- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 7, 2017

For all the talk of their budding bromance, Russian President Vladimir Putin is widely reported to be ready to select a well-known military hardliner as his new ambassador to Donald Trump’s Washington.

Anatoly Antonov, who was just transferred to the Foreign Ministry last month after five years as deputy defense minister, is the main candidate to be the new U.S. ambassador, replacing the departing Amb. Sergey Kislyak, the Moscow newspaper Kommersant said.

According to a report in the news website Russia Beyond the Headlines, Kommersant cited four sources within the Russian government who named Mr. Antonov, who in 2015 was placed on a European Union sanctions list for his role in Moscow’s policy toward Ukraine, as Mr. Putin’s choice for the critical diplomatic post.

He was said to be the Kremlin’s choice last year when it was widely assumed that Democrat Hillary Clinton, a fierce critic of Mr. Putin’s government, would win the White House. But Mr. Antonov is said to still be the front-runner even with Mr. Trump’s surprise win. A separate report in the Moscow Times Tuesday said that Mr. Antonov was indeed the choice.

A veteran of several top international negotiations, Mr. Antonov headed the Russian delegation in talks with the Obama administration on a new START nuclear weapons accord.

But at the Defense Ministry he was also been an outspoken critic of Turkey, a NATO ally, accusing Ankara of profiting from smuggled Islamic State oil at a time of high tensions between Russia and Turkey in late 2015. He has also taken a tough line of U.S. and EU criticism of Russia’s interventions in Ukraine, accusing NATO of a policy of “confrontation” in the crisis.

Mr. Kislyak, who has been Russia’s ambassador to Washington since 2008, found himself in the headlines recently over a series of phone calls he made in late December to Mike Flynn, a top adviser to Mr. Trump and now his national security adviser in the White House. The calls came at a time when the departing Obama administration was probing questions of possible interference by the Kremlin in the 2016 presidential campaign.

The White House denied there was anything improper in the phone calls, and a U.S. government investigation found there was nothing improper in the phone calls.

Mr. Antonov’s selection would still have to be approved by the State Duma, seen as a mere formality.

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