Russia Said to Plan Blacklisted Diplomat as New U.S. Envoy

(Bloomberg) —
Russian ambassador to U.S.
In this 2016 photo, Russian Deputy Defense Minister Anatoly Antonov speaks during a media briefing in the Defense Ministry in Moscow. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)

Russia is planning to send a veteran diplomat who’s blacklisted by the European Union over the Ukrainian crisis to be its new U.S. ambassador, replacing an envoy at the center of allegations over contacts between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign.

Anatoly Antonov, 62, a hardline critic of U.S. foreign policy, is on track to succeed Sergey Kislyak later this year, according to three officials familiar with the planning, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss an appointment that hasn’t yet been announced publicly.

Kislyak, 66, was dogged by controversy over his meetings with fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, after U.S. intelligence agencies said Russia was behind a sophisticated effort to tilt the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor. The Kremlin extended his term, which was to have ended early this year, by a few months so as to avoid the appearance that it was pulling him out over the scandal, one person said.

Russian euphoria at Trump’s election has given way to caution over prospects for a breakthrough in U.S. ties amid political uproar in Washington over the alleged interference. Trump’s first official meeting with President Vladimir Putin at last week’s Group of 20 summit in Hamburg yielded few results, while sparking fresh controversy over whether he’d accepted the Kremlin leader’s assurances that Russia wasn’t involved. Trump and Putin did agree to accelerate the process of appointing their new ambassadors, according to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Russia may expel as many as 30 U.S. embassy officials and seize diplomatic property in a tit-for-tat response to measures taken by the Obama administration in December over election hacking, Izvestia reported Tuesday. After the two presidents failed to settle a dispute over the seizure of the Russian embassy’s country houses outside Washington and New York, the retaliatory steps may be taken if talks next week between senior officials fail to resolve the issue, the newspaper reported, citing an unidentified official at the Foreign Ministry in Moscow.

While their G-20 meeting produced a cease-fire agreement in southwest Syria, Trump’s pledge to build ties to Russia and cooperate on the fight against terrorism faces resistance from across the political spectrum in the U.S.

Antonov, sanctioned by the EU for his role in the covert Russian military intervention in eastern Ukraine, is currently deputy foreign minister. A career diplomat who speaks English and Burmese, he’s an expert on Syria and Ukraine, the two topics that will dominate U.S.-Russia discussions. He was for several years a deputy defense minister for international cooperation, where his staunch advocacy of Kremlin policy earned him a reputation as a hawk.

In 2015, he blamed “Western spin masters” for the Ukrainian crisis, which he said was “aimed directly against the interests of Russia.” Antonov also said that Asian countries were being subjected to “undisguised U.S. pressure” as part of attempts at “systematic ‘containment’ of Russia and China.” He warned that a Ukrainian-style ‘color revolution’ can erupt in the region “at any moment once the Western elites feel unhappy about the policy of a state and make a decision on the introduction of ‘democratic’ values.”

Kislyak, 66, who’s been ambassador in Washington since 2008, had been considered for a newly created senior post in anti-terrorism at the United Nations, but that went to another top Russian diplomat who hadn’t been tainted by the hacking controversy. He’s due to attend a farewell reception Tuesday at the St. Regis Hotel in Washington, according to the U.S.-Russia Business Council, which called him “a reliable and thoughtful interlocutor for the American business community” on its website.

“Putin is preparing for extremely chilly relations with the U.S.” and Antonov’s appointment “will be confirmation of this if it happens,” said Valery Solovei, a political scientist at the Moscow State Institute for International Relations, which trains Russia’s diplomats. “Antonov always had a reputation as a hawk. And the fact that he’s a specialist on strategic weapons suggests that that issue could be seen by Russia as a realistic agenda for relations, since apparently no other one is visible.”

Whatever his personal views, if he’s appointed, Antonov will “represent the official policy of our country and that’s formed in Moscow and nowhere else,” said Vladimir Lukin, who was Russia’s ambassador to Washington in the early 1990s and now holds a seat in parliament. “An ambassador advises, but the decisions are made in Moscow.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry doesn’t comment on ambassadorial appointments before a presidential decree is issued, spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said in a message Tuesday. The official Tass news agency, citing an unnamed source, said in May that Antonov’s candidacy was approved by a parliamentary committee at a closed session, and Kommersant reported last week that the U.S. has given its official consent to his appointment.

Antonov showed his capacity to drive a hard bargain when he successfully steered negotiations with the Obama administration that yielded the New START nuclear arms reduction treaty in 2009.

As deputy defense minister from 2011, he served as the public face of the Defense Ministry. He denied the Russian military presence as the war in Ukraine unfolded in 2014, and presented rejections of allegations that Kremlin-backed rebels had shot down Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in July that year, killing all 298 people on board.

After Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter plane on the Syrian border in late 2015 soured relations, Antonov accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and his family of involvement in oil trading with Islamic State terrorists. When the two countries later mended ties, the allegations disappeared from Russian official statements and media.

Antonov, who returned to the foreign ministry in December, was first earmarked as ambassador to the U.S. when it seemed that Hillary Clinton would win the presidency and usher in a period of confrontation with Russia, according to two people with knowledge of the matter. While his appointment hasn’t been finalized, it’s unlikely to be changed at this late stage, they said.

The decision to stick with Antonov reflects the fact that he’s demonstrated effectiveness and will faithfully carry out instructions from Moscow, said Steven Pifer, a former top State Department official who served as an arms negotiator and ambassador to Ukraine.

“He may be a hardliner but he is first and foremost a Russian diplomat and he has done well in the diplomatic service,” Pifer said. “He’s very tough in presenting the official position and it’s hard to get him to deviate from that position.’’

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