The new American Ambassador, John Sullivan, who used to serve as the first Deputy Secretary of State, arrived in Moscow on January 15. Sullivan, 60, replaced Jon Huntsman, who did exactly two years in office and left Russia in early December. John Sullivan, like his predecessor, is not an expert on Russia. His career included work for the Pentagon, the Department of Justice, and the Department of Trade and Commerce. Having served in the State Department for two years only, he is nevertheless considered one of its key figures.
Even though the post of American Ambassador in the Russian capital is still deemed one of the most important and prestigious among diplomats, its significance has recently decreased to a certain extent. The reason for that is quite simple and out in the open – poor relations between Russia and the United States that have significantly reduced bilateral ties in almost all the areas.
Whether Ambassador Sullivan proves able to give a boost to the US diplomatic mission in Moscow is a really complex issue for a variety of causes. First, the US foreign policy is shaped not by the Ambassador, but by the President of the United States. And Russia is no exception in this regard. Second, John Sullivan is known for his anti-Russian philosophy. Suffice it to recall that last year's Japan meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in November, he outlined the reasons for normalizing relations between Moscow and Washington.
In particular, Sullivan pointed out that improving relations between the United States and Russia depends on Moscow's commitment to the Minsk agreements and on its non-interference in America's democratic processes. The conditions voiced by him are only indicative of his being not quite familiar with the matter, since Russia is not a party to the conflict in Ukraine and a subject of the Minsk agreements to settle the Donbass region situation. Besides, Moscow repeatedly stated that there had been no Russian interference in the democratic processes of the United States. The latter fact was, by the way, confirmed by Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller's last year investigation. And Mr. Sullivan ought to know that.
It should be noted that the new American Ambassador gets a challenging legacy at Moscow's Novinsky Boulevard. Under Huntsman, the number of diplomatic staff at the US Embassy in the Russian capital has dropped by almost 60, while the Trump administration has kept maintaining the old and imposing new sanctions against Russia. Washington and Moscow never stopped arguing over the conflicts in Syria and Venezuela and exchanged mutual accusations of interference in internal affairs. Meanwhile, the United States itself was investigating Donald Trump's alleged links to the Kremlin, upon which the democratic opposition impeached the 45th US President. Diplomatic contacts between the parties were reduced to a minimum, with serious consultations behind closed doors replaced by public rhetoric that started people off on a return to the state of a cold war.
It is in these conditions that John Sullivan will take up his new post. And his situation is perhaps even more sticky than that of his predecessor. Huntsman started working in Moscow in October 2017, amid fragile hopes of a positive shift in bilateral relations. But the situation seems to have only worsened since then. The US Congress is still convinced that Russia interfered in the election of 2016 and should be punished for this, and Trump has long been taking all of his steps with an eye to the upcoming presidential election of November 2020, so we can hardly expect any illusions about his overtures to Moscow. And that being the case, Sullivan will certainly have a tough time in Russia.
There is all the more reason for this as the US Congress has already developed new, so-called "infernal" sanctions against Russia that only need President Trump's approval. However, the latter is in no hurry to put his signature under this document. By the way, among his other duties in the State Department, Sullivan maintained supervisory control over the preparation and implementation of sanctions against Russia. Apart from the sanctions, the United States is currently developing information warfare tactics against Russia. As the Washington Post recently reported, the US cyber command is working out measures to take care of Moscow's possible interference in the 2020 elections.
Concurrently, there are also positive aspects in John Sullivan's appointment as US Ambassador to Moscow. Thus, it was he who headed the American delegation at Vienna consultations with Russia on combating international terrorism held in December 2018 after a long break. His Russian counterpart Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov previously noted that counterterrorism cooperation helped build confidence necessary for making progress in other areas of bilateral ties. This was confirmed by the United States' warning about the upcoming terrorist attack in St. Petersburg just ahead of the new year. The signal from Washington helped the Russian Federal Security Service to neutralize two terrorists at the right time and prevent a terrorist attack.
Moreover, in July 2019, Sullivan led the US delegation to strategic stability consultations with Russia in Geneva. Later, his colleagues said they were impressed by his ability to promptly get to the heart of problems, even in complex and new areas like arms control. Especially as the United States has withdrawn from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and has no stomach to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3) which expires in February 2021.
Another encouraging thing is that in a recent interview with CNN, Sullivan acknowledged the necessity of a dialogue with Russia, which is the strategy the Trump administration adheres to. "The President's purpose is to engage with President Putin, so that we can discuss these important issues, whether it's Eastern Ukraine, Crimea, arms control, Syria," he said. And the American diplomatic mission in Moscow said the new Ambassador hoped to improve bilateral relations and strengthen cooperation between the United States and Russia "on a number of global and regional issues of mutual interest."
Things can't be all that bad with the appointment of John Sullivan as Ambassador to Russia. And he will hopefully remain in this post not only until the November 3 presidential election, but also later, in case of Donald Trump's victory. So it is entirely possible that Russian-American relations will witness a gradual thaw during Sullivan's stay in Moscow.