Smile, you're on Russian TV! US ambassador loses his cool amid claims of harassment


As diplomatic interaction goes, it was fairly unusual – a visibly irate ambassador standing in the sleet without a coat and accusing a local television crew of being from a "wild country".

Ever since Michael McFaul arrived in Russia in January to take up the post of US Ambassador, there has been what appears to be a sustained and carefully co-ordinated effort in the Kremlin-controlled media to cast doubt on his character and mission.

On Thursday afternoon, he finally lost his cool. As Mr McFaul arrived for a meeting with a prominent human rights activist, a television crew from the pro-Kremlin NTV ambushed him and demanded to know the purpose of the meeting.

His angry response: "Your ambassador in our country does his work without being bothered. Are you not ashamed of yourselves?" He said similar harassment did not happen in other countries, including China, and insisted that if the journalists wanted to talk to him they should contact his press secretary. "Please, just try to be more polite," he said.

Lev Ponomaryov, the human rights activist whom Mr McFaul was meeting, emerged from the building to drag him in, but the ambassador clearly decided it was time to have his say, demanding that the journalists tell him how they had found out about the meeting. "It's a breach of the Geneva Convention," Mr McFaul said. Later, he wrote on Twitter: "I respect press right to go anywhere & ask any question. But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?"

Later, after NTV posted the clip on its website, the ambassador took to Twitter again to try to diffuse the situation. He claimed the "wild country" epithet was a result of his shaky grasp of Russian. "I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say 'wild country'. Meant to say NTV's actions wild. I greatly respect Russia."

NTV has angered Russia's opposition in recent weeks by broadcasting a documentary that claimed to show that people who came to recent street protests in Moscow were paid with cash and biscuits to attend.

Mr McFaul, who was previously Barack Obama's special adviser on Russia, has tried to create a culture of openness since taking up the job, regularly posting on Twitter and giving a number of interviews about Mr Obama's "reset" of relations with Russia.

He says Russian officials have welcomed him warmly, but the state-controlled media have suggested that he was sent to foment revolution in the country. Prime-time television programmes have also claimed that he is a "revolution specialist" sent to Russia to provoke popular discontent.