Help wanted: American ambassador in Moscow

Help wanted: American ambassador in Moscow
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The imminent departure of Ambassador Jon Huntsman from Moscow creates a huge hole in America’s Russia team. Other countries have the ability to challenge the United States in the military or economic fields, but only Russia represents a potential existential threat to the republic. Mr. Huntsman’s successor will need a unique set of traits to deal with the increased tensions between the United States and the Russian Federation.  

The new ambassador must possess the full confidence of President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE. All ambassadors carry the title “Minister Plenipotentiary” but American ambassadors have a second title: “Personal Representative of the President of the United States.” When the ambassador speaks, the Kremlin must understand that they are listening to the U.S. president and not someone with a separate agenda.

He or she also must have the trust of the president. Trump has made clear that, in matters of foreign policy, his is the only opinion that counts. When the situation requires it, the ambassador will have to provide the president with facts on the ground so that President Trump can form the correct opinion. He must be getting the news from someone he trusts, rather than someone whose advice he discounts.

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The ambassador must be a good negotiator. Faced with Russian cheating, the United States recently ended the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) agreement, the only Cold War agreement that for many years eliminated an entire class of weapons. The New START Treaty, which reduces the overall number of nuclear weapons both sides possess, will end in 2021. Since its signing in 2011, the combined number of nuclear warheads has declined from 3,337 to 2,794. Deployed strategic launchers have gone from 1,403 to 1,179; the number of non-deployed launchers has shrunk from 586 to 400. 

Without a new deal, a new arms race could see those numbers rise. Already, Vladimir PutinVladimir Vladimirovich PutinUS and Russia arms race would be detrimental to strategic stability Five things to watch as Trump heads to G-7 summit Biden blasts Trump's 'embarrassing' actions heading into G-7 summit MORE has said that if the United States begins building weapons, he will respond accordingly. “Such a scenario means the resumption of an unrestrained arms race,” he said.

America’s top official in the Kremlin will have to be firm, willing to speak truth to power. The issues that divide the United States and Russia are real. Former special counsel Robert Mueller, Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) and the Department of Justice have all warned that the Russians are meddling in United States elections. This issue will not go away; Russia has learned from meddling in other elections that it can help officials get elected who are more friendly to them.

Once the new ambassador has drawn a line in the sand, he or she must be ready for the response.  Former Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, in his book, “From Cold War to Hot Peace,” outlines how he was surveilled, harassed and threatened; his children were followed home from school. It takes someone with a cast-iron constitution to not bend under such pressure.

The Kremlin still occupies about 20 percent of non-NATO allies Georgia and Ukraine, and  pro-Kremlin forces occupy about 20 percent of non-NATO ally Azerbaijan. Kremlin-backed insurgents continue to infest eastern Ukraine. Nuclear weapons in Kaliningrad threaten the Baltics. In Syria, Libya, Iran and Venezuela, Russia backs forces that have been rejected by most of the international community. 

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Its energy policies are making Western Europe and Turkey dependent on Gazprom, leading to an open question of the viability of the North Atlantic Alliance. Russia will demand a lifting of American sanctions in return for its good behavior — although whether it would fulfill its promise if sanctions were removed is a matter of some debate. Around the globe, American interests clash with Russian ones.

The ambassador should have an understanding of Soviet history. The Russia of the tsars is long past; the Gorbachev years are the crucible in which the Russian leadership was formed. An understanding of the Russian view of the post-Soviet era also is important, when NATO expanded its membership and the Western alliance’s borders moved 1,000 kilometers closer to Moscow. The West’s view of the expansion of freedom is not shared in Moscow’s corridors of power. They see an increased threat to their national interests.

Above all, the new ambassador should have a firm understanding of political realism. The great power rivalry between the U.S. and Russia is the result of systemic forces. It’s nothing personal.  Once the ambassador understands the roots of conflict, he or she can lead the embassy in efforts to manage the tension.

This is Ambassador Huntsman’s third posting as top diplomat, having served previously as ambassador to Singapore and China. His planned departure from Moscow shows how difficult the job of being U.S. ambassador can be.

James J. Coyle, Ph.D., is an independent consultant on national security issues. He is the author of “Russia’s Border Wars and Frozen Conflicts.” He previously was a member of the Department of National Security and Strategy, U.S. Army War College, and for 16 years taught national security strategy at Pepperdine University.