The fancied Swiss were given a scare when Australian Open champion Stanislas Wawrinka was upset in four sets by Kazakhstan's Andrey Golubev, ranked 64 in the world, 61 places below his opponent.
Golubev got the better of a nervous-looking Wawrinka with an impressive attacking display, winning 7-6(5) 6-2 3-6 7-6(5) in three hours 14 minutes.
"I am really disappointed with myself, but I have to give credit to Golubev who was playing really good," Wawrinka said on the Davis Cup website (www.daviscup.com).
"He was really aggressive and he found a way to win the match. I was expecting more mistakes and was not aggressive enough, but I a need to accept it and be ready for tomorrow."
Federer ensured the day had a happier ending for the Swiss by easing past Kukushkin 6-4 6-4 6-2, ending the match in dominant fashion with a double break early in the final set.
The winner of the tie will face either Italy or Britain, with the Italians ending Day One with a slender advantage after Fabio Fognini beat James Ward 6-4 2-6 6-4 6-1.
Britain's Andy Murray was involved in a dogfight with Italy's Andreas Seppi before bad light saw their clash suspended with the Wimbledon champion leading by a set.
Murray was leading the second rubber 6-4 5-5 when fading light brought an end to play but not before the Briton was forced to save several set points in the nerve-jangling final game of the day.
France got off to an embarrassing start against Germany, who are without the injured Florian Mayer and Tommy Haas.
Arnaud Clement's team were 2-0 down at the end of the first day after Julien Benneteau and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga proved incapable of beating lower ranked opponents in Nancy.
World number 50 Benneteau took the first four games off 96th ranked Tobias Kamke, against whom he had a 3-0 record, but failed to build on his fine start and lost 7-6(8) 6-3 6-2.
Tsonga, ranked 12th in the world after a poor start to the season, then lost 5-7 7-6(3) 3-6 7-6(8) 8-6 to world number 119 Peter Gojowczyk.
France's hopes of staying in contention rest on Michael Llodra and Gael Monfils, who are set to play in the doubles against Kamke and Andre Begemann on Saturday.
It was an easier day for the dominant Czechs, chasing a third straight title, as wily veteran Radek Stepanek and big-hitting Lukas Rosol won their singles rubbers against Japan to put them in control in Tokyo.
Former world number eight Stepanek came from a set down to beat Tatsuma Ito 6-7(5) 7-6(5) 6-1 7-5 before Rosol survived a mid-match wobble to suppress 21-year-old Taro Daniel 6-4 6-4 3-6 4-6 6-2.
- Sports & Recreation
- Andrey Golubev