MOSCOW — As veteran diplomat Jon Huntsman Jr. assumes his new role as US ambassador to Russia this month, he faces a thicket of thorny issues separating the countries.
Many Russian officials see Huntsman’s appointment as an attempt by US President Donald Trump to shield himself from criticism he faces for appointing “Russia-friendly” officials to high-level positions amid the resignation scandal of former national security adviser Michael Flynn.
The same line of reasoning in Moscow also applied to the nominations of Kurt Volker as special representative for Ukraine negotiations and Wess Mitchell as assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.
Following the official announcement in July of Trump’s intent to nominate Huntsman, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, the chief Russian diplomat for the United States, praised the administration’s choice when he appeared on TV. “We’ve given our consent [as protocol requires], knowing Mr. Huntsman’s biography well and realizing that he is a top professional, a man with strong beliefs, very experienced,” Ryabkov said.
Huntsman’s nomination sparked an array of reactions from the Russian foreign policy establishment and expert community. Andrey Sushentsov, a program director at the Valdai Discussion Club, noted that Huntsman “knows how to work with difficult partners that are important to the United States.”
The nations’ bilateral relations require “great prudence” and Huntsman “will not be making any abrupt, [scandalous-like] moves,” he said.
Huntsman, a former Utah governor (2005-2009) and US ambassador to China (2009-2011), has an extensive background in diplomacy, serving in various positions under four presidents from both parties. Huntsman ran in the Republican presidential primary in 2012. In 2016, after a recording of Trump using vulgar language about women was released, Huntsman said publicly that Trump should end his campaign for president. He has also stated his conviction that Russians interfered with the 2016 election, something Trump has been unwilling to acknowledge.
Political commentator Konstantin von Eggert told the Kommersant newspaper that Huntsman will be difficult for Moscow to deal with: “Huntsman is too independent to do business with easily. It would be important for him to not make any moves that could have a negative impact on his reputation in the United States.”
An even more cautious attitude toward the new US ambassador comes from the Russian “right.” Publicist Egor Kholmogorov, a prominent voice among Russian nationalists, called Huntsman a member of the “anti-Russian hawks” camp in the United States.
But, he noted, “[Huntsman] represents a very specific type of conservatism. He is a very nuanced personality with broad business interests. … [Also], we should not forget that Huntsman is an influential man with influential people behind him.”
The overwhelming majority of those reflecting on Huntsman in Moscow feel the “China factor” in Russian foreign policy will dominate his mission.
“Huntsman is likely to be working on deterring Russia from a rapprochement with China,” said Alexey Arbatov, who heads the Center for International Security at the Primakov National Research Institute of World Economy and International Relations.
When asked what Russia should expect from Huntsman regarding the Middle East, a Kremlin official speaking to Al-Monitor not for attribution expressed a similar sentiment: “Huntsman’s ambassadorship in Russia is likely to be small on the Middle East and big on China and, probably, Ukraine.” The official noted, “Even if this turns out to be true, there’s [still] enough ground to cover for the two states in the Middle East, and Ambassador Huntsman will be seen as an essential troubleshooter.”
While the ambassador won’t necessarily get to define the US-Russia agenda, both countries’ dealings in Syria and across the Middle East are constantly being watched from both embassies in the respective capitals.
In recent weeks, new hostilities have engulfed Syria, with some important developments in Deir ez-Zor and Idlib that could to a great extent define the war’s outcome. Russia’s Defense Ministry has escalated its rhetoric, accusing the United States of “leaking sensitive intelligence to terrorists” and seeing the US military base in Al-Tanf as a long-term problem for the Syrian army. All of this reveals a bitter truth: There’s no cooperation between Russia and the United States in Syria. Moscow has come to calling potentially constructive US-Russia engagements in Syria as “cooperation,” hoping its own campaign will move Washington to be more pragmatic in its attitude toward the Syrian crisis, and toward Russia itself.
The truth is, what’s happening on the ground is “coordination” at best. After Russia’s two-year campaign in Syria, Moscow and Washington each continue to pursue their own agendas, each run their respective operations in parallel, and each get to pick and target their own enemies. The world needs to recognize — if not for political reasons, then for the sake of analysis — that their list of enemies isn’t limited to the Islamic State or Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Arguably, the only task uniting the two militaries is ensuring there’s no head-on collision. All of the communication channels that are now in place — from the working groups in Amman, Jordan, to the hotline connecting Russia’s Khmeimim and the US’ Al-Udeid air bases, to continued drawing of borderlines separating the Syrian army and US-supported Syrian Democratic Forces — is meant to safeguard the two nations from a major direct clash. This is a very important, and so-far successful, tool, and despite all the heated rhetoric, both parties appreciate the true value of such contacts. But until there are new political agreements between Russia and the United States, both will continue to forge ad hoc coalitions with regional players and unwittingly engage in battles that don’t necessarily serve their own interests. So seeking prospects for such agreements and assessing their likelihood is going to be one of Huntsman’s challenges in Moscow.
Finally, another big Middle East-related issue looming on the horizon for the two nations is the fate of the Iranian nuclear deal. Moscow is watching closely how Trump will express his displeasure with Iran. A few days ago, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov echoed Vladimir Putin’s attitude regarding the possible moves, saying the Russian president believes a United States exit from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action “would undoubtedly have negative implications.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said last week that Moscow hopes Trump ultimately makes a well-measured decision on the agreement with Iran. If he doesn’t, the sense in Moscow is there will be another thorny issue on Huntsman’s agenda with the Russians for the course of his diplomatic tenure.