MOSCOW — Stanford political science professor Michael McFaul's two-year stint as U.S. ambassador to Russia coincided with a diplomatic chill seemingly worthy of the Cold War era.
U.S. Agency for International Development advisors were expelled. American democracy-building emissaries were demonized as foreign agents. American adoptions of Russian orphans were banned in a game of political point-scoring. National Security Agency leaker Edward Snowden was granted political asylum, and bitter disputes over how to stem the bloodshed in Syria and restore civic peace in Ukraine put the U.S. and Russia on opposite sides of an increasingly strident ideological battle front.
But as McFaul, 50, leaves his post this week to rejoin his family in the Bay Area, he insists the U.S.-Russia relationship isn't as dire as it appears.
Thousands of Russians and Americans remain engaged, he says, in congenial collaboration each day: in space exploration, joint business ventures, student and cultural exchanges, and agency-to-agency cooperation in the fight against trans-border crime and terrorism.
McFaul sees more significance in the heartfelt applause earned by young American ballerina Joy Womack at a Kremlin performance of Tchaikovsky's "Nutcracker" this month than the political digs by government-influenced Russian media that cast the United States and its people as adversaries.
He says the shared pride and joy he has experienced with Russians watching team figure skating preliminaries at the Sochi Winter Olympics stands larger as a symbol of two peoples' mutual appreciation than the one-upmanship that often characterizes official relations.
Still, polls in Russia and the U.S. show a sharp deterioration of attitudes and a degradation of trust among officials, McFaul acknowledges.
"Yeah, it's frustrating, not just for me but for our administration," he said of the course of Russian-U.S. ties during his tenure. "It's frustrating because we believe a strong, prosperous, democratic Russia could be a reliable and stable partner for the United States."
In an interview in which McFaul sought to balance a scholar's unburnished analysis with diplomatic restraint, he blamed the rise in friction between the White House and the Kremlin on dramatic political changes in the Middle East three years ago and in Russia since disputed legislative elections that coincided with his arrival two years ago.
"Since the so-called Arab Spring, the Russian government and our government have had very different interpretations of the causes and consequences of change in that region," McFaul said of the popular uprisings that swept out entrenched autocracies in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and fueled the continuing revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad, a longtime Moscow ally.
Even more divisive has been the aftermath of protests against Russian President Vladimir Putin and his United Russia party after the contentious parliamentary election in December 2011 and the former KGB agent's return to the presidency in 2012.
Putin's third term as president, made possible by constitutional changes during the place-holding 2008-12 presidency of now-Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev, has been marked by a Kremlin effort "to resurrect an image of the United States as an enemy, a fomenter of revolution," McFaul said.
Yet McFaul said his day-to-day contact with the Russian Foreign Ministry and other branches of government have been cordial.
"I see a kind of maturity and stability in our relations on many fronts," the once and future academic said of his Russian interlocutors. "They are ready to engage actively and align our objectives when they are mutual. When there's an opportunity to cooperate, both the Russian government and our government are good at identifying that."
What stands in the way of better trust and cooperation, he said, is a persistent approach to relations with a "zero-sum game" attitude — in certain circles of Washington as well as Moscow — that continues to compel each side to seek advantage over the other.
McFaul has weathered his stormy term in Moscow with good humor, brushing off critical accounts of his pro-democracy scholarship by Kremlin-influenced pundits and media as the diplomatic hand he was dealt. "It doesn't feel personal," he says of the attacks.
Independent Russian political analysts tend to see the bad turn in official relations as a development that occurred in spite of the veteran Russian scholar's tenure, not because of it.
"It wasn't Mike's fault. It was something preordained," Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank, where McFaul served as a resident scholar in the 1990s, said of the U.S. envoy who landed in the midst of a Putin-scripted drive to restore Russia's image as a power to be reckoned with.
McFaul was particularly vulnerable to the Kremlin strategy of casting Washington as a rival because he was an outsider in the State Department's community of career diplomats, said Denis Volkov, a political analyst with the Levada Center public opinion research firm. Because he spent most of his working life in academia, not government, he was seen by Russian politicians as lacking influence with the Obama administration, Volkov said.
McFaul, a Montana native who first came to the Soviet Union in 1983 at age 19 to study in St. Petersburg, says he prepares to leave Russia with a sense of accomplishment in spite of the failure of his hoped-for "reset" in U.S.-Russia relations.
Warmer ties with Russia were never the main objective of the Obama administration, McFaul said. Rather, it was pursuing goals that benefit both countries.
Among the mutually advantageous achievements during his two years in Moscow and the three preceding it when he was a White House advisor on Russia, McFaul counts the New START treaty limiting nuclear arsenals, the negotiation of supply corridors through Russia for U.S. troops deployed in Afghanistan, cooperation with the Kremlin in pursuit of a nuclear accord with Iran, and mitigation of the heartbreaking consequences of the adoption ban that left in the lurch "dozens and dozens of people who had already bonded with their new families."
"We managed to get more than 70 children out after the ban," McFaul said of the quiet diplomacy that shepherded nearly complete adoptions through the final legal stages.
The ambassador also points to his success in acquainting Russians with the United States through social media, primarily via Twitter, where he has amassed more than 60,000 followers, and a bilingual blog.
McFaul insists his only reason for cutting short his ambassadorial tenure is personal, having promised his elder son that he could return to the Bay Area to attend high school after what was supposed to have been a two-year stint with the Obama administration. His family arrived in California in August, and the separation has become untenable, he said.
"All things being equal, I would be staying," McFaul said, adding that President Obama expressed his disappointment at his decision to leave but was supportive of the family reasons behind it.
McFaul also expects to be back in Russia in future years to nurture the social, political and cultural ties around which his career has revolved.
"I'm going home where I need to be now," he said. "But part of my history is here and part of my soul will always be in Russia."