Kremlin reception of new US ambassador shows his job will not be easy

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Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft toast at a ceremony of presention of credentials in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. The new U.S. ambassador to Russia presented his credentials to President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday in a ceremony at the Kremlin that politely hinted at the challenges the career diplomat will face in Moscow. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)


U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, left, presents his credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014, with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, right, looking on. The new U.S. ambassador to Russia has presented his credentials to President Vladimir Putin in a Kremlin ceremony that politely hinted at the challenges the career diplomat will face in Moscow with the United States and Russia locked in their worst confrontation since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine. (AP Photo/RIA-Novosti, Mikhail Klimentyev, Presidential Press Service)


U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, left, presents his credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. At right back is Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The new U.S. ambassador to Russia has presented his credentials to President Vladimir Putin in a Kremlin ceremony that politely hinted at the challenges the career diplomat will face in Moscow with the United States and Russia locked in their worst confrontation since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, Pool)


U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Tefft, left, and Russian President Vladimir Putin pose for a photo after presenting his credentials in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2014. The new U.S. ambassador to Russia presented his credentials to President Vladimir Putin in a Kremlin ceremony that politely hinted at the challenges the career diplomat will face in Moscow with the United States and Russia locked in their worst confrontation since the Cold War over the crisis in Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko, pool)


MOSCOW — Ask most Russians and they will tell you that the United States instigated the conflict in Ukraine with the ultimate aim of subjugating Russia. This is what they hear from President Vladimir Putin and in a steady stream of reports on state television.

Most in the West view it differently, of course. They condemn Russia for seizing the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, and accuse the Kremlin of arming the separatists whose battles with government troops in eastern Ukraine have claimed more than 4,000 lives. The U.S. and European Union have imposed punishing sanctions, but this has only made Russia more defiant.

With little common ground between these two narratives, tensions between Russia and the West are higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Diplomacy has stalled.

The arrival of new U.S. Ambassador John Tefft, a career diplomat with experience in Russia and Ukraine, offered some hope of improved lines of communication. But his reception Wednesday, when he presented his credentials to Putin, showed his job will not be easy.

Putin gave a slight smile as Tefft strode toward him across a vast, gilded Kremlin hall. His words, though, contained both a welcome and a warning.

"We are ready for practical cooperation with our American partners in all fields on the principles of respect for each other's interests, equal partnership and non-interference in our domestic affairs," Putin said during the Kremlin ceremony.

Rossiya state television sent a sharper message. The news presenter described Tefft as a "specialist in color revolutions," a reference to the Rose Revolution in Georgia and the Orange Revolution in Ukraine that ushered in Western-leaning governments a decade ago. Tefft has been the U.S. ambassador in both countries, in addition to having served in Russia and in other State Department posts with responsibility for the region.

"They call him a diplomat saboteur," the presenter said. The implication was that he was sent to Moscow to foment a popular uprising with the aim of overthrowing Putin.

The Western sanctions, which target Russian businesses and individuals, including some members of Putin's inner circle, are seen as part of this effort.

Tefft was one of 15 ambassadors to present their credentials Wednesday, but television reports unsurprisingly focused almost exclusively on him.

Russian television news broadcasts and talk shows seem obsessed with the United States. The state-owned channels churn out programs that portray the U.S. as the greatest threat to stability and security not only in Russia but throughout the world.

This message finds fertile ground with Russians still deeply bitter over the humiliation of the years following the 1991 Soviet collapse. The anti-Americanism also serves to rally Russians around Putin, a leader seen as strong enough to stand up to the West.

Tefft replaces Michael McFaul, the Stanford University professor who was the architect of President Barack Obama's effort to reset relations with Russia.

McFaul had the misfortune to arrive in Moscow in the middle of the mass anti-Putin protests of early 2012. A scholar who had long studied the development of democracy in Russia, he was an easy target for the Kremlin as it sought to portray the protests as a U.S. plot.

Tefft has been seen as more likely to be able to work with the Russians, who are accustomed to dealing with professional diplomats. This was the point he made Wednesday:

"As a U.S. diplomat for more than four decades, I am committed to maintaining open and frank lines of communication between our two great nations — helping explain Russia's perspective to Washington and expressing the U.S. government's views to Moscow," the new ambassador said in a statement.

Judging by the reception he received in the Kremlin and on state television, this will not be easy.

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