- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London., Reid StandishReid Standish is associate editor, digital, at Foreign Policy. Reid writes on Russia, Ukraine, and Central Asia and is the newsroom’s digital point person. He has lived in and reported from Finland, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Ukraine, where he covered everything from Santa Claus to drug trafficking. A native of British Columbia, he holds a B.A. in international studies from Simon Fraser University and an M.A. from the University of Glasgow.
Moscow is reportedly preparing to send a new ambassador to Washington, and if history is any guide, he might end up being a great fit for the city’s new policy realities.
According to a reports from several Russian news outlets on Monday, the Kremlin is considering promoting Anatoly Antonov, a hardliner who is currently Moscow’s deputy foreign minister, to the post. Antonov is a well-known figure among U.S. diplomatic and foreign policy hands, several of whom characterized him as a tough, well-prepared negotiator who can also act as an unrepentant propagandist when the need arises.
“He is a force to be reckoned with,” Matthew Rojansky, the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute, told Foreign Policy. “If Moscow wants to continue to send the A-Team to Washington, then sending him makes total sense.”
The 61-year-old Antonov is a career diplomat and was just appointed deputy foreign minister in December. Prior to that, he served as Russia’s deputy defense minister, where he became the public face of the Kremlin’s intervention in Syria to bolster President Bashar al-Assad, spearheading multiple press briefings on the issue. He was also a driving force in Moscow’s 2014 incursion into Ukraine.
The Ukraine adventure — which has recently seen an uptick in fighting between Russian-backed separatists and government forces — also landed Antonov on the E.U.’s sanctions list in 2015.
Showing his ability to hit opponents hard, Antonov played a leading role in Moscow’s war of words with Turkey following the shoot down a Russian jet on the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015. He famously presented Moscow’s accusations that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was involved in an illegal oil trade with the Islamic State, charges that Moscow has subsequently dropped as relations have since warmed between the two countries.
The minister would also bring with him years of experience sitting across the negotiating table from American officials. He served as lead negotiator in talks to forge the New START Treaty in 2010, working with U.S. diplomat Rose Gottemoeller, current deputy secretary general at NATO. One U.S. official told FP that Antonov earned the respect of the Americans for his business-like manner in what would prove to be a quick negotiation.
After NATO’s 2010 Lisbon Summit, Antonov was again one of the main negotiators with the U.S. on ballistic missile defense cooperation.
“The talks began very constructively,” said Alexander Vershbow, a top Pentagon official at the time who was involved in the negotiations. But after a year of talks, the Russian team shifted tack, deciding instead to try and derail American and NATO missile deployments in Europe. “Antonov then became a brilliant obstructionist, nay-sayer, and propagandist” until Moscow ended talks with the United States and NATO in 2013, said Vershbow, who stepped down from his post as NATO’s deputy secretary general in October.
Antonov also led the Russian effort in 2015 and 2016 to set up regular talks with U.S. civilian officials at the Pentagon to ensure U.S. and Russian aircraft maintained their distance in the skies over Syria.
Reporting by the Russian newspaper Kommersant indicates that Antonov had been tapped by the Kremlin months ago, when it seemed Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would be president. Antonov’s dogmatic views were seen as an asset in dealing with Clinton and navigating what the Kremlin assumed would be strained U.S.-Russia ties.
Despite Trump’s upset victory and more conciliatory tone towards relations with Russia Antonov apparently still fits the bill. But he’ll be landing in a very different Washington.
The Trump administration has taken a more pro-Russian stance than the Obama team, and has flirted with the idea of unilaterally dropping U.S. sanctions on Russian companies and individuals, and cooperating with Russian forces in Syria to fight the Islamic State.
An advisor to U.S. national security officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity told FP that Trump’s top advisers, notably White House strategist Steve Bannon and national security advisor Michael Flynn, see Russia as a potential partner. It’s “not that they’re Russia lovers. They have a view that in the scheme of things, Russia is not the real problem. We need to rethink how we work with Russia, and in the end Russia can actually be — at times — a partner to deal with real problems like China and radical Islam,” the official said.
Speaking at a terrorism conference in Moscow last April, Antonov came to much the same conclusion, and sounded the same warnings that have been emanating from the White House over the past several weeks.
“No one can feel safe today, nobody is living on an island,” Antonov warned, adding that the only way to beat back terrorists flowing out of the Middle East is for the international community to work together. “This is what we did back in the days of World War II,” he added. “What stands in the way today is political ambitions and selfish national interests of certain countries, who realize full well that they can’t fight terrorism on their own,” he concluded in a thinly veiled shot at the Obama administration.
But Antonov’s real strength, as it has been for Russian ambassadors in the past, is arms control. “Regardless of who is in the White House, nuclear weapons is a major issue for Moscow,” John Herbst, the director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told FP.
Moscow’s current envoy to the United States, Sergei Kislyak, who was appointed ambassador after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, also served as deputy foreign minister before being posted to America and worked heavily on issues pertaining to nuclear nonproliferation.
And despite Antonov’s reputation as a hardliner, in Washington he’ll be advancing the Kremlin’s marching orders, not his own.
“He’s a professional, an order-taker, but not really an innovator,” said Herbst. “He’s someone who won’t embarrass Moscow and will toe the Kremlin line, whatever that may be.”
Photo Credit: ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images