Russia Obsesses Over State Department Spokeswoman

State Department spokesperson Jennifer Psaki speaks to journalists at a daily briefing in Washington, June 11, 2014. Erkan Avci/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

MOSCOW - Russia is somewhat obsessed with Jen Psaki.

The State Department spokeswoman has turned into Russia's boogeyman (boogey-woman?) and favorite punching bag as relations with the United States have deteriorated over the crisis in Ukraine.

She is demonized on television. Her gaffes are celebrated widely as internet memes on Russian social media. A popular radio morning show even mocked her in a song set to a popular children's tune.

"There is nobody more competent than Psaki, nobody more pretty, or smarter," sang the chorus, sarcastically. The song accused her of peddling "nonsense" to journalists and urged her to "keep it up, we want to laugh more."

Psaki's statements are a regular feature of state-run media's wall-to-wall coverage of Ukraine, which unfailingly slants towards the pro-Russian fighters in the country's south-east.

RT, the Kremlin's foreign language propaganda network, gleefully airs her missteps and posts them online with headlines like " State Dept Sideshow: Jen Psaki's most embarrassing fails, most entertaining grillings" and " State Dept's Jen Psaki grilled on Iraq, Ukraine - baffled by questions once again."

In April, Psaki was taunted by Russian media for using the hashtags #RussiaIsolated and #UnitedforUkraine on Twitter, including sending a photo of herself holding a #UnitedforUkraine sign with a thumbs up. (The Obama administration's social media campaign on Ukraine, led by Psaki, was ridiculed by some at home as well, including the New York Post and Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas.)

Psaki did not reply to requests to comment for this article, but she recently addressed the special attention she has received in Russia.

"They do seem to have a bit of a tendency to focus on the outfits I'm wearing. And they've superimposed my head in photos," she told reporters at her daily briefing. "And so you'll have to ask them whether that's how great powers should make their case on the world stage. I think it's pretty clear - a pretty clear sign that they don't have the truth on their side."

The Psaki-bashing pre-dates the Ukraine crisis, but appears to have intensified since then. Then again, the State Department spokesperson is a perennial target in Russia. Little noticed within the United States, the spokesperson is often the face of the United States around the world.

Psaki's predecessor, Victoria Nuland (who is now vilified by Russian media for her current role spearheading American efforts in Ukraine) was also a popular target here, due in part to her previous positions as a diplomat in Russia and as the American ambassador to NATO.

Yet if Psaki plays Russia's villain, then Associated Press reporter Matt Lee is their hero. Lee is known for his combative questioning of Psaki and her predecessors, which has gained him fan club online where some of his greatest hits are posted on YouTube. RT often airs their testy exchanges and Lee's biting questions.

Perhaps seeking to cash in on Lee's credibility and Psaki's notoriety in Russia, an official government newspaper published a false story on Friday, claiming that Psaki had told Lee that Ukrainian refugees in Russia were "tourists" enjoying the mountain air.

"This report is false," Lee quickly shot back on Twitter. "I have never had an exchange with @statedeptspox about refugees and Rostov," he added, citing Psaki's account name and referring to a region in Russia. He declined to comment for this article.

"The tactics of fabricated news stories and a range of vicious personal attacks that I and other shave been a victim of are not steps you take when you're operating from a position of strength," Psaki told reporters in response to the article.

The portrayals of Psaki and Lee here highlight an unusual paradox in Russia. While the Kremlin frequently touts Russia as a moral beacon that does not rely on the rest of the world, Russians tend to reflexively obsess over how they are portrayed in foreign media.

Meanwhile, Russian officials, and in turn Russian media, often cast the State Department and its diplomats as shadowy operators who are behind plots in their country. President Putin accused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of paying crowds to protest against him two years ago and the recently departed American ambassador, Michael McFaul, was frequently harassed and accused of rallying Russia's opposition.

American diplomats have also been portrayed as influential powerbrokers within the Obama administration, prompting one of them to recently joke "I wish we had that kind of power."