US ambassador in Moscow heads home for consultations

PTI Moscow | Updated on April 21, 2021

Russia said Ambassador John Sullivan was not ordered out of the country, it could only ‘recommend’ he do so; Sullivan said he will return in weeks to Russia

The US ambassador to Russia has said he will head home for consultations — a move that comes after the Kremlin prodded him to take a break as Washington and Moscow traded sanctions.

The Kremlin emphasised that it couldn’t order Ambassador John Sullivan to leave for consultations and could only “recommend” that he do so amid the current tensions.

Sullivan said in a statement that he is returning to the United States this week to discuss US-Russian ties with members of President Joe Biden’s administration. He emphasised that he would come back to Moscow within weeks.

“I believe it is important for me to speak directly with my new colleagues in the Biden administration in Washington about the current state of bilateral relations between the United States and Russia,” Sullivan said in a statement issued by the embassy.

“Also, I have not seen my family in well over a year, and that is another important reason for me to return home for a visit.”

US State Department spokesperson Ned Price on Tuesday also stressed that Sullivan “has not been expelled” and “has not been ordered out of the country,” but is rather “returning now at an opportune time to undertake consultations here, to see his family.” “I expect he will return to Moscow in the coming weeks,” Price added.

Sullivan's departure comes after Russia on Friday stopped short of asking Sullivan to leave the country but said it “suggested” that he follows the example of the Russian ambassador to the US, who was recalled from Washington last month after President Joe Biden described Russian President Vladimir Putin as a “killer.” Russia has set no time frame for Ambassador Anatoly Antonov's return to Washington.

Putin's spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, said the ambassadors' departures reflect current tensions in the relationship between the United States and Russia.

“The relations now have hit the bottom,” Peskov said.

“There are certain consequences of the unfriendly measures taken against our country and the retaliatory measures taken by us.” On Thursday, the Biden administration announced sanctions on Russia for interfering in the 2020 US presidential election and for involvement in the SolarWind hack of federal agencies — activities Moscow has denied.

The US ordered 10 Russian diplomats expelled, targeted dozens of companies and people and imposed new curbs on Russia's ability to borrow money.

Russia denounced the US move as “absolutely unfriendly and unprovoked” and retaliated by ordering 10 US diplomats to leave, blacklisting eight current and former US officials and tightening requirements for the US Embassy operations.

While ordering the sanctions, Biden also called for de-escalating tensions and held the door open for cooperation with Russia in certain areas.

Biden emphasised that he told Putin that he chose not to impose tougher sanctions for now and proposed to meet in a third country in the summer. Russia said it was studying the offer.

“I will return to Moscow in the coming weeks before any meeting between Presidents Biden and Putin,” Sullivan said in Tuesday's statement.

On Monday, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a call with Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian presidential Security Council, to discuss the prospect of a US-Russian summit and they “agreed to continue to stay in touch,” according to a statement from US National Security Council spokesperson Emily Horne.

Peskov noted the Sullivan-Patrushev call, adding on Tuesday that “if it becomes expedient, the ambassadors will come back and resume their duties.” “As for the Russian ambassador, the president of Russia will decide when such expediency comes,” Peskov said during a conference call with reporters.

He said, “Russia certainly can't order” the US ambassador to return home for consultations but can recommend that he do so.

John Sullivan is a rarity in the US diplomatic corps: a non-career Trump administration political ambassadorial appointee whom Biden has asked to stay on.

His return to Washington for consultations comes not only at a moment of soaring tensions with Moscow over the new sanctions and Russia's troop build-up along the Ukraine border, but as the Biden administration is gradually assembling its Russia policy team.

Just last week, the Senate confirmed Wendy Sherman to Sullivan's previous job as deputy secretary of state, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to vote on Wednesday on the nomination of Victoria Nuland, a Russia hawk and expert on the country, to the State Department's number 3 position, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

Sherman, who played a leading role in US negotiations with North Korea during the Clinton administration and with Iran during the Obama administration, and Nuland, who as assistant secretary of state for European Affairs, incurred Moscow's wrath during the 2014 Maidan uprising in Ukraine and Russia's annexation of Crimea, are both expected to be heavily involved in formulating strategies for dealing with Russia.

In addition, Biden has nominated a former senior National Security Council official, Karen Donfried, to Nuland's old post running European affairs at the State Department.

All three women will be primary points of contact for Sullivan in Moscow and he has yet to meet any of them in person in his current position.

Published on April 21, 2021

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