New U.S. Ambassador to Russia Wants to Bring Relations to ‘Higher Altitude,’ but Not Potemkin-Style
Washington’s new ambassador to Russia, Jon Huntsman, landed in Moscow this week and presented his credentials to President Vladimir Putin on Oct. 3. How will Washington’s envoy fare? By turns a diplomat, politician and businessman, Huntsman brings an even-keeled approach and no Russia expertise to the post. Despite some strong criticism of Moscow in his public statements and a slew of bilateral challenges, he has noted the need to move the relationship to “a higher altitude.” Huntsman’s family has long had business ties to Russia and some sideline dramas could play out if there are new revelations on that front or serious disagreement in Washington about how to proceed in dealing with Moscow.
A former governor of Utah, Huntsman, who is 57, has served as a U.S. ambassador to Singapore (1992-93) and China (2009-2011), which he has suggested could help him in his new job: “There are elements of big power relationships that are similar and the way that large, complex embassies function is also similar,” he said recently.
At his Senate confirmation hearing last month, Huntsman shared views on Russia that hewed to his reputation as a moderate (though in Russia he is reportedly seen by some as a hardliner): In his official statement he said there was “no question that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election last year and Moscow continues to meddle in the democratic processes of our friends and allies.” At the same time, in response to senators’ questions, he called America’s relationship with Russia “a challenging but necessary” one, adding: “We have to be at the table together. We have to find common ground. We have to solve problems. We have to move to a higher altitude, no question about it.” (More of Huntsman’s comments on Russia-related issues are below.)
Prior to his nomination for the ambassadorship, Huntsman had said very little about Russia. But his occasional remarks seem consistent with his comments in the Senate, balancing criticism and a need for cooperation. For example, during Huntsman’s short-lived run for the U.S. presidency in 2011-2012, his campaign criticized the Obama administration’s “Russia Reset policy” as resting “on a foundation of falsehoods,” calling it “a Potemkin policy” and saying: “Working with Russia to develop a more cooperative relationship is needed, but we should not make that relationship one that mirrors a Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is, more of a democracy than it is, more respectful of human rights than it is, and less threatening to its neighbors than it is.”
Huntsman has two business ties to Russia, the first of which may give him some insights into the country’s inner workings. The chemicals company founded and run by his father, Huntsman Corporation, operates four subsidiaries in at least three Russian cities. According to The Salt Lake Tribune, the Huntsman family business “was among the first U.S. companies that sought business ties [in Russia] after the end of the Cold War” and the new ambassador had been involved in those early efforts, but decided to suspend operations in the mid-1990s amid a wave of retroactive taxes and penalties. (One of the subsidiaries, Huntsman-NMG, has reportedly operated in Russia since 2007 and bought out its Russian partner’s shares in 2012.) But the Russian business connection that has gotten more scrutiny in U.S. media, including The Washington Post, is Huntsman’s role, for the past three years, on the board of directors at Chevron—America’s second largest oil and gas company, which has reportedly lobbied (successfully) for milder U.S. sanctions against Russian business partners affected by them. An official at the Atlantic Council, a think-tank chaired by Huntsman at the time of his nomination, said prior to the ambassador’s confirmation that he “will resign from all boards" once confirmed; Moscow-based RBTH noted that “Huntsman is believed to have avoided conflicts of interest since assuming public office.”
One development to watch closely will be Huntsman’s ability to navigate diplomatic waters if the directives from the State Department and White House begin to diverge (not unimaginable in the wake of Washington’s recurring mixed messages on North Korea). Huntsman and President Donald Trump have publicly disparaged each other in the past: During the new ambassador’s bid for the Republican presidential nomination in the 2012 race, Trump—who then hosted a reality show and toyed with the idea of seeking the nomination himself—called Huntsman a “lightweight” and “weak,” while Huntsman lamented that Trump’s “infusing himself into the dialogue really dumbs down” important issues. During the 2016 presidential campaign, the two men had an “up-and-down” relationship as well, with Huntsman initially endorsing Trump, but then calling for him to drop out of the race after the release of the now infamous “Access Hollywood” tape.
Russia’s Gazeta.ru news website published a fun photo gallery showing Huntsman’s lighter side, including a love for his motorcycle and amateur rock-and-rolling, and mentioning his fondness for the late great Russia expert George Kennan.
At yesterday’s Kremlin ceremony, Putin welcomed Huntsman with a call for improved relations based on “equality, respect for national interests and non-interference with each other’s internal affairs.” At least one Russian analyst, Dmitry Suslov, sees Huntsman’s appointment as a promising start for de-escalating bilateral tensions: “Being a former ambassador to China, Huntsman knows how to do business with great powers, and this is a very important signal. It means the Trump administration does not intend to democratize or adjust Russia in any other way to suit its short-term interests.”
Huntsman’s Comments on the Most Salient Issues in U.S.-Russia Relations
(Direct quotes if not in italics or parentheses.)
I. U.S. and Russian priorities for the bilateral agenda
- Pakistan—which possesses a demonstrated nuclear weapons capability and a fractured military that sponsors terrorism—does demand U.S. attention. (Address at Southern New Hampshire University, 10.10.11)
Iran’s nuclear program and related issues:
- I cannot live with a nuclear-armed Iran. If you want an example of when I would use American force, it would be that. (Politico, 10.10.11)
- Huntsman Corporation, run at the time by the new ambassador’s brother, shuttered its Iran operations in January 2010 to avoid “reputational risk” after complaints from an anti-nuclear watchdog group founded by Richard Holbrooke and Dennis Ross. (Politico, 06.19.11)
New and original Cold Wars:
- A reexamination of America’s role in the world also requires a reexamination of our military and defense infrastructure. It may surprise some people to learn that we spend more on defense today than at the height of the Cold War. Indeed, we spend more on defense than the rest of the world combined. We still have remnants of a top-heavy, post-Cold War infrastructure. It needs to be transformed to reflect the 21st century world, and the growing asymmetric threats we face. (Politico, 10.10.11)
Military issues, including NATO-Russia relations:
- On Russian pressure of neighboring countries: My approach … will be to work with our friends and allies in Europe. … We all know the vulnerable states; they are right on the periphery. And they need the help and support that NATO, and specifically the United States, can provide. I think we are better and stronger when we are coordinating with those who are regionally focused and on the ground and maybe have a slightly different perspective. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- I think we have to convince Russia both bilaterally and multilaterally through our friends and allies, particularly NATO, that aggression doesn’t pay. And there will be a response. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- On the recent Zapad-2017 military exercises: I’m not sure they [the Russians] have invoked the Vienna Documents that are required as far as transparency is concerned. But it may be that they should have. Nobody quite knows exactly the numbers of troops involved or exactly how this is likely to play out. That’s not good. That does not serve the interests of security and stability in Europe. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- Our traditional alliance relationships with Europe remain vital to American security, and we should also work closely with our friends in NATO and the European Union to bring Russia, a sometimes difficult actor, closer to the West. (Address at Southern New Hampshire University, 10.10.11)
- The deployment of THAAD, for example, most recently among other things, has got us in consternation with both China and Russia. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
Nuclear arms control:
- Identified “upholding arms control and non-proliferation obligations and commitments” as key U.S. interests that he would work to advance. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- Russia is disregarding its arms-control obligations and commitments. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- [North Korea] falls into the category, the side of the balance sheet on issues where we have some overlapping and common interests [with Russia]. And I think we should always take time to explore where we have overlapping and common interests… We take different approaches and we have different attitudes about denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, but I think ultimately we want greater safety in that region and I think both countries share real concerns about proliferation… I am heartened by the support on the last round of sanctions. … For us it really comes down to: Are the sanctions going to be implemented? We have had difficulties in the past. Will China do what they signed up to do? Will Russia do what they signed up to do? And that’s where you roll up your sleeves and get to work. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- Identified “defeating ISIS” and “countering terrorism” as key U.S. interests that he would work to advance. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
Conflict in Syria:
- Identified “finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria” as a key U.S. interest that he would work to advance. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- Russian President Vladimir Putin was “upstaging” then-President Barack Obama in the Middle East and “double-downing basically on a bad policy” by backing Bashar al-Assad in Syria. (Fox Business, 10.12.2015)
- In 2013 Huntsman co-led a private commission on the theft of American intellectual property, focused primarily on Chinese hacking. Some of its recommendations included that U.S. businesses invest in cyber defenses that allow them to monitor their networks in real-time and buy technology that could freeze someone’s computer if they access stolen documents with it. (Foreign Policy, 05.22.13)
- Cyber theft is a cheap way to avoid costly and time-intensive R&D that may simply be beyond the thieves' capacity. (Report by Commission on the Theft of American Intellectual Property co-chaired by Jon Huntsman, Wall Street Journal, 09.19.17)
- On cyber-relationship with China: At some point, we are going to have to develop a context in which we can actually discuss this and, I would think, draw some red lines around areas that we don’t want them into and they might not want us into. (Huffington Post, 08.14.11)
- There is no question that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election last year and Moscow continues to meddle in the democratic processes of our friends and allies. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- I think the first order of business … is to recognize that it [Russian hybrid warfare] does exist and not to be delusional about it. And then to say, what is the nature of this hybrid campaign? What toll or what cost is it taking on the very survivability of maybe a very nascent democracy. Because I think that’s the target, to undercut the credibility of the political system, which is the most nefarious approach that one could take to another nation-state. And then I think we have to say, “What are the options in terms of the tools that one might have?” There may be some options on the technology side with the private sector that would be worth looking at, and I think we always ought to be exploring private sector technology approaches. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- I will … not hesitate to remind [Russian] government officials that they are accountable for their actions. Exhibit A is the fact that interference in the U.S. election has led directly to the current low level of trust in the relationship. The views of Congress were heard clearly on this point in the near-unanimous passage of the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- On working for a president who disagrees about Russian interference in the election: It’s important to note that the ODNI has spoken… It’s a powerful symbol when you get the director of national intelligence, the director of the CIA, the head of the NSA, the head of the FBI, who come together in unison behind their findings. As a consumer of their materials for some years, I very rarely see them come together in such a coordinated fashion of one mind and one conclusion. So I think that expresses where the facts are with respect to Russia’s involvement in our election. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- In 2014 Huntsman said that since 50% of Russia's trade involves selling oil and natural gas to Europe, the U.S. should punish Moscow "where it hurts the most" by working with allies to replace some of that Russian energy with U.S. exports: Better to say we have the raw materials and resources that would be able to win over market share… We have some real cards to play. (USA Today, 07.19.17)
Bilateral economic ties and sanctions:
- Asked what Congress can do to help him succeed in his mission to Russia Huntsman replied: I think allowing me the opportunity to return and report on the key issues—whether they be Ukraine, Syria, DPRK, arms control, human rights, Magnitsky Act—because I think we are all going to have to be together, with respect to the last round of sanctions, because you’ll have a significant role in how that goes. And you’re then going to have to base your decisions on input from the ground. … You’ll get all the information you’ll need to read, but having somebody at post who can maybe help provide a different perspective will be important. So just the very thought that we could work together going forward and maintain an open dialogue with you and your staffs on whether there’s progress on these issues. Because if there’s progress, we need to move the relationship to a bit of a higher altitude. Right now, we are at a low point. It reminds me a little of 1986 and I remember that year. We can’t stay at the 1986-level forever. It doesn’t serve the purposes of the region or the world, well. Nor does it serve the interests of people in both countries. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- When I think about the different sanctions that are there—some from Crimea, some from eastern Ukraine, some are the result of meddling in our election, some tied to Magnitsky and more human-rights focused—I really do see the Ukraine issue as being critically important as a barometer of whether or not we can make progress in our bilateral relationship. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
Other bilateral issues and relations in general:
- As the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation, I look forward to working to rebuild trust between our two countries and to strengthening the bilateral relationship based on cooperation on common interests. (Washington Post, 10.03.17)
- I will engage Russian government officials, from the highest tiers to the local level, to advance American interests. Key among our goals are defeating ISIS, countering terrorism, upholding arms control and non-proliferation obligations and commitments, finding a political solution to the conflict in Syria, and resolving the crisis in Ukraine in a way that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and restores its territorial integrity. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- Our relationship with Russia is among the most consequential and complex foreign-policy challenges we face. As a nuclear superpower and permanent member of the UN Security Council, we have no choice but to deal with Russia on a range of issues touching on global stability and security. Yet we also need to recognize that today, contrary to Helsinki Final Act principles and international law, Russia continues to threaten stability in Europe, including by violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbors. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- At the same time, we have areas of overlapping and common interests. And as I think with any challenging relationship, I would say that in the case of Russia, it’s a challenging but necessary relationship, we have to be at the table together, we have to find common ground, we have to solve problems, we have to move to a higher altitude, no question about it. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- And then we have issues such as space, for example, … that keeps us together in a collaborative fashion. That’s been a great success between the United States and Russia. The Arctic … is another issue that we’re going to have to come together on. Maybe in ways that are positive. I see the balance sheet, I see the need to come up with a very crisp and clear list of priorities that we can meet on, we can hopefully make some progress on, and I can return to you and report on. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- I will work to protect the interests of the American people, to include the U.S. business community, scholars, tourists and other American visitors who spend time in Russia and engage its citizens. I believe people-to-people exchanges and private interactions are an important way to show that our disagreements are with the government of Russia, not with its people. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- I will seek out Russian people from across all walks of life to share perspectives, to relay American values, and to deepen my already growing appreciation for Russia’s rich and fascinating history and culture. As I have done in previous assignments, I look forward to meeting with civil society leaders, including those in the religious and human rights community. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- For me, the United States’ mission, whether an embassy or consulates, in this case three throughout Russia, should be seen as beacons of hope—aspirational for the Russian people, as I know they were for the Chinese people when I served there. The … title of ambassador … should also be seen as aspirational and tied to U.S. values. I’ve worn this title before. I’ve seen when you actually express those values, and go to the aid of those who are under assault from their governments. They find that there’s hope in what America does. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- Despite Russia’s actions against U.S. mission diplomatic staffing, the team—both the American and the Russian staff—continues to serve with professionalism and an unwavering commitment under difficult conditions. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- The Obama Administration’s Russia Reset policy is a bad approach because it rests on a foundation of falsehoods. It’s a Potemkin policy. Working with Russia to develop a more cooperative relationship is needed, but we should not make that relationship one that mirrors a Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is, more of a democracy than it is, more respectful of human rights than it is, and less threatening to its neighbors than it is. When we do that, as President Obama has done, we are undercutting those in Russia who see a democratic future for their country. We communicate tolerance for its hegemonic policies including toward Georgia (which it still occupies) and Ukraine. We undercut our criticism of despots elsewhere in the world. We can nonetheless find productive ways to work with Russia if we view the relationship with more objective eyes. A global agenda for the U.S.-Russian relationship can be successful because we can focus on issues that leverage Russian power: arms control, Iran (UNSC) and America’s need in Afghanistan. (Foreign policy statement by Huntsman’s presidential campaign, November 2011)
II. Russia’s domestic news
Politics, economy and energy:
- Russia … restricts the human rights of its people. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
Defense and aerospace:
- No significant statements.
Security, law-enforcement and justice:
- No significant statements.
III. Foreign affairs, trade and investment
Russia’s general foreign policy and relations with “far abroad” countries:
- See “Other bilateral issues and relations in general section” above.
- We have worked together successfully [with China and Russia] in the six-party context. So I have seen examples where the three of us can in fact take on an issue, share information, work from a common sheet, a common playbook, and try to get things done. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- The Chinese don't do well with the Russians. They haven't traditionally had a very strong relationship. Today they're doing a battle as well as done since the late 1950's for one reason, maybe two. It's a gas-and-oil play for the Chinese straight up. But beyond that is also a partnership that can poke the United States in the eye every now and again. And the Chinese don't mind doing that. In fact the Chinese would like to see us so taken up in the events playing out in Crimea and Ukraine that we begin to take our eye off the ball. (Fox Business Network, 04.21.14)
- The most significant issue is the rise of China and how the rest of the world responds to this phenomenon. They are the second-largest economy in the world, and we must keep an eye on their economic transformation. It’s historic in nature. (Food Management, 10.01.12)
- Xi Jinping wakes up every morning and his No. 1 priority is domestic stability. If he can’t keep 1.4 billion people calm, employed and at peace, the whole system falls apart… So he’s leading the charge of what you would call the fifth generation of leaders. Low in ideology, high in technical capacity. English-speaking degrees from the best institutions in the world. And a very sophisticated read of the United States. (WSJ, 06.19.17)
- There’s no guarantee that they can get to the promised land… They are in that journey now. And it’s tough going. (Star Tribune, 04.20.16)
- China is a different model [than Japan]. It has staying power. They have population, they have geography, they have natural resources. It’s got a resilient system. It’s going to be our challenge and our opportunity of the 21st century. (Star Tribune, 04.20.16)
- Identified “resolving the crisis in Ukraine in a way that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and restores its territorial integrity” as a key U.S. interest that he would work to advance. (Statement to Senate, September 2017)
- In the case of Ukraine, we are nowhere… The main highway that leads to improved U.S.-Russia relations I think goes right through Ukraine. And I think that is living up [to] and respecting the Minsk Accord through the Normandy Process. (Q&A during Senate confirmation hearing, 09.19.17)
- In 2014, in his first extended public comments as chairman of the Atlantic Council, Huntsman called Russia's aggressive moves in Ukraine "a wake-up call" for the West about President Vladimir Putin's aspirations to rebuild the former Soviet empire. (USA Today, 07.19.17)
- See also “Bilateral economic ties and sanctions” section above.
Russia’s other post-Soviet neighbors:
- See “Other bilateral issues and relations in general section” above.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.