As a new Russia-related scandal sweeps Washington, it's impossible not to recall President Vladimir Putin's efforts in 2012 to make meetings with the U.S. ambassador to Moscow toxic. As Trump's opponents seek to inflict maximum damage for Attorney General Jeff Sessions' false denial about a meeting with a Russian envoy, they should understand where these games lead.
For Putin, whose suspicion of foreign diplomats was nurtured during his years as an intelligence officer, it began in 2007. "Unfortunately, there are still those in our country who scavenge at foreign embassies, counting on the support of foreign foundations and governments rather than the support of their own people," Putin famously told a rally of his supporters in 2007. The word Putin used for "scavenge" -- shakalit' -- is derived from the Russian for "jackal."
Still, Putin didn't really make it difficult for Russians to seek out foreigners for financial support or attend embassy receptions to network until the beginning of his third presidential term in 2012. After mass protests against a rigged parliamentary election in 2011, Putin became convinced that the U.S. had just attempted regime change in Russia, so he moved against what he saw as pernicious U.S. influence. It was in 2012 that Russia booted out the U.S. Agency for International Development for meddling in Russia's domestic affairs for "attempts to influence political processes through its grants," according to the Russian Foreign Ministry. A sustained campaign began against foreign-funded non-profit organizations, culminating in the passage of Russia's infamous law on non-governmental organizations which obliged groups that conducted "political activities" to register as "foreign agents" if they received any overseas grants.
It was also in 2012 that Michael McFaul, newly arrived in Moscow as U.S. ambassador, held his first official meeting after visiting the foreign ministry to present credentials. The meeting was with well-known anti-Putin opposition figures, including Boris Nemtsov, who would later be murdered not far from the Kremlin. The 2011 protests came up during the discussion.
McFaul, a Stanford academic who had spent years in Moscow, likely didn't attach much practical significance to the symbolic meeting. Putin's people thought otherwise. Throughout that year, reporters from NTV, a state-owned, pro-Kremlin TV channel, hounded him every time he tried to meet with an opposition figure -- or, indeed, go almost anywhere in Moscow, though they never said how they knew his schedule. McFaul complained about the harassment, as did the U.S. government.
The Kremlin's signal was clear: even meeting with McFaul was tantamount to flirting with the enemy.
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