MOSCOW -- Robert Pszczel said he felt like he was in a Monty Python skit when he made a routine call to Russia's Defense Ministry back in June 2013.
"We cannot talk to you!" came the agitated reply in a hissed whisper, says Pszczel, acting out the scene for comic effect.
This was how Pszczel, NATO's envoy in Russia, found out his line of contact with the ministry had been terminated.
"It was informally communicated to me that I have no right to even call them," he says.
Pszczel says incidents like this have been business as usual at the NATO outpost he runs in Moscow. Its mission of public diplomacy has been left behind as relations with Russia have plunged to a rock-bottom, post-Cold War low.
In one stoical December 5 appearance on a Russian state TV chat show, Pszczel was constantly heckled midsentence, harangued as a “Russophobe” for his ethnicity (he’s Polish), and called upon to explain the (entirely invented) claim that hundreds of Polish soldiers had been killed in eastern Ukraine.
But despite having what could be described as one of the toughest diplomatic jobs in the world, Pszczel has stuck it out.
“Maybe I have a masochistic streak -- I actually still enjoy it,” he says of the four-plus years he has run the NATO information office in Moscow. “But it is stressful and it is frustrating because I know and I'm fully convinced of the potential for cooperation.”
Robert Pszczel: “Maybe I have a masochistic streak -- I actually still enjoy it."
From the optimistic hopes for cooperation that accompanied U.S. President Barack Obama's ill-fated reset with Russia, to the nadir in relations that has accompanied the fighting in Ukraine and Russia's illegal annexation of Crimea, Pszczel has had a front-row seat.
The native Pole arrived in Moscow at the height of the reset in December 2010, on the heels of NATO's Lisbon summit, when Moscow and the Atlantic alliance declare a new era of “strategic partnership.” It included practical cooperation measures that lasted right up to the Ukraine crisis.
On the eve of the Winter Olympics in Sochi in early 2014, for example, NATO and Russia activated a new joint antiterrorism protocol following reports that a plane had been hijacked and was bearing down on the Olympic city in southern Russia.
The incident later turned out to be nothing more than an inebriated passenger. But the cooperation was real.
By April 2014, NATO would suspend all practical cooperation with Moscow after the Kremlin annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula.
The ensuing Ukraine conflict marked a new low in Russia's relations with NATO. But Pszczel says the downward spiral predates the crisis.
He notes that the incident in which the Defense Ministry cut off ties took place almost a full year before war broke out in Ukraine.
By 2012, as Vladimir Putin made a comeback to the Kremlin with a markedly more conservative swagger, relations were already unraveling as Russia protested NATO air strikes in Libya and its plans for a missile-defense system in Europe.
But Pszczel says these tangible issues were eclipsed by a boom of anti-Western rhetoric that accompanied Putin's third term that cast NATO as a profound security threat.
“How do you prove you’re not a camel?” Pszczel asks rhetorically, using an expression from his native Polish. “You can say, ‘Look at me, I’m not a camel!' But how do you prove it?”
He notes that the anti-NATO campaign is largely for domestic political purposes.
“NATO has always been a bit of a popular football,” he says. “It's cheap and easy to kick NATO. With nations, it's sometimes a bit awkward, but NATO -- what does it cost? Nothing. But then it just accelerated. That's where it starts. It starts with super aggressive, very provocative, and not-based-on-facts rhetoric."
Unusually outspoken for a diplomat and with a passing semblance to the late U.S. comedian Robin Williams, Pszczel peppers his assertions with anecdotes and colorful expressions.
Pszczel says when he arrived in Moscow he began collecting old Soviet anti-NATO agitprop for posterity But now he collects modern ones -- a genre undergoing what he describes as a “renaissance” that is nourishing the sky-high hostility toward NATO in the public at large.
"It becomes a different ball game when you have officials, saying the things they say. 'NATO is behind the Maidan in Ukraine'? Where did you get this from? 'NATO was planning to open a military base in Sevastopol'? What?! My message is: Guys, come back to planet Earth," he says.
In this atmosphere, his public diplomacy job description -- to spread the creed of cooperation -- has been a tall order.
The NATO information office once organized trust-building events such as the 2006 Russia-NATO Rally, a tour of major cities from Vladivostok to Kaliningrad where it held seminars and conferences for youth, officials both Russian and Western, experts, and public figures.
But Pszczel says his office has been marginalized because its partner institutions, including think tanks and prestigious universities -- the names of which he wouldn’t disclose to protect their identities -- have been “pressured” or branded as “foreign agents” as retribution.
He also expressed concern that Russian officials do not understand how Western institutions function.
He cites an incident in which Russia's former ambassador to NATO, the nationalist Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin, was denied permission to plant poplar trees on the grounds of NATO's headquarters in Brussels. The Russian word for poplar is “topol,” which also happens to be the name of Russia’s Topol-M intercontinental ballistic missile.
And when Rogozin was denied permission, he claimed the decision was political.
“That decision was taken by the NATO HQ gardener!” he says. “There was an element of a joke in this, but it showed a lack of understanding of how we work."
Pszczel was born in Warsaw. He began his career at the Polish Foreign Ministry in 1990 and was eventually dispatched to Brussels to prepare for Poland’s 1999 accession to NATO. He has since served in various capacities in the alliance.
Asked how he thinks relations will develop further, Pszczel quotes George Robertson, former NATO secretary-general from 1999-2003, impersonating Robertson's Scottish accent: “My dear friend, if I knew what was going to happen in five years, I'd be playing on the stock exchange.”
Nonetheless, Pszczel is quite sure that he will be vacating his current post during the course of this year.
“Of course, there comes a time, and I think I’ve reached it. I think someone else should give it a go,” he says. “The next kamikaze please!"