For all the thorns in U.S.-Russian relations, an occasional open dialogue over Twitter might seem like a healthy practice.
But as U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul took to the Internet on Wednesday to field questions on his Twitter account, he found a hefty dose of criticism alongside curiosity from some of his more than 30,000 followers.
“Why do you consider it is necessary to care about Russia’s internal affairs like ‘democracy’ ‘freedom of speech’ etc?” asked Twitter user @Dostoverkin, who was one of several users to slam the embattled ambassador.
Since his appointment last January, McFaul has adopted a markedly more inclusive, hands-on approach than many of his predecessors. A former presidential advisor, he has leveraged his deep experience in Russia to reach out to people across the country.
But he has also taken heat from a variety of sources: the Kremlin, state media, and even ordinary Russians.
His arrival coincided with the unprecedented demonstrations on the streets of Moscow and other major cities after last December’s disputed parliamentary elections. And while instrumental to U.S. President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy with Russia, McFaul has nevertheless earned scorn from the Kremlin for his perceived meddling in the country's domestic affairs.
To the Kremlin, he’s not just the ambassador – he’s the human face of U.S. democracy promotion, something Moscow has sought to combat ever since the wave of “color revolutions” toppled pro-Moscow regimes across its backyard in the 2000s.
McFaul has also authored a number of academic books on regime change in the former Soviet Union - an otherwise impressive credential attacked last winter by the pro-Kremlin NTV television network.
“Why aren’t you selective in suporting [sic] Russian opposition,” @Dostoverkin added. “Can’t you see that those guys are just wasting your money?”
The mass street protests, which then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin claimed were ordered by the U.S. State Department, as well as the burgeoning anti-Kremlin movement have further polarized Russian society.
Putin has traditionally relied on his conservative support base to alienate the mostly educated, middle class urbanites that have taken to the streets.
But apparently, it’s not just the liberal-minded Russians who have taken to Twitter to voice their discontent.
“Michael, where is your democracy? Arab spring turned into arab autumn,” said user @v_dobreev.
Other users seemed to take a wiser-than-thou approach, chiding the ambassador for his perceived naiveté in pursuing a dialogue with the Russian authorities.
“Are you aware that implanting anti-americanism is an unofficial but essential part of the Russian politics, from the top?” asked @duremarik.
The criticism, however, wasn’t restricted to those opposed to the United States’ alleged interference in Russian affairs. Perhaps more interesting were those Russians who felt McFaul hadn’t lent enough support to the country's fledgling opposition.
“Why USA Government [sic] don’t help Khimki Forest Defenders?” asked @PavelShehtman, in reference to the ongoing protest against the controversial destruction of woodland near Moscow.
But that’s not to say the ambassador didn’t receive a wave of more informed, well-phrased questions. Many other users – both Russian and American – asked about the future of the “reset” policy, the upcoming U.S. presidential elections, and a range of other pressing issues.
Yet still, it seems the more humorous inquiries stood out: “Mr. McFaul, Have you ever dated a Russian girl during your stay in Russia as a student in LSU and MSU back in 1983-1985?” asked @Yuri_Panchul.