In Russia, America’s Last Man Standing Stands Down

John Sullivan had a front-row seat to a historic low point in U.S.-Russia relations, and he did it with a skeleton crew of diplomats.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
John Sullivan leaves a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
John Sullivan leaves a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.
John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, leaves after a closed hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on May 24, 2021. Alex Wong/Getty Images

John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, stepped down from his post this week after serving for nearly three years during one of the most tumultuous and difficult eras in modern U.S.-Russia relations. From his perch in Moscow, Sullivan had little ability to fend off the collapse in U.S. ties with Russia. But he still leaves big shoes to fill in an embassy that was forced to shutter consulates and hemorrhage staff as the Kremlin imposed steep cuts on the United States’ diplomatic footprint in Russia.

Sullivan stepped down from his post after his wife died due to health complications, and he stressed in an interview with Politico that his decision to retire had nothing to do with U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies toward Russia or the ongoing war in Ukraine. His wife, Grace Rodriguez, a prominent lawyer, died from cancer on Monday.

Sullivan, four current and former diplomats told Foreign Policy, had one of the most difficult jobs in U.S. diplomacy, managing the day-to-day relations between two former Cold War rivals that steadily declined and then effectively collapsed after Moscow’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. It’s unclear when Sullivan will be replaced or who is slated to replace him. In the interim, Sullivan will be replaced by Elizabeth Rood, a career diplomat who is the embassy’s second-in-command, until the president nominates a new ambassador.

John Sullivan, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, stepped down from his post this week after serving for nearly three years during one of the most tumultuous and difficult eras in modern U.S.-Russia relations. From his perch in Moscow, Sullivan had little ability to fend off the collapse in U.S. ties with Russia. But he still leaves big shoes to fill in an embassy that was forced to shutter consulates and hemorrhage staff as the Kremlin imposed steep cuts on the United States diplomatic footprint in Russia.

Sullivan stepped down from his post after his wife died due to health complications, and he stressed in an interview with Politico that his decision to retire had nothing to do with U.S. President Joe Biden’s policies toward Russia or the ongoing war in Ukraine. His wife, Grace Rodriguez, a prominent lawyer, died from cancer on Monday.

Sullivan, four current and former diplomats told Foreign Policy, had one of the most difficult jobs in U.S. diplomacy, managing the day-to-day relations between two former Cold War rivals that steadily declined and then effectively collapsed after Moscow’s decision to launch a full-scale invasion of Ukraine in late February. It’s unclear when Sullivan will be replaced or who is slated to replace him. In the interim, Sullivan will be replaced by Elizabeth Rood, a career diplomat who is the embassy’s second-in-command, until the president nominates a new ambassador.

“The White House intends to announce the next ambassador very soon, but we do not have anything to preview at the moment,” a U.S. State Department spokesperson said.

Diplomats and experts said Sullivan’s legacy on U.S.-Russia relations was limited through little fault of his own. “When things are bad between Washington and Moscow, no U.S. ambassador can make a critical difference,” said Daniel Fried, a former senior U.S. career diplomat who served as U.S. ambassador to Poland and assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. “They can’t make it better. It’s not up to them.”

Sullivan’s tenure offers insights into the limited role a U.S. ambassador can play in the modern diplomatic era when trying to manage a rocky relationship with a foreign adversary.

“The last time relations were this bad were probably in the early 1950s, when [then-Soviet leader Joseph] Stalin was in charge and George Kennan was the U.S. ambassador,” Fried added. Kennan, widely regarded as the top U.S. expert on the Soviet Union of his generation, was kicked out of Moscow by Soviet authorities in 1952 during the height of early Cold War tensions between the two great powers. “George Kennan couldn’t make it better, and John Sullivan couldn’t make it better,” Fried said.

In the run-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States waged a full-scale diplomatic offensive to alert allies and partners in Europe of the threat as well as to try and talk Russian President Vladimir Putin down from his war ambitions, underscoring the limitations of the United States’ ability to cajole a stubborn adversary.

“American diplomacy was not going to change Putin’s mind, and so there is a limit to diplomacy,” said Angela Stent, an expert on Russian foreign policy. “And I’m pretty sure Ambassador Sullivan did whatever he could, but he was just hamstrung by the people he was dealing with in the Kremlin and the foreign ministry.”

Most diplomats agree that Sullivan played an important role in keeping some semblance of U.S.-Russia relations afloat in recent years through day-to-day contact with the Kremlin. His last formal event during his final days as ambassador was to attend the funeral of former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on behalf of the U.S. government. He also kept tabs on American citizens who Washington considers unjustly detained in Russia as political pawns—including former U.S. Marines Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed as well as U.S. basketball player Brittney Griner—speaking out against their detention and taking trips to Russian prisons to visit them. (Reed was released in a prisoner exchange in April, but Whelan and Griner are still imprisoned.)

Sullivan also had to manage keeping the embassy in working order during a large-scale dismantling of a major U.S. Embassy’s staff. Last year, Russia slashed the number of personnel allowed at the U.S. diplomatic mission by around 90 percent, cutting both the number of U.S. diplomats allowed in the country and then barring the embassy from hiring locally employed staff.

“I’m sure he was seen as a rock in the difficult times Embassy Moscow has gone through,” said Scott Rauland, another former U.S. diplomat who previously served as U.S. consul general in Yekaterinburg, Russia, and as acting U.S. ambassador to Belarus from 2014 to 2016.

The State Department declined to comment on precisely how many staff members are left at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. “For security reasons, we do not share information regarding specific numbers of U.S. government personnel,” the State Department spokesperson said.

The personnel cuts left Sullivan overseeing a skeleton crew of diplomats and trying to manage relations with Moscow during the most contentious period of time in U.S.-Russia relations since the end of the Cold War.

The Biden administration, and by extension Sullivan, received some sharp criticism from the diplomatic rank and file and experts in Washington for not pushing back harder on Moscow for the steep personnel cuts at the time or crafting a reciprocal response by cutting the number of Russian diplomats allowed in the United States. After Russia invaded Ukraine, however, the United States and its European allies collectively booted out some 400 Russian personnel from diplomatic missions, many of whom were accused of being spies masquerading as diplomats. The Russian foreign ministry denied those charges.

Several current and former U.S. diplomats said they suspect the U.S. ambassador to Russia post could sit empty for months—or longer—in part given the toxic state of relations between Washington and Moscow in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine. Any new ambassador nominee from Biden would require Senate confirmation, but before that, it would need an agreement from the Russian government to receive the new ambassador under a diplomatic protocol known as “agrément.” Current and former U.S. diplomats are skeptical that Russia would quickly extend an agrément to a new U.S. envoy.

There’s precedent of blocking a U.S. ambassador from carrying out his or her job from one of Russia’s sole allies and neighbors. Belarus, which aligned itself with Russia and aided its invasion into Ukraine in late February, denied a visa for the U.S. ambassador to Belarus, Julie Fisher, barring her from even entering the country and forcing her to operate as a special envoy from neighboring Lithuania between 2020 and 2022 before she rotated out of the job.

Despite the hurdles and limits to what an ambassador can do, experts say Biden should push to get a new ambassador in place in Moscow as soon as possible. A new U.S. ambassador to Russia can serve as Washington’s eyes and ears on the ground in Moscow to feel out any change in the Kremlin’s policies. For example, Alexander Vershbow, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2001 to 2005, was the first top envoy to grasp how critical the political rise of Putin would be for Russia and relay what was going on in the corridors of power in the Kremlin to Washington. John Beyrle, the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2008 to 2012, was one of the first officials to sound the alarm bells in Washington about Moscow’s plans to invade parts of neighboring Georgia in August 2008, at a time when much of Washington saw the Kremlin’s moves on Georgia as mere saber-rattling and bluster.

“It’s useful to have an ambassador in place, even though right now under current circumstances an ambassador can do little. Things may change,” Fried said. “If things do change, if Ukrainian success and Russian failures on the battlefield causes a change in thinking in Moscow, you want somebody there who can alert Washington to shifts in the wind, someone of rank to be empowered to have discussions if we ever get there.”

Unlike numerous other senior appointees at the State Department under the former Trump administration, Sullivan managed to stay out of the partisan vitriol and heated oversight battles with Congress that became emblematic of former U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy. During his tenure as deputy secretary of state from 2017 to 2019, Sullivan garnered respect from both Republicans and Democrats as well as Trump appointees and rank-and-file diplomats alike, a rare feat for the Trump-era State Department. After he was replaced as deputy secretary of state by Stephen Biegun in late 2019, Sullivan was confirmed to be U.S. ambassador to Russia by a Senate vote of 70 to 22, a sign of his bipartisan support on Capitol Hill.

Along with Roger Carstens, the special envoy for hostage affairs, Sullivan was one of only two senior appointees from the Trump administration whom Biden kept on at the State Department after he took office.

FP reporter Amy MacKinnon contributed to this report.

Correction, Sept. 8, 2022: A previous version of the article incorrectly said an agrément is issued after Senate confirmation. It is requested before the nomination becomes public.

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

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