U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon M. Huntsman Jr. will resign from his post effective Oct. 3 — capping a tumultuous two-year tenure in Moscow defined by sinking bilateral relations, despite efforts to stem the damage.
“American citizenship is a privilege and I believe the most basic responsibility in return is service to country,” wrote Huntsman in a resignation letter delivered to President Donald Trump on Tuesday and first published in The Salt Lake Tribune, a paper owned by Huntsman’s brother.
“To that end, I am honored by the trust you have placed in me as United States Ambassador to Russia during this historically difficult period in bilateral relations.”
The election shadow
Huntsman’s tenure was defined by fallout from lingering anger over allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections.
He arrived just months after Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the mass expulsion of 755 American diplomats from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow — a delayed response to earlier reprisals by the Obama administration.
Subsequent tit-for-tat expulsions saw U.S. Embassy numbers dwindle, while American-imposed sanctions on Moscow further poisoned the relationship.
“It was clear that for better or worse, relations aren’t decided in the embassy,” said Alexander Baunov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, in an interview with VOA.
Despite the “diplomatic wars,” Baunov said, Huntsman was “a low-profile ambassador” who worked to keep the relationship civil.
Indeed, Russian officials reacted to Huntsman’s announced departure by recalling his tenure as mainly a lost opportunity, with the ambassador hostage to what Moscow portrays as unjustified and pervasive anti-Russian sentiment in Washington.
“We regard him as a professional, but unfortunately, given the conditions we observe now in the U.S., realizing the potential in our relations proved impossible,” said Maria Zakharova, Russia’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, discussing Huntsman’s departure in an interview with Echo of Moscow radio.
Assessing Huntsman’s impact on U.S.-Russian relations on his Twitter account, Alexey Pushkov, a pro-Kremlin foreign policy blogger, was even more dismissive.
“He couldn’t improve, or lower [relations], since there was nowhere lower to go,” Pushkov argued. “Little depended on him.”
Hopeful days early on
Huntsman came to Moscow as Trump’s surprise choice for the Russian ambassador’s post — a political appointee and elder Republican statesman with little knowledge of Russia.
Moreover, he had little history with a president who seemed to value trusted family and insiders above all else.
“The good news is Huntsman doesn’t bring any negative baggage when it comes to Russia,” noted foreign policy analyst Vladimir Frolov in an interview at the time. “But the reality is, he doesn’t have much of a relationship with Trump. He’s not in Trump’s inner circle.”
Indeed, Huntsman — a centrist Republican who was ambassador to China in the Obama administration — seemed by nature out of step with the slashing partisan politics of the Trump era.
Early on, Huntsman embraced Trump’s calls to improve relations with Moscow — even pushing to open doors in Washington for his Russian counterpart, Anatoly Antonov.
“I made it clear when I started this job that I wanted to make sure that wherever the Russian ambassador [had access], then I had similar access, and where I get access, Ambassador Anatoly Antonov should get access,” Huntsman said in an interview with Foreign Policy magazine in March 2018.
Still, Huntsman clearly differed with his boss over the 2016 election interference allegations, with Trump reluctant to embrace conclusions by U.S. security agencies of a sustained Kremlin effort to manipulate the results.
“There is no question — underline no question — that the Russian government interfered in the U.S. election last year,” Huntsman said during his confirmation hearings. “Moscow continues to meddle in the democratic processes of our friends and allies.”
Kremlin officials found Huntsman’s mind changed little over the next two years and repeatedly called him out for embracing Washington’s “politics of sanctions.”
Moreover, Russian officials increasingly bristled at Huntsman’s style. A high-profile visit to a U.S. aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean last April in which he called the ship “200,000 tons of diplomacy” led to his denunciation on Russian state media.
In a further sign his welcome was coming to a close, the Kremlin placed the Atlantic Council, an organization Huntsman headed prior to his posting and that helped draft sanctions legislation against Moscow, on an “undesirable organizations” list last month.
The relationship, never easy, was in trouble for the long haul, Huntsman stated in his resignation letter.
“Going forward, we must continue to hold Russia accountable when its behavior threatens us and our allies,” he wrote. “No reset or restart is going to help, just a clear understanding of our interests and values.”
Search for next ambassador
Huntsman is widely rumored to be eyeing a gubernatorial run in Utah.
Meanwhile, attention turns to whom Trump may nominate next, with intrigue already in tow.
A recent CNN report raised eyebrows when it reported Trump and Putin discussed Huntsman’s departure — and possible successor — during a phone call last week in which Trump offered U.S. assistance to help combat raging wildfires in Siberia.
Yet some observers say the charged political environment in Washington means the Moscow post may stay vacant for some time.
“Before the U.S. presidential elections in 2020, it’s unlikely we’ll see a new ambassador in Russia,” said Nikolai Zlobin, president of the Center for Global Interests, a Russian think tank based in Washington, in an interview with Moscow’s Business FM radio.
“There are not many candidates,” he said, “and not many in Washington are interested in the position.”