Michael McFaul officially takes up his duties as U.S. Ambassador to Moscow this Saturday.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made better relations with Moscow a cornerstone of his foreign policy. And the main architect of the so-called “reset in relations” - Michael McFaul - is the new American ambassador to Russia.
For the past several years, McFaul has been special adviser to the president on Russian affairs - essentially a member of the White House’s inner circle. He now takes over a position usually given to career diplomats.
But Joseph Cirincione, an arms control expert who knows McFaul and has worked with him, says that will not be a problem.
“Mike McFaul brings some very, very strong cards to the game. Number one - he’s a close adviser of President Obama," said Cirincione. "So the Russians know that they are getting someone in that post that knows how Obama thinks, his advice is valued and can speak for Obama - and speak directly to Obama anytime he wants. Two, he’s a Russia expert. He’s studied the country, knows its history and has been working these issues at a very high level in the Obama administration for the last two years.”
Experts say McFaul has also been a strong critic of Moscow’s policies - especially those dealing with cracking down on dissent. Cirincione says that will continue.
“He is not someone to look the other way when Russia tries to lay a heavy hand on its neighbors or for that matter, its own citizens," said Cirincione. "So he’s a voice for democracy, for forging a new relationship with Russia and very much wants to see Russia integrated into a new European security arrangement.”
McFaul replaces John Beyrle, who experts say was a very popular U.S. ambassador, a post he has held since 2008. Also a Russian speaker, Beyrle was seen as a Russia expert. And his father, Joe, a World War Two paratrooper, was the only man to fight both for the United States and the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany. In 1994, then-Russian President Boris Yeltsin presented Joe Beyrle with several medals for his service with the Soviet army.
Michael McFaul goes to Moscow at a time when relations between the two countries are good.
Experts say the highlight of the Obama administration’s Russia policy was the ratification (in December 2010) of the New START Treaty. That pact limits the number of U.S. and Russian operationally deployed long-range nuclear warheads and delivery systems such as missiles and heavy bombers.
But experts say future arms control negotiations - such as talks aimed at eliminating all nuclear weapons - may be tougher.
And, says Joseph Cirincione, there is still the thorny issue of the American missile defense system. He says Russia believes the United States is seeking advantage over Moscow, knowing that its nuclear forces are slowly declining.
“Basically, they are aging and Russia doesn’t have the money to replace them one-for-one. They are worried that the U.S. is going to seek some advantage by putting up a ring of anti-missile systems around Russia, supposedly aimed at Iran but the Russians believe secretly aimed at them - and then be able to take out Russia’s nuclear forces in a first strike, mopping up whatever is left by an anti-missile system that could shoot down Russian missiles," Cirincione said. "That is a complete fantasy - there is no truth to that whatsoever.”
But, says Cirincione, the Russians are genuinely fearful and suspicious of U.S. motives.
Experts say one area where there has been increasing U.S.-Russian cooperation is on the question of Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
John Parker of the National Defense University (expressing his personal views) says over the years, Moscow has toughened its stance.
“When Obama came into office, the Russians began to back away from their contract to transfer S-300 long-range air defense systems to Iran. And then they joined us in a very tough United Nations Security Council resolution a year ago on Iran. And after that, President Medvedev issued an implementation decree that all but shut down arms transfers to Iran," Parker said. "And then he finished off the job by actually canceling the S-300 contract. So the Russians have come a long way on Iran.”
Experts predict Moscow will continue to remain engaged with Iran, given Tehran’s position in the Middle East and Russia’s interest in the Caucasus and central Asia. Analysts say Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program and how to stop it will be at the top of Michael McFaul’s agenda as new U.S. ambassador to Russia.