Elsewhere in The Nation, Stephen F. Cohen makes the point that neither John McCain nor Barack Obama have properly addressed U.S. policy toward Russia. He provides a capsule history of recent U.S. blunders in regard to Moscow, which have caused a nationalist reaction in that country. And he properly bemoans that fact that both McCain and Obama “have promised to be ‘tougher’ on the Kremlin than George W. Bush has allegedly been and to continue the encirclement of Russia and the hectoring ‘democracy promotion’ there, which have only undermined US security and Russian democracy since the 1990s.”

In Obama’s case, at least, one reason why the Illinois senator may have adopted that point of view is that he’s getting advice from some of the hardest of hardliners on Russia policy. Most prominent is Michael McFaul, who, if not a neoconservative, is a well-known advocate for a bare knuckles approach toward Russia.

McFaul is a political scientist at the Hoover Institution, on the campus of Stanford University. He’s back there after a stint in Washington, during which he provided advice to President Bush about Russia policy. And now he’s advising Obama.

From a Stanford profile of McFaul, he describes what he calls a “turning point in his life”:

McFaul’s passion for studying Eastern Europe reemerged in 1988 when he visited Russia to interview Soviets on the ways they influenced African communists. While the research project proved “a total bust,” McFaul calls the year “a kind of turning point in my life.” It was then that he encountered a woman who put him on the path to his current interests and new book. An African studies scholar and dissident, she told him that if he was seeking true revolutionaries, he should stay in Russia and meet her contacts ­ who, by the way, were trying to overthrow the Communist state.

“She introduced me to some anti-Communist revolutionaries, people who seemed pretty kooky at the time, frankly,” McFaul recalls. Their free-market and free-election-oriented “Thatcherite” politics seemed gravely out of place in the Soviet Union. “It would be the equivalent of meeting someone here … who said we should have Marxism-Leninism as an ideology and we should create a one-party state.”

Nevertheless, these “crazy” activists captured McFaul’s attention. He went so far as to help members of a group called Democratic Russia get in touch with Western agencies and foundations [including the Hoover Institution–RD] who gave them money to support their activities. McFaul got funding to spend more time in Moscow, where he attended mass meetings and got to know the opposition leaders better.

“I just kind of soaked in the historical moment,” he recalls.

You can see an interview with McFaul here, in which he criticizes NATO for not going along with Bush’s plan to expand NATO to include Ukraine and Georgia, something that would be seen in Moscow as tightening the noose around Russia. Obama supports the expansion of NATO.

Last year, McFaul slammed Time magazine for naming then president Vladimir Putin its “Man of the Year”:

“In the 1990s, so the Time story goes, Russia was a place of lawlessness, economic depression, and instability. In the last decade, however, Russia has become a place of order, economic growth, and stability. The cause for the change: Putin. As [Managing Editor Richard] Stengel theorizes, ‘Individuals can make a difference to history, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, our choice for 2007, proves the point.'”

But McFaul doesn’t care about stability, since his main goal vis-a-vis Russia is to call attention to the autocratic nature of Putin’s rule.

Dmitri Simes, president of the Nixon Center in Washington, is one of the capital’s experienced Republican party “realists,” and a fierce opponent of the neoconservative school of foreign policy. When I spoke to Simes, he said that Obama is getting advice not only from McFaul but from Zbigniew Brzezinski, another hardliner on Russia. “Brzezinski and McFaul are not known for their desire to engage Russia on anything,” says Simes. “If McFaul is representative of Obama’s foreign policy thinking, it’s difficult to imagine that there will be any sort of positive engagement with Russia if he is elected.” Still, Simes suggests that Obama is a kind of blank slate with little or no track record on Russia.