We asked Russian and U.S. experts to share their views on the appointment of John Tefft, a career diplomat with extensive – and sometimes controversial – ties to Russia and the former Soviet Union, as the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
John Tefft talking to a journalist during the U.S. Ambassador’s Forum. Photo: U.S. Embassy Kyiv Ukraine / Flickr.
It now appears as if John Tefft will become the next U.S. Ambassador to Russia. The news broke on June 30 from the Russian daily Kommersant, which received the information from sources close to the U.S. State Department: "Washington asked for Moscow's agreement to [appoint] new Ambassador to Russia John Tefft several days ago." Later on, this information was confirmed by sources in the Russian diplomatic community.
John Tefft is generally considered to be the most qualified candidate for the post of U.S. Ambassador to Russia, a position that became vacant after Michael McFaul resigned in February. As McFaul himself wrote on Twitter back in April: “If nominated and confirmed Tefft would be a fantastic ambassador. One of best ambos around. Perfect choice.”
.@PChernitsa_VR I do not not, but if nominated and confirmed Tefft would be a fantastic ambassador. One of best ambos around. Perfect choice— Michael McFaul (@McFaul) April 21, 2014
Jack Matlock, the U.S. Ambassador to the USSR during the presidency of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, agrees: "Washington says that John Tefft is likely to be appointed to the office of the U.S. ambassador to Russia. If it happens, he would become an outstanding ambassador. I know him well. When I used to be the U.S. ambassador to the USSR, Mr. Tefft was one of the best experts in Russia."
Certainly, Mr. Tefft’s credentials are impeccable: He was Deputy Ambassador of the United States in Russia from 1996 until 1999, the U.S. Ambassador in Lithuania from 2000 to 2003, and the U.S. Ambassador in Georgia from 2005 to 2009. Most recently, from November 2009 until August 2013, Mr. Tefft was the U.S. Ambassador in Ukraine.
The appointment of Tefft comes at a crucial time, given the timing of the Ukrainian crisis and the need for Russia and the U.S. to work together. So what should we expect from the new U.S. Ambassador? We reached out to a number of Russian and U.S. experts for their opinion on the new pick for U.S. Ambassador to Russia.
Mark Kramer, Professor, Director of the Cold War Studies Program at Harvard's Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies.
John Tefft is a very solid professional who knows the former Soviet Union well. He is certainly well qualified for the post. Assuming that the Russian government accepts his diplomatic credentials, he will be taking office at a very difficult time.
U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the spring of 1999, a situation that has resulted from blunders and misjudgments on both sides. Now that the Obama administration has indicated that its attempts to forge closer cooperation with Russian were of no avail, the new U.S. ambassador will be very limited in what he can achieve. Tefft's predecessor, Michael McFaul, is a first-rate expert on Russia and did his best as ambassador under difficult circumstances, but the dismal results of the recent U.S.-Russian interactions show that an ambassador alone cannot turn things around.
Most likely, U.S.-Russian relations will be in a holding pattern over the next couple of years. The main priority will be to ensure that the relationship does not break down altogether – a task that will depend on steps taken by the highest leaders, not ambassadors.
Paul A. Goble, American analyst, former special adviser on Soviet Nationality Issues and Baltic affairs to U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, former CIA analyst, former senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Especially in a personality-driven age, any change in ambassadors can change the tone in which relations between any two countries are conducted. Diplomats, just like anyone else, vary in terms of their personalities and styles. But those changes, in and of themselves, while they may lead to expectations of broader changes in relations, will not produce them if there is not an underlying change in the attitudes and policies of the governments involved.
John Tefft, for whom the United States has requested agreement from Moscow, has served brilliantly in an increasingly important series of appointments, most recently as Ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania. Earlier, he served as charge d’affaires in Moscow. In every post, he distinguished himself by his representation of the interests and policies of the United States and by communicating back to Washington the views of the governments to which he has been accredited.
But there will be a change in style. Tefft has been a career diplomat since 1972. That has been his life and has formed his approach. He is thus likely to be stylistically very different from his predecessor, Michael McFaul, who had a background as an academic and think tanker. McFaul was sent to Moscow after serving at the White House on the National Security Council staff, and who relished his very public interaction with the Russian people via social media.
But there is absolutely no reason for anyone to expect that Ambassador Tefft’s arrival in Moscow by itself will change the fundamental content of bilateral relations between Washington and Moscow.
Dmitry Polikanov, Vice President of The PIR Center and Chairman of Trialogue International Club, Member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the International Sociological Association, the All-Russian Public Opinion Research Center Research Council.
The U.S. decision to appoint John Tefft as Ambassador to Russia reflects the attitude of the current U.S. administration to Moscow.
On one hand, Ambassador Tefft became notorious in Moscow for his deep involvement in the domestic affairs of Georgia and Ukraine. Many Russian officials will keep in mind some of his previous statements and his track record as an advisor to the "Orange Revolution,” and, hence, he will most likely enjoy very dry and formal communications. Moreover, while Michael McFaul was allegedly called one of the “theorists of change,” John Tefft was at the center of the practice of change in Georgia and Ukraine. And this may also increase suspicion to his actions in Russia and result in a cautious approach to any of his initiatives.
On the other hand, John Tefft is a career diplomat. And therefore, his major objective will be to stay at this post until the end of Obama's presidential term and simply to maintain the relationship without any significant breakthroughs.
The Obama administration does not see Russia as a priority and has no pragmatic political reasons to do so. At the same time, since it has started the course of exerting pressure on Russia (mostly for challenging U.S. supremacy in global affairs), it will be quite difficult to stop this machine quickly and to turn it back into indifference or to the rank of one of the "regional headaches."
Since the administration is stalled right now at this bifurcation point, John Tefft's candidacy is quite adequate for the moment. He may represent a challenge to Moscow or serve as an extremely ordinary ambassador engaged with a normal diplomatic routine, depending on the developments.
James Carden, contributing editor to The American Conservative magazine, former Advisor to the US-Russia Presidential Commission at the U.S. State Department.
The appointment of a new ambassador does not mean a new start between the U.S. and Russia, for two reasons. First, according to a report that appeared in the New York Times in April, “Administration officials were leery of sending Mr. Tefft because of concern that his experience in former Soviet republics that have flouted Moscow’s influence would irritate Russia. Now, officials said, there is no reluctance to offend the Kremlin.” In light of this report, the fact that the President has gone through with the nomination speaks for itself.
Secondly, even if Tefft wanted to improve relations between the two countries, it is highly unlikely he could affect that change without the acquiescence of the White House, the National Security Council and the Kerry State Department, and that, if the past six months are anything to go by, would not be forthcoming.
Tefft is a career foreign service officer so the good news is that we can expect a high level of competence. I seriously doubt we will see the types of miscues, verbal and otherwise, that we were treated to on a near daily basis from the last Ambassador who was a creature of academia and the think tank world and, as he himself frequently admitted, was not a career diplomat.
The appointment of Mr. Tefft will not influence the future of U.S.-Russia relations. Even if – and this, admittedly is a most unlikely scenario – President Obama picked up the phone and asked President Putin to pick the next U.S. Ambassador for him – nothing really would change. Ambassadors carry out policy, they don’t make it.
That is true of the State Department generally. Policy is made in the West Wing and in the building next door, by the National Security staff. And the President and his National Security Advisor have made it plain (or as President Obama never tires of saying, have “made it clear”) that U.S. policy toward Russia is to be one of isolation, encirclement, and disengagement. No Ambassador has the power to reverse administration policy on his or her own.
Michael O. Slobodchikoff, Professor in the Political Science Department at Troy University.
A new ambassador will not change the situation in the current U.S.-Russia relationship. The reset has been tried and it failed. Unfortunately, relations between the U.S. and Russia will remain frigid until there is a change in administrations. That does not mean that there can be no cooperation between the two countries. They will try to cooperate, but on a very limited and relatively small scale. Relations can be improved if the crisis in Ukraine is resolved, but for the immediate future, there should be no change in relations.
John Tefft is a professional diplomat. He has worked in the region before, and has an in-depth knowledge of Russia and Ukraine. He is a safe pick in that he will not antagonize Russia. I think that he will be a quiet professional in that he will do his job very well and professionally without drawing attention to himself or antagonizing anybody.
One of the complaints that the Russians had with former Ambassador Michael McFaul was that he actively met with opposition members and was very vocal in his complaints about the Russian leadership. I think John Tefft will tone down the rhetoric.
Also, John Tefft understands the importance of culture and context in the countries in which he has served as Ambassador. He can be empathetic when he needs to be. This will be of great use to him in his new post. The United States desperately needs an ambassador who understands the Russians and their view of the world instead of just antagonizing it.
The relationship between Russia and the United States has soured to the point of another Cold War. The two sides really see the world very differently. The rhetoric has gotten out of hand between the two sides. Calmer heads need to prevail. As such, a career foreign service officer who has a lot of experience in the region is a good choice.
Ambassador Tefft can present the U.S. position and ably represent U.S. interests without creating more conflict. I think that he will be able to begin to understand the Russian position on many key issues while presenting the U.S. perspective in a non-confrontational manner. This is something that is sorely needed in U.S.-Russia relations.