McFaul, 47, who taught political science at Stanford University before joining the White House, is widely seen as the architect of Obama's "reset" policy with Russia. Obama reportedly informed Russian President Dmitry Medvedev of the choice when the two spoke on the sidelines of the Group of Eight summit in France this weekend.
"The New York Times" called Obama's choice of a trusted adviser like McFaul a signal that the White House places a high priority on its relationship with Russia.
"In selecting Mr. McFaul, Mr. Obama is breaking with recent tradition in Moscow, where all but one of eight American ambassadors over the last 30 years have been career diplomats," the paper said. "But in choosing someone from his own inner circle, Mr. Obama underscored his determination to keep Russian-American relations a centerpiece of his foreign policy after his early push to reset the relationship following years of growing tension."
Speaking to Russian news agency RIA Novosti, Aleksandr Konovalov, head of the Moscow-based Institute of Strategic Studies and Analysis, said McFaul's appointment should help reduce mistrust between the former superpower rivals.
"McFaul is a young man, very close to Obama and a devoted supporter of his policy," Konovalov said. "Moreover, he specializes in Russian issues. Since McFaul is a person from the presidential staff, his appointment would show that Washington pays serious attention to Russian politics."
As Obama's point man on Russia policy, McFaul was instrumental in shepherding successful negotiations for the New START nuclear-arms-reduction treaty and a civilian nuclear-cooperation pact. He was also a key player in getting Moscow to agree to extend NATO supply routes to Afghanistan through Russian territory and persuading the Kremlin to agree to tougher sanctions against Iran.
If confirmed by the Senate, McFaul will arrive in Moscow at a sensitive time. Washington and Moscow are still at odds over how to cooperate on a European missile-defense system.
Russia is also entering what could be a heated political season, with elections to the State Duma scheduled for December and a presidential election in March 2012. It is still unclear whether Medvedev, who enjoys a good personal rapport with Obama, will run for a second term or if Prime Minister Vladimir Putin will return to the Kremlin.
If confirmed, McFaul will replace the current U.S. ambassador, John Beyrle, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2008.
-- Brian Whitmore