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US ambassador to Russia to leave after two years

Michael McFaul, the outspoken US ambassador to Russia who has frequently clashed with authorities in Moscow, said on Tuesday he would leave the country after just two years.

MOSCOW: Michael McFaul, the outspoken US ambassador to Russia who has frequently clashed with the Kremlin, announced on Tuesday that he would be leaving the country after just two years.

His announcement that he would also leave the US administration comes amid a new spike in tensions between Moscow and Washington over a litany of issues ranging from arms to human rights to pro-Western protests in Ukraine.

An embassy spokeswoman confirmed the diplomat was leaving Russia "early" but declined to comment further.

McFaul said he was leaving for family reasons.

"Soon after the Olympics, I plan to rejoin my family in California," McFaul wrote on his blog, adding that it was important for him to be reunited with his wife and two sons.

The Winter Olympic Games are set to begin in the Black Sea resort of Sochi on Friday and will run through February 23.

"After more than five years of working in President Obama's administration the time has come to return home."

The former Stanford University professor was sworn in as ambassador on January 10, 2012.

He has reached out to young Russians with blog posts in their native language and frequently sparked Russia's fury with critical comments and meetings with Russian opposition activists.

"Very sad to announce my departure later this month," he tweeted. "I will miss Russia and its people."

Before taking over as ambassador, McFaul helped reset Russia-US relations following Russian strongman Vladimir Putin's departure from the Kremlin in 2008.

Relations between Moscow and Washington deteriorated after Putin returned for a third term in 2012.

Analysts had interpreted attacks on McFaul by Russian state media and lawmakers as part of a blunt Kremlin message to Washington that it should keep the tone of its criticism muted.

"Goodbye, Mikhail!" the official Twitter account of the Russian foreign ministry said in a conspicuously curt reaction, using the Russian version of his first name.

In one notable run-in early on, McFaul came under fire from Russia's parliament for meeting the leaders of anti-Putin protests during his first week on the job in 2012.

"McFaul irritated many in our political circles," said foreign policy observer Maxim Yusin.

"He's vulnerable because he is not a career diplomat but a political scientist and politician, he was in contact with our opposition and it was looked upon negatively," said Yusin who writes for the Kommersant broadsheet.

Putin, who returned to the Kremlin on a wave of anti-US rhetoric, has repeatedly accused Washington of imposing its will on other nations and preaching on human rights.

Two months of pro-EU protests in ex-Soviet Ukraine has become another bone of contention, with Washington and Brussels supporting the opposition demonstrators and the Kremlin publicly backing embattled President Viktor Yanukovych.

In Washington, the US National Security Council said that President Barack Obama was "deeply grateful" to McFaul for his work.

"Mike has been tireless in advocating for the universal values that America stands for around the world, reaching out to civil society, and recognising the right of every voice to be heard."

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