Ever the tech-savvy diplomat, Michael McFaul made the announcement on TwitterTWTR +2.84% and his blog. The U.S. ambassador to Russia and close Obama adviser will leave Moscow and government soon after the Sochi Olympics. He said on Tuesday that he wanted to reunite with family, he listed achievements (an arms-control treaty, better visa rules), praised the wonders of "digital diplomacy," and expressed his "love" for Russia and the job. The farewell letter buried the real story. His departure ends the stormiest tenure by any American at Moscow's stately Spaso House probably since Stalin threw George Kennan out after five months in 1952.
Speculation at the State Department about the possibility of a limited stint for Mr. McFaul began almost immediately after his arrival in January 2012. The end became inevitable last summer when his wife and sons returned to California. A pioneer in the use of Twitter and other media to reach the Russian public, Mr. McFaul found himself unable to carry out traditional diplomacy. The Russian regime disliked him and sought to undermine him. By his first summer, the Kremlin had put him on a virtual "blacklist" and "basically scared people away from meeting me," as he confided in a note to a colleague, calling it a "very difficult period."
His troubles tracked the collapse of America's relationship with Russia. By 2012, President Vladimir Putin had turned to anti-Americanism and repression to put down pro-democracy demonstrators. The Kremlin leader banned American adoptions of Russian children. He threw out the U.S. Agency for International Development. Challenging the Obama administration on multiple overseas fronts, Russia provided diplomatic cover and weapons to Syria's Bashar Assad. Last summer, he gave refuge to National Security Agency thief Edward Snowden. Mr. Putin is now aggressively trying to bring Ukraine back into Moscow's orbit.
U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaulAssociated Press
The death of a "reset" in relations with Moscow so grandly pushed by Mr. Obama was a blow to Mr. McFaul, his most trusted Russia hand. The smart, brash and handsome political scientist in early 2009 left the comforts of Stanford University to design that policy at the National Security Council—"yes, I am not afraid to use the word 'reset'!" he wrote online Tuesday.
George W. Bush looked into Mr. Putin's eyes in 2001 and got "a sense of his soul," but relations were broken after the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008. The Obama reset focused on common goals such as nuclear nonproliferation. Clashing interests in the Mideast and Europe, Russia's treatment of its neighbors, the Putin human-rights record—all that unpleasantness was put, in the coinage of that time, "in a separate silo."
A Washington newbie, Mr. McFaul was an unusual advocate of rapprochement. Before government, he had been a clear-eyed analyst and critic of Russian politics, and he had no illusions about Mr. Putin, whom he had first met two decades earlier in St. Petersburg. Mr. McFaul was also an outspoken champion of democracy, in 2010 publishing "Advancing Democracy Abroad: Why We Should and How We Can."
Washington isn't academia. Behind the scenes, people who know say Mr. McFaul fought turf battles with officials at State who didn't want to even raise Russia's domestic behavior with the Kremlin. A veteran of the Obama campaign, Mr. McFaul enjoyed better access to the president than most people in his job.
But the boss had his own priorities for Russia. President Obama wanted to "extend a hand" to adversaries, and democracy promotion—too closely associated with the Bush era—got in the way. So in public Mr. McFaul was a passionate advocate of the new line. He often seemed to take criticism personally, particularly from old friends in the community of human-rights and democracy advocates. More than a few ended up on the receiving end of his blistering emails.
His paternity of the reset earned him no goodwill at the Kremlin, which was well aware of his personal views. In his first week in Moscow, Mr. McFaul came under attack in the state-run media for meeting with Russian opposition figures. Stories about his alleged plotting to overthrow the regime followed.
The Russians knew how to get under the ambassador's skin. In one memorable incident, he lashed out at a TV crew that ambushed him outside a dissident's office. "This is a wild country," he said in Russian as the cameras rolled, looking flustered; he later apologized for his "bad Russian." Mr. McFaul claimed that his email, telephone conversations and schedule were hacked and turned over to Kremlin-friendly journalists.
All the tumult upset Foggy Bottom. The rookie ambassador, the first political appointee in Moscow in 20 years, was told to lower his profile. On that score, he did better in the past year.
Yet Mr. McFaul's best attribute was his undiplomatic outspokenness. The Russian foreign ministry rebuked him for stepping "far beyond the boundaries of diplomatic etiquette"—maybe his finest moment—when in a speech he accused Moscow of "bribing Kyrgyzstan" to kick out a U.S. military base. He built a large and youthful Russian Twitter following, which forgave him the occasional linguistic slips. Once, infamously, he used a vulgarity to describe the city of Yekaterinburg.
Digital diplomacy can only do so much when the underlying policy is a failure. Mr. Obama and his team misjudged Mr. Putin and Russian realities. Now free of Washington's constraints and career temptations, Mr. McFaul can offer this and future administrations better counsel from his tenured post back at Stanford.
Mr. Kaminski is a member of the Journal's editorial board.