WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) – Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has made John Sullivan’s difficult job as U.S. envoy to Moscow even more difficult as he grapples with saber attacks Kremlin nuclear weapons and threats to sever relations while keeping its embassy at one tenth of the normal staff.
“It was really bad two and a half years ago,” Sullivan recalled of his arrival in January 2020. “It got worse.”
Severe staff cuts imposed by the Russian government have not yet required him to clean embassy toilets or polish floors, as Washington says, although he has said he can do both.
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The talkative grandson of Irish immigrants explained in an interview this week that he was Washington’s man in Moscow five weeks into a war in which US-supplied weapons are killing troops from its host country and the sanctions imposed by the United States and its allies are devastating the Russian economy.
So far, he said, his meetings with Russian Foreign Ministry officials “have not been personally insulting or hostile”, and there has been no serious backlash against the embassy. .
“The security situation here is not that different from what it was a month ago, six months ago,” he said via video call from a spartan office overlooking an embassy courtyard. dusted with fresh snow. “But that could change at the host government’s discretion in a minute.”
Sullivan faces circumstances that no former US ambassador to Russia has faced, said John Herbst, a former US envoy to Ukraine at the Atlantic Council think tank. “We are really in a period of hostile relations with Moscow.”
US-Russian relations were already at their post-Cold War climax when former US President Donald Trump hired Sullivan for one of the toughest jobs in US diplomacy, a position previously held by luminaries such as John Quincy Adams and George Kennan.
The rivals engaged in tit-for-tat deportations and a diplomatic visa wrangle, with Moscow ordering the closure of the US consulate in St. Petersburg in March 2018. Consulates in Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg were closed after his arrival , leaving the embassy as the only operating U.S. mission in Russia.
But its personnel have shrunk from some 1,200 in 2017 to about 130, about half of whom are Marines and other security personnel.
The sides also disagreed on issues ranging from the civil war in Syria to the Kremlin’s capture of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine to US sanctions imposed on Russia for trying to influence the 2016 presidential vote in favor of Trump.
As relations deteriorated, Trump’s Democratic successor Joe Biden decided to retain Sullivan, a Republican establishment lawyer who does not speak Russian but whose affection for Russia dates back to his childhood admiration for the Soviet hockey team.
In April 2021, Washington recalled Sullivan for consultations after the Russian envoy was summoned to Moscow.
Implementing a decree by President Vladimir Putin, the Russian government in May 2021 ordered the embassy to fire dozens of Russian employees who performed critical tasks. This forced the processing of all visas except “life or death” to stop.
Hopes that tensions would ease rose when Sullivan and Russia’s ambassador to Washington resumed their duties in June and Biden and Putin met in Geneva the same month.
But relations deteriorated. Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s borders, demanded sweeping security guarantees rejected by Washington and its NATO allies, and on February 24 invaded its neighbor.
“We’re in the Mariana Trench as far as diplomatic relations go,” Sullivan said, referring to Earth’s deepest ocean abyss.
Russia says it is conducting a “special operation” to demilitarize and “denazify” Ukraine. The war has killed thousands and uprooted millions.
Sullivan’s challenges range from the grim to the routine.
Days after launching his invasion, Putin put his nuclear forces on high alert, citing aggressive statements from NATO leaders and economic sanctions against Moscow.
U.S. officials say they are concerned about veiled threats of nuclear war they continue to hear from Russian officials, including comparisons to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
Sullivan said he took a threat “from the top of the Russian government” seriously to sever diplomatic ties, saying “the Russians don’t indulge in rhetorical frills.”
“The United States doesn’t want to close their embassy here. President Biden doesn’t want to recall me as ambassador. But that’s not something that we necessarily control,” he said.
‘CROWBAR TO REMOVE ME’
Russia expelled Sullivan’s deputy in February and recently said another 37 US personnel were to leave by July. That would leave the embassy in “guardian status”, secured by a skeleton contingent, a US official said on condition of anonymity.
The embassy has already lost its elevator technician, which means diplomats could soon be doing a lot of stairs, and keeping sprinkler systems working will become a serious security issue if the last two electricians have to leave, said said the US official.
An increase in nightly calls with Washington as tensions mount over Russia’s military buildup prompted Sullivan in February to leave Spaso House, the elegant ambassadors’ residence, a 15-minute drive from the chancellery and its facilities. secure communications.
He moved into the more modest Townhouse One, where his deputy lived before he was evicted, which is a short walk from the chancery, the US official said.
If diplomatic relations were severed, forcing the embassy to close, Sullivan said he would no longer be able to pursue one of his most pressing tasks: defending detained Americans.
Among them are basketball star Brittney Griner and former Marines Trevor Reed, who is on a second hunger strike, and Paul Whelan, along with an unknown number of others.
“I told my colleagues back home that they’re gonna have to use a crowbar to get me out of here because I’m not leaving until, you know, until they throw me out outside or the president just saying, ‘Look, you have to go home.
Sullivan said he wanted to “be here and at least defend the interests of Americans that we would leave behind iron bars.”
(This story has been reclassified to correct a typographical error in paragraph 25)
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Reporting by Jonathan Landay and Arshad Mohammed; Editing by Mary Milliken and Daniel Wallis
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