurasia Foundation and the General Director of the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), said it remains unclear who the replacement might be, given McFaul’s influence and his access to President Barack Obama. “He has been working with Obama for a long time,” Kortunov said.

Fyodor Lukyanov, Editor-in-Chief of Russia in Global Affairs magazine and Head of Council of Foreign and Defense Policy (CFDP), believes that McFaul was named U.S. Ambassador to Russia because of his support for the U.S.-Russia reset initiative.

“When he was appointed in 2011, there were hopes that he would develop what had already begun in U.S.-Russia bilateral relations,” Lukyanov told Russia Direct.

“Yet everything changed because the situations in Russia and in the United Stated changed. He failed to get his program in Russia off the ground. And this reduced his interest in working in Russia. He had a clear vision about his goals in Russia, but understood that it is difficult to achieve these goals in new political conditions. ”

Ambassador McFaul talking to Russian journalists. Photo: Russia Direct

Lukyanov points out to the fact that McFaul is not a career diplomat. He initially he had problems in adjusting to working in Russia, Lukyanov said.

“As a person who is used to a different style, he had some difficulties in adjusting to the role of the Ambassador. Yet afterwards he behaved like a professional diplomat,” Lukyanov said.

Kortunov agrees that it’s not McFaul's "genre and he didn’t fit this genre. His style of working and communication and his statements brought about controversial reactions in Russia. For him, working in Russia was rather a disappointment in general. A person, who is the architect of the reset who did a great deal to develop this reset, he was met with criticism in Russia. His communication with the Russian authorities was limited that’s why I believe that he understood that it’s time to return to his academic activities.” 

Gregory Feifer, a former NPR correspondent in Moscow, writer and expert in U.S.-Russia relations, sees the Russian authorities' treatment of McFaul as “deplorable.”

“I'm sure he'll be relieved to leave behind the personal attacks and obstruction that must have made his two years as ambassador very difficult indeed,” he said. “The irony for Russia is that although the attacks have served President Putin's personal political ambitions, they've helped quash a great opportunity for the country to become a responsible member of the international community.”

Nevertheless, McFaul said that he sees his experience in Russia with a sense of satisfaction, regardless of recent setbacks in U.S.-Russia relations. These have included the Magnitsky list, Russia’s adoption ban for American families, the Edward Snowden case and differences over Syria and Ukraine.

“Yet, I leave Russia with a strong feeling of satisfaction for how our administration handled these issues without compromising our interests or values,” he wrote in his farewell blog.

McFaul's career: What's next? 

When asked about the future occupation of McFaul, Kortunov said that McFaul seemed uninterested in angling for another position in the U.S. State Department.

“McFaul is not a bureaucrat,” Kortunov said. “He is not an official. He is a professor. A thinker. He is a person who is used to working in an academic environment. He spent a significant part of his life in Stanford. And it had an influence on him. If Obama asks him personally, he is hardly likely to refuse. But I’m not sure that he’s striving to climb the bureaucratic ladder.”

Political analyst Nikolai Zlobin talking to Ambassador McFaul. Photo: Russia Direct

McFaul is likely to keep working on specific projects for President Obama and his administration, as indicated from his blog.

“I also will look for ways to contribute to the strengthening of ties between our business communities and civil societies,” he wrote. “You don't have to be in government to add value in these spheres. And you can always find me on Twitter and Facebook, though soon with a 12-hour time difference.  For the immediate future, my base of operations will be Stanford University. But a part of me – an emotional part, an intellectual part, a spiritual part – will always remain in Russia.  That was true before I joined the government. It will remain so forever after.”

Igor Ivanov, Russia's former Foreign Minister and President of Russian International Affairs Council, warned against dramatizing McFaul's decision to leave Russia.

"It's normal for diplomacy," he told Russia Direct, implying that there is little political context behind the decision.

The Reset: McFaul’s legacy in Russia

Michael McFaul in his Moscow residence Spaso House during the 2012 Election Night. Photo: Russia Direct

Feifer said McFaul “crafted the "reset" – a sober policy, both realistic and idealistic at the same time – aimed at improving relations.”McFaul “then worked to put it in place,” Feifer added.  It was a matter of time until he'd felt he'd done what he could before returning to university life.

“The reset never promised an improvement in relations. That's often misunderstood,” Feifer said. “It was a last-ditch effort to get Moscow to stop viewing foreign policy as a zero-sum game, and it succeeded in producing nuclear arms and nuclear energy deals as well as cooperation in some other areas. In that sense, it's by no means a failure.”

Likewise, Steven Pifer, director of Brookings Arms Control Initiative and senior fellow at Center on the United States and Europe, doesn’t see the reset as a failure.

“It’s important to remember the state of U.S.-Russia relations when the Obama administration took office in January 2009 – just five months after the Georgia-Russia conflict and the lowest point in the U.S.-Russia relationship since 1991,” he told Russia Direct. “The Obama administration sought with the reset to improve relations with Moscow, believing that cooperation could advance goals important to both sides.”

According to him, the major achievements of the “reset” were the completion of the New START Treaty, greater cooperation on Iran (including agreement in the UN Security Council in 2010 to a new resolution that imposed an arms embargo on Tehran), enhanced cooperation in facilitating logistical support for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, the entry into force of a civil nuclear cooperation agreement (with Russian accession) to the World Trade Organization.

“While he bilateral relationship has become more difficult since 2011, it is still in better shape than it was in August 2008,” Pifer noted. “But issues where the sides differ – such as Libya, Syria and growing authoritarianism in Russia – have come to weigh more heavily on the bilateral relationship.  This has traditionally been a problem between Washington and Moscow:  it is tough to find ways to make an improved relationship sustainable.”

Perhaps the administration should have declared the reset a success in early 2011, and moved on to a new term to describe the next phase.

Mankoff agrees.  He believes that despite the end of the “reset,” the program was not a failure, but rather a success.

“From Washington’s perspective, the reset was designed to gain Russian support on key administration priorities,” he said. “The reset policy never changed the essentially transactional nature of U.S.-Russian relations though. Unfortunately, some people in the Administration thought that the success of the reset heralded a fundamentally new era in the bilateral relationship and encouraged inflated expectations about what it could accomplish.”

Mankoff argues that because of the recent decline in U.S.-Russia relations and growing controversies between Washington and Moscow, the reset button metaphor is outdated.

“We are in a new period, one that perhaps calls for new people to steer the policy,” he said.