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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Sounds like a news lead from the 1970s: Henry Kissinger flies to Moscow for talks with the Kremlin leader. But it happened just yesterday. The former secretary of state met with Vladimir Putin, Russia's prime minister. Of course, we don't know what they discussed. We do know their meeting took place amid new tensions in the U.S.-Russia relationship. The man charged with managing that relationship is the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on who he is and the challenges he faces.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Just about every Washington-based expert on Russia was on hand at the State Department and cheering when Secretary Clinton swore in Michael McFaul as U.S. ambassador earlier this month.

SECRETARY HILLARY CLINTON: Congratulations, Ambassador.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE AND LAUGHTER)

KELEMEN: Clinton says he's just the right person for the job - a former Stanford professor, a think tank analyst and an architect of the Obama administration's so-called reset of relations with Russia. She also says he's someone who has written books and articles about democracy, relevant now as Russians protest electoral fraud and corruption in Vladimir Putin's Russia.

CLINTON: And the coming months and years will be crucial for Russian democracy. Russians from all walks of life and every corner of this great country are making their voices heard, both face to face and in cyberspace, expressing their hopes for the future. Few Americans know Russia or know democracy better than Mike McFaul.

AMBASSADOR MICHAEL MCFAUL: (Russian spoken) Michael McFaul. The next U.S. ambassador to Russia.

KELEMEN: The ambassador quickly reached out to Russia's Facebook generation with this video introducing himself, but was skewered just as quickly in the official Russian media.

MIKHAEL LEONTIEV: (Russian spoken)

KELEMEN: This channel one commentator, Mikhael Leontiev, says McFaul is not a specialist on Russia but in promoting democracy. For some that's a plus. Here's one of McFaul's former colleagues at the Moscow Carnegie Center, Lilia Shevtsova, speaking in a video conference about the turbulent political times in Russia.

LILIA SHEVTSOVA: He has a lot of friends in Russia among different political forces. He knows also the algebra, the textbook of democratic transition, which, by the way, creates a lot of consternation among some political forces in Russia. You know, there's a suspicion on the part of the political establishment that Mike has come to Russia in order to teach Russians how do to the orange revolutions.

KELEMEN: Shevtsova was referring to the street protests after a disputed election in Ukraine in 2004. McFaul has already met with opposition figures in Moscow, feeding into this stereotype. One of his predecessors, former U.S. ambassador James Collins, says the Russian state-run media reaction was predictable and shouldn't deter the U.S. envoy at all.

JAMES COLLINS: This was a shot across the bow - don't interfere in our electoral politics. Be aware that we have a limited tolerance for this. But the fact of the matter is he has a responsibility to remain in touch with all dimensions of the political spectrum.

KELEMEN: Collins has low expectations for this coming year, with both countries focused on their own internal politics. The reset of relations had some accomplishments, he said, on arms control and cooperation on Afghanistan and Iran. But with the uprisings in the Arab world came new disputes, including a sharp one over Syria. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Susan Rice, recently raised concerns about reports of continued Russian arms shipments to Syria.

AMBASSADOR SUSAN RICE: Unfortunately, there is not an arms embargo against Syria, which we certainly think is overdue, in part because, as you well know, some members of the council, including Russia, have indicated opposition to any form of sanction, even those that mirror that the Arab League has already implemented.

KELEMEN: Russia's foreign minister has been complaining that U.S. support for uprisings in the Arab world could lead to a, quote, "very big war." Analyst Lilia Shevtsova says perhaps it's time for U.S. ambassador Michael McFaul to work on that reset of relations again.

SHEVTSOVA: And it will be a great challenge for Mike as one of the architects of the reset to prepare the platform to reset the reset.

KELEMEN: McFaul seems up to the challenge, writing on his Twitter feed: this is going to be fun. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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