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Trump's Man In Moscow: Russia Envoy Nominee Faces Challenging Post

Former Utah Governor and ex-U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman is to be nominated as Washington's ambassador to Russia (file photo)

WASHINGTON -- Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor nominated by President Donald Trump to be the next U.S. ambassador to Russia, will have his diplomatic experience and business acumen put to the test should he represent U.S. interests in Moscow.

His posting, which still must be approved by the Senate, would face major challenges as the Trump administration struggles with congressional and FBI investigations into the Kremlin’s alleged meddling in the 2016 presidential election that brought Trump to power. Russia has denied the claims.

A veteran diplomat who has served in the administrations of five U.S. presidents and was a candidate for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination, Huntsman has limited experience when it comes to Russia.

As President Barack Obama’s envoy to China, he helped manage Washington's challenging relationship with Beijing. The 57-year-old billionaire also served as ambassador to Singapore under President George H. W. Bush.

For months Huntsman has been touted as Trump’s choice for the post even though he has been critical of his future boss in the past.

During the 2016 presidential election campaign, he called on Trump to drop out of the race after a video featuring the Republican candidate boasting about groping women surfaced.

James Collins, who served as President Bill Clinton’s ambassador to Moscow between 1997 and 2001, spoke about Huntsman's prospects after reports of his possible nomination began appearing in the U.S. media in March.

"Mr. Huntsman is going to be seen as a solid professional appointment, someone who is politically relevant," he said. “I think it will be read as a signal that Trump is picking someone with political experience."

If confirmed, Huntsman will head to Moscow amid troubled relations between the two superpowers.

Trump has sought to improve relations with Russia battered by the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.

U.S. President Donald Trump meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg.
U.S. President Donald Trump meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G20 summit in Hamburg.

He met twice with his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, at the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg earlier this month. In their first encounter, they were seen shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries in front of the cameras as they looked to project an atmosphere of cordiality.

The second time, however, occurred during a private dinner for leaders, without any accompanying U.S. advisers, something that has deepened suspicion about Trump’s intentions.

Away from the smiles, bipartisan pressure on Trump has mounted as contacts between his associates and Russian officials prior to the election have unleashed a furor in Washington.

In recent weeks, Russia has been increasingly strident in its threats to confiscate U.S. diplomatic property in Moscow in retaliation for the U.S. seizure of two Russian compounds.

That decision was made by Obama in December, in response to U.S. intelligence conclusions that Russia had been actively interfering in the election campaign.

The Russian compounds, U.S. intelligence officials said, had been used for espionage and surveillance.

Recent U.S. ambassadors in Russia have experienced difficulties during their postings.

Outgoing Ambassador John Tefft is a career foreign service officer who has faced accusations -- including some that are demonstrably false -- by Kremlin loyalists of trying to foment discord in Russia.

Tefft's predecessor, Michael McFaul, encountered open hostility from the very beginning of his tenure.

On his second day on the job, in 2012, an anchorwoman on NTV (a Russian station owned by the state-controlled gas giant Gazprom) accused him on air of being sent to incite a revolution.

When reports of Huntsman’s possible nomination first emerged in March, the Kremlin reacted guardedly.

"We will welcome any head of the U.S. Embassy to Russia who will be a staunch supporter of the idea of developing the dialogue between the two countries," presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement.

‘Potemkin Policy’

Huntsman, who is married and has seven children -- including two who were adopted -- comes from a wealthy Utah family whose fortune was built on chemical manufacturing.

The company has substantial business holdings in Russia, mainly factories that manufacture polyurethane chemicals used in everything from foam mattresses, shoe cushioning, composites used in flooring, and other common household and industrial products.

Some critics have doubted that Huntsman would be able to negotiate with Moscow impartially, considering his family company’s interests in Russia.

Huntsman also sits on the board of directors of the U.S. automaker Ford, which has multiple factories in Russia, and heavy equipment manufacturer Caterpillar, which has a large plant in the Leningrad region outside St. Petersburg.

In the past, Huntsman has reportedly divested himself of any relevant holdings and met ethics guidelines for federal officials.

Huntsman is also a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, known informally as the Mormons. The church is one of several religious denominations that have been subjected to increasing pressure from Russian authorities.

Huntsman serves as chairman of the Atlantic Council, an influential Washington think tank that frequently takes hawkish policy stands regarding Russia, but in the months ahead of his nomination he revealed little on his views toward Moscow.

Some insight into Huntsman’s thinking about Russia comes from the website he set up in 2012 as he actively considered running for president -- and challenging Obama, who was up for reelection.

Huntsman took aim at Obama’s “reset” with Russia -- a policy that had sought to improve U.S.-Russian relations after Moscow’s short 2008 war with Georgia.

“It’s a Potemkin policy,” the statement said. “Working with Russia to develop a more cooperative relationship is needed, but we should not make that relationship one that mirrors a Potemkin village in which we pretend the Kremlin is more of a partner than it is, more of a democracy than it is, more respectful of human rights than it is, and less threatening to its neighbors than it is.”

The statement is no longer on the website, but can be accessed through Internet archives.

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    Mike Eckel

    Mike Eckel is a senior correspondent reporting on political and economic developments in Russia, Ukraine, and around the former Soviet Union, as well as news involving cybercrime and espionage. He's reported on the ground on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the wars in Chechnya and Georgia, and the 2004 Beslan hostage crisis, as well as the annexation of Crimea in 2014.