- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Moscow’s mercurial U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak — a central character in the Russian election meddling saga — will soon leave Washington, but his replacement might prove problematic in his own way as the Trump administration tries to find a working relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Anatoly Antonov has been tapped to replace the avuncular Mr. Kislyak, a man Russia watchers say is a far more rigid follower of the Kremlin line.

Mr. Antonov, 62, has been a behind-the-scenes player in Moscow’s foreign policy machine who was targeted by the European Union with sanctions for his role in Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. But he also is an outspoken advocate for improving U.S.-Russian relations, as long as Moscow doesn’t have to bend too far.

“He played a central role in the Kremlin’s deception to underreport the number of troops it had in the Crimea operation,” military analyst Alexander Goltz said in an interview from Moscow. “And for that, he is under sanctions by the EU.”

As deputy foreign minister, Mr. Antonov is seen as central to Russia’s resurgent posture in the Middle East — particularly in fostering better relations between Russia and Iran.

“Anatoly is very much a hard-liner and an arms control kind of guy,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council think tank. “But these [ambassadors] are not independent policy people by any means. He will be carrying out the Kremlin’s agenda.”

Reportedly a key figure hosting Iranian military delegations to Moscow, Mr. Antonov also has encouraged Russian defense officials to travel to Tehran, including a visit that Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu made to the Iranian capital in September.

Speaking to Al-Monitor on the condition of anonymity, one of Mr. Antonov’s former colleagues in the Foreign Ministry called him an “experienced, skillful and tough negotiator.” Another source recently told The Moscow Times that he had the determination of a “bull terrier.”

The Russian newspaper Kommersant has reported that Mr. Antonov, who also has served as deputy minister of defense, recently voiced frustration over tensions in the Moscow-Washington relationship.

“We need to convince our American colleagues that equitable, neighborly and mutually respectful relations meet the interests of both the Russian and American peoples,” Mr. Antonov said, according to Al Monitor. “Russia and America are simply fated to positive cooperation.”

He has experience negotiating with U.S. governments. In 2010, he headed the Russian delegation on the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, dubbed New START, and engaged in prolonged negotiations with State Department Assistant Secretary Rose Gottemoeller. A treaty ultimately was negotiated.

“He is a 100 percent cynical guy. He will do what he is ordered to do,” Mr. Goltz said. “With Gottemoeller, he made serious concessions because he had been ordered to prepare the treaty. But a few years later, he did all he could to humiliate her with respect to his role in the Ukraine.”

‘Zero trust’ environment

Mr. Antonov will be arriving in Washington at a low point in relations, which Mr. Cohen characterized as a “zero-trust” environment between President Trump and President Putin. The two men are expected to meet for the first time next month at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany.

Russian analysts argue that a large part of the mistrust stems from controversies swirling around Mr. Kislyak and his dealings with figures at the highest levels of the Trump campaign and Trump administration.

In February, Michael Flynn, Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, was forced to resign after it was reported that he had discussed sanctions against Russia with Mr. Kislyak prior to Mr. Trump’s inauguration and lied to Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of those talks.

A month later, Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a former Trump campaign surrogate, landed in hot water when it was revealed he had spoken twice with Mr. Kislyak last year but failed to disclose those conversations when asked by Congress. Mr. Sessions then recused himself from Russia investigations.

In May, The Associated Press reported that Mr. Trump’s son-in-law and White House special adviser, Jared Kushner, and Mr. Kislyak tried to set up a secret back-channel communications line with Russia that would have used Russian equipment.

Also in May, Mr. Trump met with Mr. Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in the Oval Office. During that meeting, Mr. Trump allegedly bragged about firing FBI Director James B. Comey, whom he reportedly called a “nut job.”

“I cannot image [Mr. Kislyak] sitting there and hacking the elections himself,” Mr. Cohen said. “But he did meet lots and lots of people around Washington. That was his job.”

The Kremlin has denied U.S. intelligence findings that any sort of influence campaign ever occurred, and Mr. Trump has repeatedly called the collusion story a media-created hoax. Mr. Putin vigorously denounced reports this month that Mr. Kislyak was a top spy or recruiter of spies, saying his contacts were the basic job description of an ambassador.

“It’s his job; he gets paid for this,” Mr. Putin heatedly told NBC’s Megan Kelly in an interview this month. “He must meet, discuss current affairs, negotiate. That’s what he’s there to do.”

But the former ambassador certainly advised the Kremlin on the nuances of how the election hacking saga was playing out in America. In January, the U.S. intelligence community concluded that Mr. Putin interfered last year in the race for the White House with an unprecedented state-sponsored cybercampaign to boost Mr. Trump and undercut Democratic rival Hillary Clinton.

Kislyak’s departure

Fittingly, Mr. Kislyak’s departure appears to be enveloped in a cloud of disinformation. On Sunday, the online news site BuzzFeed — which previously published an unverified, salacious opposition research dossier on Mr. Trump — reported that Mr. Kislyak would leave after a July 11 going-away party at Washington’s St. Regis Hotel. The U.S.-Russia Business Council said on its website that it was hosting the reception and called the career diplomat “a reliable and thoughtful interlocutor for the American business community during his time in Washington.”

The Russian Foreign Ministry denied Monday that Mr. Kislyak had been officially recalled. Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova wrote on the ministry’s official Facebook page that it was Mr. Putin’s decision when to recall Mr. Kislyak to Moscow and appoint a successor. Dmitry Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, told reporters in Moscow, “When there is an appropriate decree, we will inform you.”

The Russia probe

Mr. Kislyak remains a central figure in the investigations into Trump links to the Kremlin. But much of what he knows will likely never be aired publicly given the diplomatic immunity protections he enjoys and his imminent departure from the U.S.

Born in Moscow to Ukrainian parents, he studied nuclear physics before entering the foreign service and represented the Soviet Union at the United Nations during the 1980s. He was widely known and respected as an “old school” diplomat, unfailingly courteous and discreet but also a staunch defender of Russian policies.

In February 2016, nine months before Mr. Trump’s surprise electoral victory, Mr. Kislyak told a small group of journalists gathered at the Russian ambassador’s residence in Washington that relations with the U.S. had fallen to their lowest level since the end of the Cold War.

“The dialogue we used to have has slowed down significantly,” he said during the rare roundtable discussion with reporters. “We were able to end the Cold War, but most probably we weren’t able to build post-Cold War peace. We’ve failed to create a real tissue of our relations, and that makes these relations very, very vulnerable.”

But in wide-ranging comments, the Russian ambassador rejected the idea that a new kind of Cold War was in the offing. “We ought to work together, and we are perfectly open to doing so,” he said.

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