Michael McFaul, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, has accused Russian journalists… (Mikhail Metzel, Associated…)
MOSCOW — The only thing missing from the scene was one of those heroic images of Lenin peering from a shop window, or perhaps a glimpse of the Soviet hammer and sickle fluttering over the nearby Kremlin.
When the new U.S. ambassador to Russia arrived this week for a private meeting with a prominent human rights activist, he was confronted by a crew from a Kremlin-controlled television station that blocked his path and peppered him with questions. Uniformed men, tall wool military hats on their heads, were there too.
And a burly civilian held up a sign with a pointed question for Ambassador Michael McFaul's host: "What is the price of the motherland today?"
In a week when the leading Republican presidential candidate also termed Russia "our No. 1 geopolitical foe," the Cold War appeared to be making a bit of a comeback.
McFaul, a Stanford professor who is the architect of the Obama administration's effort to "reset" relations with Russia, took over as ambassador here in January. Despite his deep knowledge of the country and its language, Russian officials were immediately and sharply critical of his contacts with minority political parties and activists pushing for more democracy.
The State Department has complained to Russian officials about harassment of McFaul, and says it is worried about his security. U.S. officials have signaled that they plan to continue encouraging democracy in Russia. But after criticizing parliamentary and presidential elections and clashing with Moscow over its policy toward Syria, the Obama administration also appears intent on mending the relationship.
President Obama was caught on an open microphone in Seoul Monday telling Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that he would have more flexibility to consider Moscow's concern about U.S. missile defense plans after the November election. That led to the comment about Russia by Mitt Romney, Obama's probable Republican foe.
On Thursday, the venue for the rivalry shifted to Moscow. McFaul first accused Russia's NTV of listening to his private telephone conversations and reading his emails, and then apologized for calling Russia a "wild country."
He said the meeting at the offices of Lev Ponomaryov, head of the For Human Rights group, was a private engagement arranged by phone, and that information about it had not been released to the media.
Nevertheless, in a video posted on the NTV website that night, a young man and young woman blocked the ambassador's way as he got out of his car and started firing questions at him about the nature of the meeting.
McFaul answered them at first with a tense smile, and then accused them of harassing him everywhere he went.
"Your ambassador in our country goes everywhere and nobody is bothering him in his work," the ambassador said in Russian. "I wonder if you are ashamed of what you are doing. You are insulting your country when you do that."
"This is a wild country," the ambassador said, apparently exasperated. "It is abnormal. It doesn't happen in our [country], it doesn't happen in England, it doesn't happen in Germany, only here!"
Staking out McFaul on Thursday was nothing new for NTV, one of three major government-controlled networks.
An NTV crew showed up this year when he was meeting with another famous Russian political figure. It ran a documentary in March called "Anatomy of Protest" in which they showed what the opposition argued was faked video of people taking money or other gifts to participate inanti-government protests. Out of tens of thousands of people in the crowd, the cameras singled out two U.S. diplomatic observers and reporters fired questions at them.
"I don't think they could have found those Americans in the crowd without the help of the Russian special services," Ponomaryov said. "I am sure they listened to our conversation with Michael about the time and place of our meeting. There is no other way NTV could have gotten this information."
Thursday night, McFaul wrote on his Twitter account that he respected the right of the press to go anywhere and ask any question. "But do they have a right to read my email and listen to my phone?" he asked.
NTV spokeswoman Maria Bezborodova on Friday denied that the network had listened to the ambassador's phone calls or read his email.
She said reporters were shooting video for future use, but decided to post it on the Web after the ambassador's angry reaction.
Maxim Shevchenko, a well-known Russian television and radio anchor and member of a Kremlin advisory board, said he was ashamed of the NTV journalists' behavior. But a senior lawmaker charged that the ambassador's reaction went beyond the limits of the diplomatic etiquette.
McFaul "is inexperienced and this is why we hear such statements from him," said Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the International Affairs Committee in the lower house of the parliament. "He shouldn't have started his work in Moscow by meeting with leaders of marginal groups supported here by nobody but the United States itself.
"Our special services don't ever follow foreign ambassadors, and this is an iron rule," he said.
After he watched the NTV video, McFaul apologized Friday for calling Russia a "wild country."
"I misspoke in bad Russian," he wrote on Twitter. "Did not mean to say 'wild country.' Meant to say NTV actions 'wild.' I greatly respect Russia."
Staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.