MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia sharply criticised the U.S. ambassador for the third time in his five-month tenure after he said that Moscow offered Kyrgyzstan a bribe in a bid to evict U.S. forces from an air base and had sought backroom “quid pro quo” deals on key issues.
In a statement issued late on Monday, the Foreign Ministry expressed “extreme bewilderment” at remarks that the ambassador, Michael McFaul, made in a university lecture on Friday. The ministry said the remarks went “far beyond the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette and amounted to a deliberate distortion of several aspects of the Russian-American dialogue.”
McFaul is the architect of President Barack Obama’s “reset” policy toward relations with Russia, which has improved ties that had become strained during the administrations of George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin and hit a low with Russia’s war against Georgia in 2008.
But the plain-spoken envoy has been clouded by controversy since he arrived in January - shortly after Putin, employing anti-American rhetoric in his successful campaign to return to the presidency, accused the United States of stirring up protests against his rule.
The ministry took issue with McFaul’s statement that Russia had “put a big bribe on the table” to get Kyrgyzstan to order the United States out of a transit facility it uses to support operations in Afghanistan. It was a reference to a $2 billion loan widely perceived that way by analysts at the time, in 2009.
McFaul prefaced the remark by saying he would not be speaking very diplomatically, and added half-jokingly that the United States had offered its own bribe but that it was “about 10 times smaller.”
The Foreign Ministry said McFaul “knows better (than Russia) what bribes Washington gave to whom.”
It dismissed as “unprofessional” McFaul’s statement that Russia had at times proposed deals in which the United States would make concessions on one issue in exchange for Russian support on another unrelated issue, a practice he said President Barack Obama has rejected.
The ministry stopped short of saying the remarks could damage relations but said it was “not the first time statements and actions of Mr. McFaul ... have caused shock.”
In Washington, the State Department said McFaul’s comments had been “misinterpreted” and that he had been seeking to emphasize new trends of openness and transparency in the U.S.-Russia relationship.
“As one of the architects of the president’s reset policy, he’s in a position not only to really understand the benefits but also to try to continue to advance them,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told a news briefing.
“He speaks plainly. He speaks clearly. He doesn’t mince words. He’s not a professional diplomat,” Nuland said.
“And I think that for the Russian government the fact that he speaks clearly when things are going well and he speaks clearly when they’re going less well is something that they’re having to get used to,” Nuland added.
Yuri Ushakov, Putin’s foreign policy aide and a longtime former Russian ambassador to the United States, said he believed that ambassadors should be “more diplomatic.”
“Even without ambassadors there are plenty of characters who are trying to spoil the atmosphere between the two countries,” Ushakov said when asked about the dispute at a briefing with journalists in which he gave a generally upbeat assessment of Russian-U.S. ties.
Over the winter, McFaul become a lightning rod for similar accusations in the Russian media. In March, he sparred verbally with a TV crew that trailed him around Moscow. In the university talk, however, he said pressure on him had eased.
In March, the Foreign Ministry rebuked McFaul after he expressed concern on Twitter at the detention of protesters who challenged Putin’s victory. The ministry said the United States had been less humane in dispersing anti-Wall Street protesters.
In early April, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov took aim at McFaul for a remark he made about U.S. plans for a European missile shield, saying he had “arrogantly” rejected Russia’s concerns about the anti-missile system.
In a Twitter response to the Foreign Ministry statement, parts of which were posted on the social media, McFaul pointed out that his talk had “highlighted over 20 positive results of ‘reset,’ that our governments worked together to achieve.”
McFaul was previously Obama’s top Russia adviser but has little experience as a diplomat. Responding to a Twitter user who had directed his attention to the Russian statement, he said on Twitter: “Still learning the craft of speaking more diplomatically.”
Reporting by Steve Gutterman; Editing by Jon Boyle and Will Dunham