WASHINGTON -- U.S. President Barack Obama's nominee for U.S. ambassador to Russia says that he is committed to pursuing the White House's "reset" policy despite looming challenges and Vladimir Putin's likely return to the presidency.
Testifying at his nomination hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Michael McFaul, a member of Obama's National Security Committee and his top Russia adviser, also pledged to increase U.S. support for civil society in Russia if he is confirmed.
"I think we stick to our policy, which is to say we're going to engage with the Russian government on mutual interests and in parallel and at the same time we're going to engage -- and I hope, if confirmed, to be a part of this as ambassador -- to deepen our engagement with Russian civil society," he said.
"And we're not going to allow some false trade that says, 'Because you're dealing with us on issue X in the government channel, you can't do this with Russian civil society.'"
McFaul is considered the central architect of the Obama administration's "reset" policy, which has sought areas of cooperation with Moscow without dropping U.S. objections on other issues, such as human rights transgressions and the presence of Russian troops on Georgian soil.
The White House frequently cites the improvement of relations with Russia as one of its biggest foreign-policy achievements, punctuated by the signing of the new START treaty on nuclear nonproliferation, Russian cooperation in U.S.-led operations in Afghanistan, and Russian support for UN sanctions against Iran.
But those successes came under President Dmitry Medvedev, who announced last month that he will not be a candidate in the 2012 elections, stepping aside for Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who held the presidency from 2000 to 2008.
The announcement has alarmed Russian civil rights activists, who fear a new wave of crackdowns.
McFaul told senators that Putin's return to the presidency won't affect Washington's approach to relations with Moscow, and suggested that the White House may work with Congress to obtain more financial support for the country's beleaguered civil society, "to find new avenues and new ways to support those people more directly."
The 47-year-old McFaul, who holds a doctorate from England's Oxford University, taught political science at Stanford University before joining the White House in 2009. He is considered one of the leading U.S. voices on Russia and has deep ties with both government officials and civil society leaders. He also serves as the U.S. chair of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission's Civil Society Working Group.
When Obama nominated him on September 14 to replace the current U.S. ambassador to Moscow, John Beyrle, Russia's Foreign Ministry welcomed the news.
McFaul is expected to easily win confirmation by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and full Senate, but will face challenges when he takes up his post in Moscow, something he acknowledged at the hearing.
Cooperation on missile defense -- considered a potential area of strategic U.S.-Russia cooperation -- is at an "impasse," he said, over Russian demands for legal assurances that NATO's phased adaptive approach will not undermine its deterrent capabilities.
In a contradiction of recent comments by the current ambassador, McFaul said he was "not optimistic" that agreement could be reached by the next NATO summit in May 2012.
"Our objective, as the Obama administration, is to continue to find progress, however incremental, as we move towards the NATO summit and well beyond that, because I suspect we'll be working this issue not just for the next months but for years and years to come," he said.
Russia's application to join the World Trade Organization (WTO) is also up in the air, and McFaul repeated the White House's vigorous support for its entry to the trading bloc.
"Having Russia in a rules-based economic regime we think is good for the United States and good for the world economy -- and in particular, it will constrain some of the bad actors in Russia, the bad economic actors, and will help the reformers in Russia that are pushing to see Russia become a more open and market oriented economy," McFaul said.
Moscow insists that U.S. support is the key to its accession, but McFaul also said he had told Russian officials that the United States will not "roll Georgia," a WTO member that has vowed to block Moscow's membership unless it consents to international monitors on the border between the countries
McFaul also provided the clearest picture to date of Iran's importance in bilateral relations, calling it "if not the most important issue in U.S.-Russia relations, [then] definitely one of the most important." Iran "gets more attention than anything else," he added.
James Collins, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 1997 to 2001, told RFE/RL that McFaul was well-suited to oversee the complex set of issues in U.S. relations with Moscow.
"His greatest strength is that he is clearly associated with President Obama and is close to President Obama's policy on Russia. Secondly, he has language [and] he has a long background and experience in Russia and working with Russians. And third, he is well-versed in the issues he is going to find on his agenda when he arrives and that should make him quite effective," Collins said.
"He's known to most of the leadership in the Russian Federation at this time and that means he doesn't have a big learning curve."
Collins added, however, that beyond the challenge of "keeping the momentum of the reset going," McFaul will face the difficulty of arriving in Moscow during "a year of essentially marking time."
"Russia is unlikely to see it in its interest to move forward on great initiatives when they don't know whether the man they're dealing with -- Obama -- will be there for the next four years," he said.