At 2:51 p.m. Moscow time on May 14 -- about 20 minutes behind schedule -- the U.S. ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, announced the start of a Q&A session on Twitter.
“I’m happy to answer your questions,” he wrote.
The U.S. diplomat, who has struggled to reach out to ordinary Russians amid a thorny political atmosphere, had hoped his bilingual initiative -- #AskMcFaul
-- would give him an opportunity to field questions about subjects ranging from the charms of Russia’s regions to U.S. support for civil society.
Instead, his Twitter feed quickly became inundated with questions about a breaking announcement that Russian authorities had detained a U.S. Embassy employee accused of seeking to recruit a Russian intelligence officer for the CIA.
McFaul refused to comment on the report but remained online for an hour, concluding with thanks and a promise to hold more such Q&As in the future.
Journalists have already begun questioning the timing of events, noting that the first news report about the detentions was issued by the Russian agency Interfax at precisely 2:30 p.m. – the time McFaul’s Q&A had originally been scheduled to start.
The U.S. Embassy announced an unexplained 15-minute delay via Twitter at 2:32 p.m., suggesting a scramble to react to the news. (At the time of the announcement, the employee, Ryan Christopher Fogle, had already been released and returned to the embassy.)
Coincidence or no, the May 14 Twitter interruptus is likely to be viewed as the Kremlin’s latest attempt to undermine a U.S. diplomat seen as a formidable foe of the Vladimir Putin regime.
McFaul is considered one of the foremost U.S. experts on Russia and came to the ambassadorial post in 2011 as a firm supporter of the U.S.-Russia “reset.”
But his tenure has been plagued by near-constant harassment by Russian officials and the media, which have portrayed him as misrepresenting Kremlin policy on Iran and North Korea and, more grievously, promoting a “revolution” mentality among the Russian opposition.
As Russian-U.S. relations have chilled over the human rights, adoptions, and foreign policy differences, McFaul has increasingly turned to social media as a way of scaling the Putin propaganda firewall to reach the Russian public beyond.
McFaul is an active blogger and has sent out nearly 5,400 tweets from his Twitter account @McFaul
, which has more than 47,000 followers. To many Russia-watchers, the ambassador's chatty, humanizing Twitter tone has proved a marked contrast to the bone-dry Twitter feeds of either @KremlinRussia
, the account of the Russian Foreign Ministry.