Former U.S. Ambassador to Moscow on the Moment He Realized Russia Would Launch a Full-Scale Invasion

John Sullivan on the road to war, diplomatic tensions with Moscow, and volunteering to scrub the embassy toilets.

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

During his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan had a front-row seat to Russia’s decision to go to war in Ukraine and the diplomatic fallout and economic sanctions that followed. But even before Moscow’s fateful decision to send its troops storming over the border into Ukraine last February, relations between the United States and Russia had reached their lowest point since the Cold War amid several rounds of reciprocal diplomatic expulsions that, over the past five years, whittled the size of the U.S. Embassy’s staff from 1,200 to just 150. 

Sullivan served as the deputy secretary of state in the early years of the Trump administration, before being dispatched to Moscow as ambassador in early 2020. He went on to become one of the few Trump-era political appointees to be kept on by the Biden administration. After almost three years in the job, Sullivan retired from public service in September of last year following the death of his wife and recently returned to the law firm Mayer Brown. 

He spoke with Foreign Policy about the Biden administration’s efforts to talk Moscow back from the edge in the months leading up to the invasion, rumors about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health, and why Russian officials are sticklers for protocol but not manners. 

During his tenure as U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan had a front-row seat to Russia’s decision to go to war in Ukraine and the diplomatic fallout and economic sanctions that followed. But even before Moscow’s fateful decision to send its troops storming over the border into Ukraine last February, relations between the United States and Russia had reached their lowest point since the Cold War amid several rounds of reciprocal diplomatic expulsions that, over the past five years, whittled the size of the U.S. Embassy’s staff from 1,200 to just 150. 

Sullivan served as the deputy secretary of state in the early years of the Trump administration, before being dispatched to Moscow as ambassador in early 2020. He went on to become one of the few Trump-era political appointees to be kept on by the Biden administration. After almost three years in the job, Sullivan retired from public service in September of last year following the death of his wife and recently returned to the law firm Mayer Brown. 

He spoke with Foreign Policy about the Biden administration’s efforts to talk Moscow back from the edge in the months leading up to the invasion, rumors about Russian President Vladimir Putin’s health, and why Russian officials are sticklers for protocol but not manners. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Foreign Policy: Take us back to this time last year, when the Biden administration was sounding the alarm about Russia’s intentions. Prior to the invasion, what were your conversations like in Moscow with Russian officials?

John Sullivan: Starting at the end of October, we see all this intelligence that’s being gathered with the Russian military gathering on the border of Ukraine. Then, the large number of troops they moved into Belarus, which had never been done before, even for prior exercises, was a significant tell that this was going to be a large-scale invasion.

I happened to be home on leave at the end of October. The president sent [CIA Director] Bill [Burns] to Moscow. So I went with him from Washington. We stayed at my residence, the ambassador’s residence, Spaso House, in Moscow. This is early November. That really dates the start of our engagement with the Russian government.

Here’s my assessment. Back when [Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs] Sergei Ryabkov handed me the two draft treaties [on security guarantees for Russia], the Russians were going through the motions. What do I mean by that? They were reading from their notes. There was no engagement. I’d raise questions. They would look down and see where in their notes there was something possibly related to what I had asked, and they would merely repeat that line. There was a lot of staring down at their shoes, hemming and hawing, but no variance from the talking points, which I know had been vetted not only up the chain in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs but across the Kremlin as well.

FP: So that was all theater, the diplomacy that they were engaged in?

JS: Absolutely. Absolutely. No doubt in my mind that this was coming, this invasion. This was all scripted. Because Putin has a law degree—I’m embarrassed to say, as a lawyer—he wants to have a legal justification for everything he does, whether it’s blasting through term limits under the Russian Constitution, having people arrested because they’re opposed to him, or invading another country. He’s laying the groundwork for, “Look, we were threatened. This is self-defense. We told them we were threatened. We knew what they were going to do to us. We got the jump on them. Good for us, because otherwise they were going to attack and annihilate us.” This was all scripted to lay the groundwork for their defense in the U.N., which is where they were voted down 141 to four [Russia’s vote against the resolution brought the total number up to five], with a number of abstentions.

FP: Where was the decision to go to war conceived and planned? We’ve heard that the foreign ministry was really kept out of the loop until the very last days. Does that jive with your experience?

JS: Yeah, I’ve seen those reports. That is entirely consistent. I can’t say that I know that for certain. What I would say is I’d be careful to underestimate the role of [Russian Foreign Minister] Sergey Lavrov. He is important to Putin, which is why Putin keeps him as foreign minister, although there are a lot of rumors that he’s definitely now looking to retire. Putin knows how effective he is, and he is very good. He’s very, very polished, extremely smart, very experienced. Putin knows that, and he’s an effective mouthpiece for Putin. To a certain extent, Lavrov has to be brought in. Lavrov is not consulted on the FSB [the Russian Federal Security Service] role in preparing the battle space in Ukraine or the military’s role in how they’re going to have this multi-vector invasion of the country, but he has to know in advance, at least sometime in advance, because he’s going to have to go out from day one and justify this.

I don’t think he was involved. If you asked my personal opinion, I don’t think he was involved in planning this. My guess is the circle is relatively small. I think the one thing that people overlook as we focus on the Russian military, because this is a war and a military campaign, is the role of the security services, and not just the GRU, which is military intelligence, but the FSB and the role of the FSB in planning for the war and the FSB’s failure in Ukraine. It’s really Putin’s Chekists who let him down. 

FP: Was there any watershed point, looking back, where you thought, “Oh, no matter what we do, this invasion is going to happen”? 

JS: When I became convinced that it was going to be a large-scale invasion was when I saw the number of troops that they had moved into Belarus and where they had positioned them. Just, you look at a map, at how close Kyiv is to the border. I would say that is when I became convinced that this was going to be Sept. 1, 1939. This was going to be a large-scale, “We’re taking down the country. We’re eliminating the government” kind of invasion.

FP: We keep seeing speculative reports crop up every so often, suggesting that Putin has lost his grip on reality or that he is terminally ill. What do you make of those? And second, can you describe when you met Putin, maybe the first time versus one of the last times? Did you see any noticeable shift in his demeanor that would lend credence to these rumors?

JS: I did not see Putin in 2022, in person, up close. I did multiple times in 2021. Every time I saw him, I thought, for a 69-year-old, soon-to-be 70-year-old Russian, he looked great. His eyes were clear. Compared to the people who were with him, he looked great. But what I’ve noticed is, in 2022, his face got puffy, just his appearance changed. Heck, my appearance changed over the stress in Moscow.

So I believe he’s under a lot of stress, not surprisingly. I don’t have reason to believe that there’s a serious health issue that is putting him at death’s door. I think what Bill Burns said: “The problem with Putin’s health is that he’s too healthy.” There’s a long history of the U.S. government misdiagnosing foreign leaders. I was involved in the Bush administration in August of 2006, when the intelligence community thought that [former Cuban leader] Fidel Castro had three months to live. Similar mistake with Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. But no, to answer your question, I don’t have reason to believe that he is anything other than an aging 70-year-old Russian male who’s getting world-class health care but is under world-class stress right now.

FP: I wanted to talk a bit about the embassy itself. Under your tenure, Russia basically forced your embassy to operate with a skeleton crew. What was it like working in an embassy with so few staff? What did you have to do to try to make the embassy work?

JS: It was a huge blow to us in April 2021 when Putin signed an order that made it illegal for us to employ not just Russians, but any third-country nationals in Russia, and we had to fire over 180 of our staff, many of whom had worked for us for decades. What we’ve had to do is to create our own model of how to operate an embassy unique in American diplomacy with just Americans. 

FP: Can you give us a couple examples that illustrate how difficult it is to manage an embassy without locally employed staff?

JS: We faced this, actually, at the start of the pandemic, because we weren’t sure that we were going to be able to have our locally employed staff come onto the compound. That’s when we first started to prepare for what’s called all-purpose duty. Those few who are left perform all the functions, whether it’s elevator repair, washing, cleaning the floors, you name it. To prepare for that, we all, all of the Americans assigned at the embassy, were given at least one other responsibility. I thought, as leader, I ought to pick the crummiest, so I was with a group that was trained to clean the bathrooms and to clean the floors. It turned out, over the course of the pandemic, that we were able to keep those Russian nationals who were working for us coming onto the compound. But that was a warning for what was going to come a year later when they made it illegal for us to employ them.

FP: Is there any point to having a U.S. ambassador in Moscow today, given the skeleton crew at the embassy and the toxic state of relations?

JS: Yes, I think it is important. President [Joe Biden] has said this. He said it to me, that it’s important that there be a U.S. ambassador there and that I was the person who, when in response to the two Russian treaties that they gave me in mid-December, I delivered—it was 8 at night—to the [Ministry of Foreign Affairs], the written response of the United States, which they just dismissed out of hand. But it’s worth it to have somebody there. Because, also, the other problem is if it’s not an ambassador, the Russians won’t engage. The chargés [d’affaires] have a really hard time. The Russians are very protocol-conscious. [Former U.S. diplomat George] Kennan once said that the Russians are sticklers for protocol but not for good manners. And it’s so true.

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

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

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