New US Ambassador Arrives in Moscow Amidst Worst Bilateral Relations Since 2014

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 124

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (left), US Ambassador John Huntsman (Center), and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the diplomat confirmation ceremony in Moscow (Source: AP-Pavel Golovkin)

Veteran career diplomat Ambassador John Tefft (68), who was pulled out of retirement to man the United States’ Moscow mission in 2014, following the acute crisis precipitated by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the onset of the war in the Donbas, left the Russian capital at the end of September. His replacement, Jon Huntsman, Jr (57), the former Utah governor and ambassador to Singapore and China, arrived from Washington on Monday, October 2, immediately after being confirmed by the Senate. On Tuesday, October 3, he delivered his credentials to President Vladimir Putin, at a ceremony in the Kremlin, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and presidential foreign affairs advisor Yuri Ushakov present. Under Russian protocol rules, the formal introduction of new ambassadors is held twice a year, and some arrivals may wait many months before meeting Putin. Some 20 ambassadors from various countries assembled in the Kremlin this past Tuesday. According to Moscow press reports, Huntsman specifically raced to Moscow to make the October 3, ceremony and will travel to Washington in a fortnight for consultations before returning to permanently fill his position (Moskovsky Komsomolets, October 4)

Before a formal introduction to the Russian president, a newly appointed foreign ambassador in Moscow is somewhat functionally handicapped. In more peaceful times than today, the traditional credential ceremony in the Kremlin does not really matter, but that formalized procedure takes on a deeper importance during the present crisis. Washington is apparently keen to have a fully functional ambassador in Moscow, and an effort was apparently made to keep the time gap between Tefft and Huntsman as short as possible.

During Tuesday’s ceremony in the Kremlin, Putin spoke about the need to restore strained relations with the United States “on the basis of recognition of mutual national interests and noninterference in internal affairs.” At the same time, Putin once again outlined his country’s substantial differences with the US. In Syria, Putin praised the Russian bombing campaign and the “diplomatic efforts by Turkey, Iran and Russia” in achieving progress in defeating the Islamic State, while not even mentioning the US-led anti–Islamic State coalition. The Russian leader also condemned the nuclear and missile tests by North Korea as violating United Nations resolutions, while adding, “But military rhetoric is a dead end and disastrous—all sides must seek a peaceful compromise.” It is a truism in diplomacy that whatever comes in a political statement before the “but” means practically nothing (Kommersant, October 4). Putin seems to be continuing to root for Pyongyang in its standoff with Washington and its allies by advocating a “compromise” solution of the nuclear crisis on North Korean terms. Profound and seemingly intractable differences on Korea, Syria and Ukraine leave little prospect for any improvement in relations with the United States (see EDM, September 7).

Meanwhile, this week (October 3), the Russian foreign ministry blasted the US authorities for allegedly intruding into the living quarters of the Russian consulate general in San Francisco. That mission had been closed down on September 2, as part of a diplomatic tit-for-tat exchange of restrictive moves by Moscow and Washington, initially triggered by accusations of Moscow’s clandestine involvement in the 2016 US presidential elections. The families of Russian diplomats were given until October to pack and leave their adjacent living quarters, which were apparently inspected by US officials after the Russian personnel cleared out. The foreign ministry insisted the consulate complex in San Francisco is still covered by diplomatic immunity, which Moscow has not agreed to remove, that the US officials had not been invited to enter the abandoned premises, as well as that they are “invaders” and in violation of international law. The ministry threatened to respond in kind and suggested Russian intelligence services could invade US diplomatic offices in Russia (Interfax, October 3).

Foreign Minister Lavrov singled out internal US political strife as the main source of worsening bilateral relations and indicted the political opponents of President Donald Trump. Those anti-Trump individuals, Lavrov asserted,refuse to accept the democratically expressed will of the American people [who elected Trump] and are whipping up Russophobia, attempting to blame Moscow for their own failures.” According to Russia’s top diplomat, Moscow “takes into consideration the internal political problems of the present US administration.” The Russian government is apparently still trying to hold open the door for a possible rapprochement with Trump, who is seen as a potential friend and partner, though handicapped by opponents. But hope is fading and Russia sees itself forced to fight back against an aggressive and hostile United States (, October 4).

Moscow’s foreign minister has also been backing up combative statements made by the Russian military, which has repeatedly accused its US counterparts of siding with the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria in organizing attacks on pro–Bashar al-Assad forces and their Russian advisors (see EDM, September 28). The US Armed Forces and their allies in Syria have, according to Lavrov, been “organizing deadly provocations against Russian service personnel in Syria.” The US soldiers and their allies are deployed in Syria “illegally,” Lavrov claimed, because they were not invited by al-Assad like the Russians. US forces have not yet been attacked, but Russian officials imply this may happen. The United States is losing influence, whereas the Russians, the Iranians and al-Assad’s forces are winning the war. In desperation, the US military is directing the fighters and terrorists it controls to specifically target high-ranking Russian military advisers, according to Russian defense experts (RIA Novosti, October 4).

Ambassador Tefft told this author he has urgent family business to attend to and will retire (once again) after returning from Moscow. Huntsman is taking over in a situation that seems much worse than even 2014. The belligerent words of Russian diplomats and generals about the US siding with the Islamic State and other terrorist groups in Syria may be primarily rhetoric. But there is a distinct possibility of soldiers in the field who hear such aggressive statements from their leadership to overreact. Skirmishes by proxy in Syria have already happened; and further escalation involving direct US-Russian military confrontations is certainly not impossible. At the same time, an array of other pressing and unresolved issues in the bilateral relationship requires competent crisis management. While, in the midst of all this, the US embassy in Moscow could be hit by additional tit-for-tat sanctions or even an invasion by Russian special forces. Ambassador Huntsman may be facing the challenge of his lifetime.