No sooner did McFaul assume his post this January than Russia’s state-owned Channel One ran a slanderous program claiming that he had come to Russia to organize a “revolution.” (This even as Russia actually did stir up revolutions to destabilize out-of-favor-regimes.) The welcome campaign continued when McFaul met with opposition leaders at the embassy. Although the meeting was a mere diplomatic formality, the government tried to capitalize on it for propaganda purposes when the opposition leaders were ambushed by pro-government apparatchiks posing as television reporters as they walked out of the meeting. Footage of the encounter was then posted on the Internet with the implication that the Russian opposition was being orchestrated by the United States, a crude propaganda tactic dating back to the Soviet days.
And the government smear machine was just getting into gear. In February, Russia’s YouTube channel featured video of an anonymous pollster showing passersby on Russian streets a photo of McFaul and a Russian pedophile and asking them to choose which was the pedophile. The video showed everyone pointing to the picture of McFaul. The stunt bore all the hallmarks of the pro-Putin youth group Nashi, which has used similar tactics to destroy the reputation of government opponents. In this case, of course, the target was the U.S. ambassador. If the government thought this was “beyond the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette,” it didn’t say so.
The government’s refusal to condemn the scurrilous campaign against McFaul and the U.S. is hardly surprising, since similar attacks have issued from none other than President Vladimir Putin himself. As mass anti-government protests have erupted over the past year, drawing thousands onto Moscow’s streets for the first time since the dying days of the Soviet Union, Putin has been at pains to portray the demonstrators as “lackeys” in an ongoing U.S. plot to destabilize Russia. When last year’s fraudulent December 4 parliamentary elections drew thousands to Moscow’s frozen streets, Putin claimed that the State Department was instigating the protestors. Putin went so far as to accuse Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of directly inciting the protesters, claiming that she was “giving the signal” for the demonstrations. In another context, that may have been an extraordinary charge. For Putin, reflexive anti-Americanism is par for the course, a useful way to drum up popular support.
Seen in this light, the government’s feigned distress at McFaul’s comments is really just the latest in a series of clumsy propaganda attempts. The irony is that in turning its ire on McFaul, the Kremlin is antagonizing a potential ally. So far from seeking to undermine the government, McFaul is the architect of the Obama administration’s “reset” policy of repairing relations with Russia. The fact that McFaul, for all his good intentions, is now the target of government smear merchants is an indication of how well that policy is working.
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