The resignation of US ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is a good occasion to take stock of one of the most difficult periods of Russia-US relations. His appointment came during peak frenzy over the investigation into Russia’s alleged interference in the US election and Donald Trump’s “ties” to Russia. The rift between the countries was deepened by other serious disagreements, from Ukraine to Venezuela, which essentially paralyzed relations between Moscow and Washington. At no other time in the history of our bilateral relations have frictions over foreign policy issues coincided with the kind of unprecedented negativity towards Russia on display in US politics. Embassies on both sides became little less than besieged fortresses, the room for diplomatic maneuver narrowed sharply, and there was little reason to expect any breakthroughs. Such periods are often considered lost for diplomacy. Nevertheless, Jon Huntsman can hardly be considered a caretaker ambassador. Despite being seriously constrained by objective political conditions, Huntsman definitely played a role in minimizing the fallout from the crisis.
The context of Huntsman’s ambassadorship was highly contradictory. While there was a durable inter-party consensus in the United States on the need to deter and put pressure on Russia, the orders from US President Donald Trump have been to get along with Russia. The president’s wish is hardly a carefully considered strategy. It’s more like a political slogan that was not even vetted by experts or relevant government agencies first. On the contrary, anti-Russian sentiment is rife in the expert and political class in Washington, with the only disagreement coming over how precisely to push back against Moscow. Trump has also tried to avoid sparring with Congress and officials in his own government over Russia by supporting the key anti-Russia policies. In some cases he was an ardent supporter, especially when they concerned business issues, which he is more comfortable with. One such issue was competition with Russia over the European gas market, which has become even more politicized during Trump’s presidency.
Naturally, any attempt at a “reset or restart” would have been doomed to fail in these circumstances. Diplomats simply lacked any areas that were ripe for a reset. Both US and Russian diplomats have done a great job at preparing the one-on-one meetings between the two presidents. However, the results of the most significant meeting, the summit in Helsinki, were torpedoed by the US establishment, and our bilateral relations have continued to deteriorate since. Mutual expulsions of diplomats, the closure of consular offices, and the scandal over Russia’s diplomatic property in the United States marked a major setback for bilateral relations. This decline in relations is embodied in the scrapping of the INF Treaty and the prospect of further loss of arms control mechanisms. And yet, Russia and the United States have avoided drawing the iron curtain. The most important issues continue to be discussed at the expert level. Businesses have suffered from sanctions and economic difficulties in Russia, but there has not been a precipitous decline in commercial relations. Direct personal interaction between Russians and Americans remains robust, although it was affected by a shortage of personnel in consular services.
Jon Huntsman succinctly described the reality of US-Russian relations in his letter of resignation to President Trump. Many media outlets characterized that letter almost as an anti-Russia manifesto. In fact, it is a pragmatic and balanced, if unpleasant, description of the state of our relations. True, he described the situation from the perspective of US interests, but these are not the words of a crusader. The ambassador admitted that a “reset or restart” was not possible, while at the same time pointing to the importance of understanding “our interests and values.” He said it is critical to work in areas of common interest. The traditional mention of human rights issues, although important, still appears to be standard fare in US foreign policy rhetoric. Ultimately, what we’re left with is a letter that articulates the irreconcilable differences along with the common interests between the countries – no more, no less.
The current spirit animating American policy towards Russia has some parallels with George Kennan's 1946 Long Telegram, which essentially laid down the doctrinal foundations of US foreign policy on the Soviet challenge and shaped the contours of the Cold War. It appears that many of those concepts are on the verge of a revival. From Kennan’s perspective, Russia was an authoritarian police state, and its aggression was fundamentally not aligned with the views of its peace-loving people. Moreover, this aggression was a sign of weakness in the regime, which harbored illusions about the modern world instead of seeking an objective understanding of it. Kennan’s warnings about Russia's desire to divide the Western community of nations and intervene in the internal affairs of foreign countries dovetail perfectly with modern rhetoric – with the covert doings of Communists replaced by new scares over hackers, trolls and spies. Finally, containment rooted in force was deemed a key tool in relations with Russia. Russians respect force and recoil in the face of a credible threat of its use. Kennan identified the transfer of power as a serious problem for Russia, and to be sure, his thoughts on the transfer of power after Lenin and later Stalin are frequently echoed in discussions of the “problem of 2024” and “Russia after Putin.” Overall, the Long Telegram’s reincarnation is in the spirit of the times, and its key ideas fit seamlessly with mainstream thought in the West.
The only problem is that a strategy – no matter how elegant, logical and time-tested – does not always reflect reality. It would be naive to try to prove to ourselves and our Western partners that Russia is a Western-type liberal democracy pursuing global peace. It is equally futile to indulge in the blame game and whataboutism. Russia is a more complex society and state and differs significantly from its historical predecessors, as well as from its neighbors. Moreover, it is a society that appears to be in the process of a lengthy transition. The current events in Russia are just one episode in long-term dynamics that cannot be reduced to familiar models.
The departing ambassador certainly deserves credit for offering a pragmatic take on the current situation without inventing any binding doctrines – whether this was his intention or not. But Huntsman, unlike Kennan, operated in a different reality. In 1946, the Soviet Union’s prestige in the United States was still quite high. Kennan’s telegram can be seen as an attempt to open his government’s eyes. Huntsman’s tenure, on the contrary, began during a period of peak antagonism and was understood to involve dealing with an openly hostile state. In addition, unlike the Soviet Union, modern Russia hardly poses an ideological threat to the United States. And since there is no normative or political/philosophical threat, there is no need for a proportionate response.
Nevertheless, there are two points in Kennan’s telegram that can be of interest and of use to both Americans and Russians today. Americans need to take more seriously the motives behind Russia’s foreign policy in their analysis. Kennan rightly noted the heightened sense of vulnerability and lack of security inherent in Russian political culture. In my opinion, this is what leads to a policy that, while seen as offensive in the West, is essentially defensive in nature. A policy of containment and force will only exacerbate Russia’s sense of vulnerability. Consequently, the risk of a conflict in which there can be no winners will also increase.
As for Russians, they should consider this passage of the telegram: “Much depends on health and vigor of our own society… This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets… Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society… is a diplomatic victory … worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués.” Kennan naturally means American society and victory over Moscow, yet this recommendation applies equally to Russia. For us, victory would mean the consistent and independent development of our country, releasing our people’s creative energy, gradually striking our own balance between order and freedom, and protecting the security interests that are vital to any country.