Putin names ‘pragmatic’ ambassador to the US, blacklisted by the EU

Anatoly Antonov [Twitter account of the Russian embassy in the US]

Russian President Vladimir Putin has named Anatoly Antonov as Russia’s next ambassador to Washington, the Kremlin announced on Monday (21 August). Antonov is a former defence official who is subject to EU sanctions over his role in the conflict in Ukraine.

Antonov takes over from Sergei Kislyak, whose contacts with members of President Donald Trump’s campaign team made him a central figure in the row over Russian influence over the US presidential election.

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Michael Flynn, a former White House national security adviser, was forced to resign in February after it became known he had failed to disclose the content of conversations he had with Kislyak and had misled the vice president about their meetings.

Jared Kushner, a White House advisor and Trump’s son-in-law, met Kislyak on two occasions in 2016, the White House has disclosed. Kushner also had phone calls with Kislyak between April and November 2016, Reuters reported.

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The incoming ambassador, 62, is a diplomat by training and is currently a deputy foreign minister. Between 2011 and 2016, he served as deputy defence minister, a period which coincided with Moscow’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea peninsula.

The European Union added him two years ago to its list of officials who are subject to Ukraine-related sanctions, citing his involvement in supporting the deployment of Russian troops to Ukraine.

Since becoming deputy foreign minister last year, Antonov has acted as a liaison between the foreign ministry and the military. The armed forces have growing influence over foreign policy, especially since Moscow launched its military operation in Syria.

AFP describes Antonov as “a seasoned pragmatist able to adapt to sudden shifts in relations with the West”.

“Antonov is a hardliner, who understands the issues he talks about and knows the West quite well,” said analyst Alexander Gabuev from the Carnegie Moscow Center.

“He is a loyal supporter of the Kremlin line, but not a blind believer in conspiracy theories as many of his peers in the Russian military and intel community are.”

At the defence ministry, Antonov was often the stony public face fending off accusations over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and later Syria as an increasingly assertive Kremlin sought to stamp its authority abroad.

On Ukraine he denied Russia had sent troops across the border and ridiculed accusations that insurgents and Moscow were involved in the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight MH17.

The EU in February 2015 responded by slapping Antonov on a list of Russian officials under sanctions, including asset freezes and travel bans.

After Moscow launched its surprise bombing campaign in Syria in support of President Bashar al-Assad, Antonov regularly fronted press conferences hailing the operation.

He played a major role in attacking Turkey after Ankara shot down a Russian jet on its border with Syria, accusing leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his family of involvement in the illegal oil trade with jihadists from the Islamic State group.

“The leadership and especially Erdoğan won’t resign and won’t admit anything even if their faces are smeared in stolen oil,” he was quoted as saying.

In the meantime the US began to scale back its visa services in Russia on Monday, drawing an angry reaction from Moscow three weeks after President Vladimir Putin ordered Washington to more than halve its embassy and consular staff.

Russia ordered the United States to cut 755 of its 1,200 diplomatic staff in Russia as a countermeasure after US President Donald Trump on 2 August signed into law new sanctions against Russia that were passed overwhelmingly by Congress days before.

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The US Embassy said it was suspending all non-immigrant visa operations across Russia from Wednesday (23 August) and that when they resumed on 1 September, they would be offered “on a greatly reduced scale”.

The US step means Russian citizens wanting to visit the United States for business, tourism or educational reasons will no longer be able to apply via US consulates outside Moscow and will have to travel to the Russian capital instead.

That will pose a logistical challenge for many Russians, whose country is the world’s largest by territory. The United States has consulates in St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Yekaterinburg.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the US demarche looked like an attempt to provoke ill-feeling among ordinary Russians against the authorities.

“The American authors of these decisions have come up with another attempt to stir up discontent among Russian citizens about the actions of the Russian authorities,” Lavrov told reporters.