New US ambassador sparks Russia's fury
Moscow - The new US ambassador to Moscow came under an extraordinary attack Tuesday from Russia's parliament for meeting the leaders of protests against strongman Vladimir Putin on his arrival last week.
The fury surrounding President Barack Obama's former top Russia adviser Michael McFaul marks an inauspicious beginning for a man who helped "reset" Russia-US relations following Putin's 2008 departure from the Kremlin.
Obama's strategy then focused on promoting the more liberal leanings of President Dmitry Medvedev - a policy set for a rewrite with ex-KGB man Putin's expected return for a third term in March 4 polls.
The 48-year-old career academic met with anti-Putin protest leaders a day after attending a protocol session at the Russian foreign ministry on January 16.
McFaul - seemingly unaware of the controversy this was about to generate - wrote on his blog at the time that this was part of Washington's "dual track engagement" with Moscow.
"Just as President Obama did when he visited Moscow in July 2009, all senior US officials visiting Russia make a point of meeting with both government officials and civil society leaders," McFaul said.
But a commentator on Russia's main Channel One television immediately suggested that McFaul - who once penned a book called Russia's Unfinished Revolution - was now on a mission to "finish the revolution".
Similar comments aired over the weekend on a second channel as the furore showed no signs of going away.
A leading member of Putin's United Russia party on Tuesday relaunched the attacks on both McFaul and the Russians whom he invited to his Spaso House residence on January 17.
"US representatives are acting in an incredibly cynical manner," Andrei Isayev told a rowdy session of parliament.
"This concerns both the embassy meeting, and the very fact that McFaul, who specialises in 'orange revolutions', has been appointed US ambassador to Russia," he said in reference to pro-democracy protests that swept ex-Soviet nations in the past decade.
Isayev also suggested stripping lawmakers who met McFaul of their right to speak in parliament until new elections are held in 2016 and called for a formal ethics committee probe.
The ruling party's suggestion was picked up by the populist Vladimir Zhirinovsky of Liberal Democratic Party of Russia and several other State Duma deputies.
Russia's nascent opposition movement has staged the largest series of protests to hit Moscow in nearly two decades in response to a fraud-tainted December parliamentary ballot won by Putin's United Russia group.
A new rally with decidedly anti-Putin slogans has been called for February 4 as Russia begins the one-month countdown to elections that should see 59-year-old Putin return for at least one more six-year term.
Putin's relations with the Republican administration of George W Bush were marked by repeated spats that intensified with the years as the Russian leader's crackdown on independent media and opposition groups continued.
He accused Washington of overstepping its bounds and imposing its will on other nations.
And he returned to the subject almost immediately after announcing plans to swap jobs with Medvedev in March.
Analysts said the media and Duma attacks on McFaul appeared to be a part of a rather blunt Kremlin message to Washington that it should keep the tone of its criticism muted.
"This campaign is designed to show that we are not afraid of the Americans, that we feel comfortable and are ready to put up a fight," said USA-Canada Institute analyst Viktor Kremenyuk.