Trump’s Next Envoy to Russia Has a Mountain to Climb

First John Sullivan must get through Congress, which wants to question him about Ukraine. Then he must deal with a hostile Moscow.

By Reid Standish and Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan speaks at a press conference.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan speaks at a press conference at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on Dec. 17, 2018. Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images

Jon Huntsman left Moscow largely unscathed after two years in the job as U.S. President Donald Trump’s envoy to Moscow. His presumed successor might not be so lucky. 

Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan is expected to be nominated to replace Huntsman in coming weeks. If Sullivan is confirmed in the Senate, he’ll face an environment in which relations with Washington have sunk to an all-time low amid disagreements over Moscow’s authoritarian bent and accusations of election meddling. And he’ll have to navigate mixed signals between Trump’s warm words for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his administration and Congress’s more hawkish stance. 

Before Sullivan gets the job, however, he must endure an increasingly skeptical and partisan Senate confirmation hearing in which his newly revealed role in the scandal that has ballooned into an impeachment inquiry will come under scrutiny from Democrats.

Sullivan has been deputy secretary during one of the most tumultuous periods in modern State Department history, from the rocky tenure of former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson through Mike Pompeo’s era as Trump’s top diplomat. And now the State Department that Sullivan helped lead is being dragged into the impeachment saga, with a procession of senior officials heading to Capitol Hill to testify. 

In some ways, Sullivan is now paying dearly for the fact that his reputation is high in Washington. A lawyer by training and former George W. Bush appointee, Sullivan was plucked from relative obscurity in Washington national security circles to serve as Trump’s deputy secretary beginning in May 2017. He is widely respected by career diplomats as a capable and amicable manager, according to five current and former diplomats, and stands in contrast to the hyperpartisan atmosphere in an administration that appears distrustful of career civil servants. “He is overall the most steady of leadership we had under this administration,” said one State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity. 

But it was just because of this reputation that when the State Department faced allegations of wrongdoing or mismanagement—as has happened more than once under the Trump administration—Sullivan has been dispatched to help clean up the mess. Which might explain how he was named in testimony on Capitol Hill on the impeachment inquiry. 

The impeachment inquiry centers on whether Trump and his inner circle, including his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, withheld vital foreign military aid to Ukraine in exchange for pressuring the country to investigate a potential Democratic presidential rival. 

Marie Yovanovitch, a seasoned career diplomat, was forced out of her job as ambassador to Kyiv in May. Yovanovitch, a champion for anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, ran afoul of some Ukrainian officials and Giuliani and his associates, who orchestrated a campaign to oust her. In a deposition to the House committees overseeing the impeachment inquiry, Yovanovitch disclosed that Sullivan was the one who informed her the president was firing her, even though she had done nothing wrong. 

Democrats have been pushing the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Republican Sen. James Risch, to open hearings into the issues related to impeachment and bring forward Yovanovitch, Pompeo, and other senior officials to testify—so far to no avail. Sullivan’s expected nomination hearing before the committee, however, provides an opening for them to do just that, Democratic Senate aides told Foreign Policy

Sen. Bob Menendez, the top Democrat on the committee, hasn’t been shy in criticizing Pompeo and Sullivan’s role in the firing of Yovanovitch. 

“[Sullivan’s] got a lot of questions to answer,” Menendez told CNN in an interview on Oct. 11. “I don’t believe that you can use the Nuremberg defense, ‘I was just following orders.’ You need to stand up … for our career people. You need to push back against the politics of the White House, particularly when those politics are perverse.”

Neither Pompeo nor Sullivan has yet to offer any public comments, positive or negative, about Yovanovitch, despite prodding from veteran career diplomats and top advisors. 

“This is going to be one tough nomination hearing, as far as I’m concerned,” Menendez said.

Becoming a new ambassador requires a formal presidential nomination and Senate confirmation. Trump announced his intent to nominate Sullivan to the post, and Senate aides told Foreign Policy that they expect the paperwork to come through in the coming weeks.

If he runs the gauntlet of the Senate confirmation process, he’ll face new tests in Moscow. 

Sullivan would enter his post in Moscow during a particularly turbulent time for the Trump administration and during a fraught period of U.S.-Russia relations, when outrage over Russia’s annexation of Crimea was compounded by Moscow’s efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Diplomats from both countries have been removed in tit-for-tat expulsions over election interference and the 2018 poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the United Kingdom. 

“The relationship is not quite dysfunctional, but it’s pretty bad,” said Alexander Vershbow, a former diplomat who served as deputy secretary-general to NATO and U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005.

Against the backdrop of rising tensions, frustrations with a disjointed U.S. policy toward Russia have muddled the U.S. response toward the Kremlin’s malfeasance. Trump’s desire to improve ties with Moscow has been perceived as justifying inaction toward countering Russia and been criticized by lawmakers in Congress on both sides of the aisle, who have in turn pushed for a tougher sanctions policy against Russia, independent of the White House. 

Huntsman was charged with making sense of these divergent, and at times conflicting, threads during his two years in Moscow. He left his post this month.

In an op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal in early October, Huntsman offered some insights into the difficulties of carrying out U.S. policy for Russia. He criticized an overreliance on sanctions, a lack of coordination with U.S. allies, and short-term punitive strategies of engagement that risk alienating everyday Russians as the country draws toward an eventual leadership transition

“We need to do less obsessing about Mr. Putin and more thinking about the institutions and generations that will outlast him,” Huntsman wrote. “Rather than cutting ourselves off from Russia, which is the inescapable effect of all these sanctions, we need to cultivate constructive relationships with those who will shape Russia’s post-Putin period.”

Huntsman, a former governor of Utah who previously served as U.S. ambassador to Singapore and China, is said to have had a strong working relationship with Trump and lawmakers on the Hill and held a respected role within the diplomatic community in Moscow. 

“He’s left some very large shoes to fill,” one Western diplomat said. 

As Huntsman’s proposed successor, Sullivan will need to quickly adapt to a notoriously difficult working environment for Western diplomats in the Russian capital. In addition to strained U.S.-Russia relations and episodes of harassment, Sullivan will also inherit an embassy working at a drastically reduced capacity following several rounds of diplomatic expulsions. In order to continue carrying out its core functions, the U.S. Embassy in Moscow—along with other Western embassies that also faced expulsions—has had to cut back on cultural and science programs, as well as on some consular services, such as issuing visas to come to the United States, due to a lack of staff. 

Sullivan will also need to balance the White House’s goal of finding ways to improve bilateral ties with Moscow while also confronting a Russian foreign policy that seems designed to roll back and counter U.S. interests around the world. 

That will give Sullivan little room for scoring diplomatic wins, some experts and former officials say. “[Russia] on most issues [is] perfectly happy to play the spoiler and make life difficult for the U.S. They’re not looking for win-wins as a general rule,” Vershbow said. 

One issue dogging the U.S.-Russia relationship that could take up a considerable chunk of Sullivan’s time, if he is nominated and confirmed, is the ongoing detention of a U.S. citizen in Russia.

Paul Whelan, a former U.S. Marine, was arrested in Moscow at the end of December on suspicion of espionage—charges that he and his family have strenuously denied. The Russian government has yet to provide evidence to back up its charges. Visits to Americans held in foreign prisons are usually conducted by consular staff, but Huntsman’s visit to Whelan in the days after his arrest was seen as a strong statement of support. For the remainder of his time in Moscow, Huntsman was a vocal advocate for Whelan, who continues to be held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo Prison. One of Huntsman’s last acts as ambassador before he left on Oct. 3 was to visit Whelan in prison.

Russia has also in the past restricted the U.S. ambassador’s free access to senior government officials, giving public speeches to universities or conferences, or press interviews to Russian-language news outlets, Vershbow said. “He’ll likely have very little ability to engage with officials. And that’s kind of a fairly sterile dialogue even when meetings take place.”

Dispatching such a senior ranking diplomat to the job sends a positive signal, some experts say. “The fact that Trump has chosen someone from such a high position to be ambassador is seen in Moscow as a welcome sign [that] the president is ready to invest more in bilateral relations and that there is political will going forward,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of the political consultancy R.Politik and a scholar at the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“Often we hear that it doesn’t matter who is the ambassador, but I think for [the] Russian-American relationship, it is very important,” Stanovaya said. “The tone and behavior of the ambassador can have a big effect in shaping relations.”

Staff writer Amy Mackinnon contributed to this report.

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer