Russian media roundup: John Huntsman, Utah’s former governor and the head of the American council, accepted U.S. President Donald Trump’s offer to be the American ambassador to Russia. This move caused a mixed response within Russian media, expert community and among politicians.

John Huntsman (pictured), the former Utah Governor and the head of the American Council, will be America's next Ambassador to Russia. Photo: The White House

Last week American media announced about U.S. President Donald Trump’s pick for Russia ambassador — former Utah Governor John Huntsman, a Mormon, who also heads the American Council, a think tank that is well-known for its tough position toward the Kremlin. Although there is no official confirmation that he will be U.S. Ambassador to Russia, the politician has already accepted the offer from Trump. Huntsman will have to get through the Senate confirmation hearings to become America’s next Ambassador to Russia.   

His record indicates that he has enough experience to head the U.S. diplomatic mission in Russia. He was the U.S. top diplomat to Singapore under President George H.W. Bush and, afterwards, became Ambassador to China under President Barack Obama.  Moreover, Huntsman participated in the 2012 American presidential race and was among the candidates to be Trump’s secretary of state.

Even though the U.S. President and the U.S. next ambassador to Russia had an uneasy relationship during the 2016 presidential campaign, they seem to have forgotten their differences. The appointment of Huntsman might be very symbolic, especially, after the allegations that Russia meddled in the U.S. electoral process and contributed to Trump’s victory.

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The President’s pick for Huntsman is also important amidst the scandals around former National Security Advisor’s Michael Flynn and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. While the former had to resign because he covered up important details of his phone talk with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, the latter has to withstand numerous accusations in misinformation. Sessions said that he didn’t have contacts with Russians despite the fact he did have during the electoral camping. What brings about suspicion is the fact that Sessions lied under oath during his confirmation hearing.

That’s why the Huntsman appointment might be seen as a concession to those who scrutinize Trump’s policymaking. That might be the reason why many Russian media raised eyebrows at the U.S. next ambassador to Moscow. For example, Kommersant Daily focused on the details from Huntsman’s biography that reveal his connections to Russia.

It quoted the Salt Lake Tribune newspaper and highlighted that Huntsman’s family has business in Russian. At the same time, Kommersant pointed out to the fact that the candidate to be the U.S. top diplomat is very skeptical about a new reset between two countries, implying that he is hardly likely to have a big impact on U.S.-Russia relations. The publication highlights that during his 2012 presidential campaign he harshly criticized Obama’s reset with Russia.

Specifically, he compared the Obama administration’s effort to improve relations with Moscow with a "Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is, more of a democracy than it is, more respectful of human rights than it is, and less threatening to its neighbors than it is." He called for working with Russia for arms control but said the U.S.-Russian relationship should be seen "with more objective eyes."

Gazeta.ru, an online media outlet, focuses on the fact that, during his diplomatic tenure in China, Huntsman attended the 2011 pro-democracy protests in Beijing, which demanded greater accountability and transparency from the government. This incident gave a reason to China to accuse the U.S. of provoking “color revolutions.”

Meanwhile, Rossiskiya Gazeta, a Russian official newspaper, published the response of outspoken Russian Senator Alexey Pushkov to Trump’s pick of Huntsman. “The candidacy of the U.S. ambassador to Moscow reveals a lot,” Pushkov wrote in his Twitter. “Huntsman is the head of the Atlantic Council, where tough criticism toward Russia is normal. He is obviously not a dove.”

At the same time, Pushkov added that Trump’s environment brings together those politicians that are reluctant to improve relations with Russia and establish cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). This, according to Pushkov, could hamper any attempts “to find crossing points.”

Moskovsliy Komsomolets, a Russian tabloid, argues that Trump’s pick of Huntsman is logical, at least because he has business connections with Russia, with Huntsman Corporation having close ties with Russian business. At the same time, the publication points out to fact that Huntsman cannot be seen as an expert on Russia.

Finally, RBC Daily gives voice to Areg Galstyan, who identifies himself as an expert in American Studies. The pundit describes Huntsman as a “hawk” with a religious background. He pays a lot of attention to his Mormon origins and concludes that the representatives of this religion are consistent ideologically, pragmatic and at the same time flexible. This might be a good sign for Russia, given the fact there are seven Mormon missions on Russia.

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However, Huntsman is a s strong supporter of the ideas of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was also well-know for his tough approaches toward Moscow and, furthermore, described the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”. After all, Huntsman started his career as an assistant of the Reagan White House, Galstyan point added.

“As a tough and consistent critic of Russia, Huntsman is supposed to pacify the [American] society and elites, which are alarmed after the scandal that led to the resignation of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn,” the expert concluded. “However, for the Russian side, such pick for ambassador indicates that Washington is reluctant to drastically change its policy toward Russia.”

Expert commentary
Victoria I. Zhuravleva, the professor of American History and International Relations at the Russian State University for the Humanities (RSUH), about the Huntsman appointment:

First, the pick of Huntsman for Russia ambassador might indicate U.S. President Donald Trump seeks to deal with the accusations that he is too sympathetic toward Moscow amidst anti-Russian consensus in the United States. After all, Huntsman cannot be described as a representative of the pro-Russian lobby (he was one of the opponents of Obama’s reset with Russia and, moreover, he heads the Atlantic Council that is well-known for its tough criticism toward Russia).

Second, Trump tries to find common ground with the U.S. political elites and the Republican Party, specifically: Huntsman is a member of the American conservative establishment; in 2012, he run for U.S. presidency from the Republican party.

Third, the Trump administration attaches a great deal of importance to the U.S.-Russia-China geopolitical triangle, views Beijing as the key economic rival for the U.S. and might see Russia as a possible counterbalance to China’s increasing clout (Huntsman was the U.S. Ambassador to China during the Obama presidency). His American colleagues argue that Huntsman's analysis about China is reasonable and balanced, and although he lacks expertise in Russia, his approach to Moscow might be reasonable as well despite his criticism of Russia.

Huntsman is hardly likely to be driven by values in international relations. He is rather a realist, which means that he might make Moscow-Washington relations more pragmatic. Huntsman is an advocate of commercial diplomacy, as indicated by his experience in Singapore. But commercial diplomacy is what U.S-Russia relations need now. After all, export of capitals and technologies as well as trade and economic cooperation, in general, has always been a stabilizing factor and it will be the case in the future. The entire history of U.S.-Russia or Soviet-American relations proves this.