Vladimir Putin has appointed a new Russian ambassador to the US at a time when relations between the two countries are at a low, driven by accusations of Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential elections.
Anatoly Antonov will take over from Sergey Kislyak, the country’s longstanding top diplomat in Washington who became embroiled in the scandal surrounding possible collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
Antonov, 62, is seen as a hardliner and no-nonsense negotiator. He has been deputy foreign minister since December. Before that, he was deputy defence minister and had a long career in diplomacy, specialising in arms control. Russian media reported that his appointment had been planned even before Trump’s surprise election victory and the subsequent disintegration of relations between the two countries.
Kislyak had a reputation as a low-profile diplomat who rarely gave interviews, but has burst into the spotlight due to a series of meetings with members of the Trump team during the election campaign, including with Jeff Sessions, who was later appointed attorney general and initially denied meeting the Russian.
Kislyak also told his superiors in Moscow that Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, had proposed setting up a secret back-channel with the Russians, according to the Washington Post, citing US officials briefed on intelligence reports.
Antonov’s job will be to avoid further scandal, but Moscow recognises there are unlikely to be many opportunities for increased cooperation given the current climate of bilateral relations.
The outgoing Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats in retaliation for Russian meddling in the electoral process. Putin did not initially respond, apparently having received signals that the incoming Trump team would be more favourable towards Russia.
Trump has continued to speak of the need for better relations with Russia and has repeatedly praised Putin, but the toxicity of Russia in Washington has led instead to a further round of sanctions against Moscow, which sailed through Congress with bipartisan support and was begrudgingly signed into law by Trump.
Deciding that the promised thaw was not forthcoming, Russia finally responded to the diplomatic expulsions and the sanctions last month, giving the US until 1 September to reduce its diplomatic presence in the country to 455 people, including diplomats and locally employed staff, forcing the Americans to lay off hundreds of local workers. The embassy has not released official figures but is believed to employ about 1,100 people in Moscow and three other consulates across the country.
A new US ambassador, John Huntsman, will also arrive in Moscow in the coming weeks, where he will have to come to terms with running a much diminished diplomatic mission.
On Monday, the US embassy in Moscow announced it was suspending issuing non-immigration visas to Russians until 1 September. After that, the Moscow embassy will resume issuing tourist and other short-term visas, but visas at the three US consulates in St Petersburg, Ekaterinburg and Vladivostok will remain suspended indefinitely.
“Currently scheduled appointments will be cancelled and applicants will be provided instructions on how to reschedule,” said a statement on the embassy’s website.