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A Bogeyman In Russia, U.S. Envoy Appears Poised For Moscow Job

John Tefft, pictured in May 2012, when he was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
John Tefft, pictured in May 2012, when he was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

In Moscow they have called him a regime-change expert, a “diplomatic diversionist” dispatched by Washington to foment unrest in Russia’s neighboring states. And now he appears to be headed to Russia, where Kremlin surrogates warn he may try to do the same.

Meet John Tefft, the man who has apparently been tapped to manage Washington’s tattered ties with Moscow.

U.S. President Barack Obama is widely expected to nominate Tefft as Washington's next ambassador to Moscow and Russian press reports say Moscow has approved the appointment.

If the reports are accurate, and if the U.S. Senate confirms Tefft, the veteran diplomat would be headed to Moscow at a nadir in U.S. relations with the Kremlin unseen since the Cold War, one that comes in the wake of the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea in March and amid an armed pro-Russian rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

And few career diplomats raise hackles in Moscow like the 64-year-old specialist on the post-Soviet world.

Russian suspicion of Tefft stems from his service as a spearhead of U.S. diplomacy with pro-Western governments in Ukraine and Georgia that rode into power behind the so-called “color revolutions” that the Kremlin accused Washington of orchestrating.

A four-decade veteran of the foreign service, Tefft played a visible role in the U.S. response to the 2004 “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine and went on to serve as U.S. ambassador to Georgia during the tiny ex-Soviet republic’s short 2008 war with Russia.

Moscow accused the West of emboldening Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili with military assistance in the run-up to the conflict over the Moscow-backed rebel Georgian regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

A year prior to the war, Tefft accused Russia of directly aiding Georgian separatists, according to a State Department cable published by WikiLeaks and the British newspaper “The Guardian.”

After leaving his post in Tbilisi in 2009, Tefft was appointed by Obama to be the U.S. envoy to Ukraine, where floundering pro-Western president Viktor Yushchenko subsequently lost re-election to Kremlin-friendly candidate Viktor Yanukovych.

Yanukovych fled to Russia in February of this year in the wake of mass protests, setting off a chain of events that would lead to the Kremlin’s annexation of Crimea and the rise of pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine.

While Tefft’s posting in Kyiv had already ended by the time the protests erupted in November, Kremlin loyalists have accused him of laying the groundwork for Yanukovych’s ouster in what Russia calls a coup sponsored by Western powers to diminish Russia’s influence in the region.

“In Ukraine … his role in organizing the current events can in no way be underestimated,” Veronika Krasheninnikova, a Kremlin-appointed member of Russia’s Public Chamber, said of Tefft in an interview with a state-run Russian radio station in April.

Tefft also served as U.S. ambassador to Lithuania -- a former Soviet satellite state wary of Russia’s ambitions outside its borders – from 2000 to 2003. State-owned Russian media have suggested his time in the Baltic country helped solidify his alleged antipathy toward the Kremlin.

Tefft, meanwhile, has denied harboring such hostility.

“I’m not anti-Russian,” Tefft told the Ukrainian newspaper “Segodnya” in a 2009 interview published in Russian. “I simply believe that everyone in this part of the world should learn to work and get along with each other, mutually respecting sovereignty and independence.”

‘Columbo’ Diplomacy

Tefft joined the foreign service as a European specialist in 1972, in the midst of the Cold War. He went on to work on the Soviet Desk at the State Department in the 1980s, serving in a U.S. delegation on arms control negotiations in 1985.

When the Soviet Union collapsed, he was serving as deputy director of the Soviet affairs office at the State Department, and he got a front-row seat to Russia’s subsequent political and economic turmoil as deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow from 1996 to 1999.

Tefft’s extensive record working on Soviet and Russian affairs -- including a 10-month stint as charge d’affaires at the Moscow Embassy -- make him an ideal candidate for the job at this moment in U.S.-Russian ties, his former colleagues say.

If he is nominated and confirmed by the Senate, his tenure is likely to differ sharply from that of his predecessor, Michael McFaul, a political appointee who made a public outreach – perhaps most notably through Twitter – a keystone of his ambassadorship.

“John Tefft has grown up in a world where quiet government-to-government diplomacy has been the norm for the bulk of his career,” a former U.S. official who worked closely with Tefft told RFE/RL, adding that he would be a “superb choice” for the Moscow posting.

After Tefft’s name surfaced in the media as a candidate for the job earlier this year, McFaul himself tweeted that the veteran diplomat was “one of the best [ambassadors] around” and said he would be a “fantastic” selection.

A Wisconsin native who collects hats as a hobby, Tefft speaks in public with a folksy Midwestern accent and an aw-shucks demeanor that evokes the goody–two–shoes neighbor Ned Flanders in the American animated series “The Simpsons.”

It is a bearing that was on full display in a farewell interview he gave to a Georgian talk show in 2009 that he capped off by singing an earnest -- if dissonant -- version of “What a Wonderful World,” a song made famous by jazz legend Louis Armstrong.

Tefft’s warm persona, however, belies what his colleagues describe as a shrewd ability to tighten a diplomatic vise when needed.

U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Melia said last year that Tefft is “always double-tracking” in his dealings with foreign officials.

Most of these meetings, Melia said, would end with Tefft channeling the fictional detective Columbo played by actor Peter Falk in the eponymous American television series, with the diplomat turning back just as he is about to depart and saying, “Oh, there is just one more thing.”

“And then he leans in and in lowered voice tells the uncooperative government official that he personally is working on his daughter’s visa for study in the U.S. next fall, or he mentions to the presidential aide that unless some things are fixed in the non-transparent way licenses to export wheat are unfairly excluding U.S. companies, there would necessarily be adverse consequences,” Melia said while presenting Tefft with a human rights award in September.

Even when Tefft "is delivering the toughest and least-welcome messages, his counterparts are always genuinely pleased to see him as a person, and always, at the conclusion, invite him back,” Melia added.

Mikhail Pogrebinsky, a Kyiv-based political analyst, told the Russian magazine “Profil” in July that Tefft is a “sly charmer” who at the same time can “eat an opponent without choking.”

‘Stick In The Eye’?

When Tefft’s name emerged earlier this year as McFaul’s potential replacement, it was interpreted by some Russian and U.S. analysts as a signal of the Obama administration’s intention to continue its policy of minimizing cooperation with Moscow due to the Ukraine crisis.

It’s an assessment, however, that former administration officials disagree with.

“I don’t read it the same way as these people who basically say, ‘Hey, you know, he served in Ukraine and Georgia, so the idea here is to put a stick in the Russians’ eye,’” the former U.S. official who worked with Tefft told RFE/RL. “I think that’s just wrong calculation. John Tefft has 30-plus years’ experience representing the United States abroad, and he spent a lot of his time working on Russia.”

David Kramer, a former State Department colleague of Tefft’s, said he had heard the veteran diplomat’s name proposed as the potential next U.S. envoy to Russia in the summer of 2013.

At the time, the United States and Russia had butted heads over Moscow’s decision to grant political asylum to U.S. intelligence leaker Edward Snowden and Russia’s law against so-called gay propaganda, but the bilateral relationship had not “reached the point where it is now,” Kramer told RFE/RL.

“So I don’t think it’s meant to send a signal that because he was ambassador to Ukraine and Lithuania and Georgia, that this guy is now going to come to Russia. I think he’s one of the best in the business,” said Kramer, now the president of the Washington-based rights watchdog Freedom House.

Russian officials have expressed a comparable estimation of Tefft’s skills as a diplomat, however wary they may be of the work they believe he was deployed to carry out.

Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, told the Russian newspaper “Komsomolskaya Pravda” in April that Tefft is an “experienced diplomat who has extensive experience working in our region, and he probably understands its problems.”

“If he arrives with the assignment of irritating Russia based on his work experience and previous not-so-charitable statements directed at us, then his effectiveness as an ambassador will be close to zero,” Churkin said. “If he arrives with the assignment of trying to forge a dialogue, then we can look at his service record differently.”

Kramer said he expects Russia to treat Tefft with more respect than McFaul was greeted with given the nominee’s long government service.

After assuming his post in 2012, McFaul, an academic who has written extensively about pro-democracy movements in the former Soviet Union, was hounded by state-loyal Russian television over his meetings with Russian opposition activists.

“They had everything cued up [for McFaul], all they had to do was hit the play button,” Kramer said. “And I don’t think they would do that with John.”

As an old-school diplomat, Tefft is likely to differ from McFaul in at least one other respect as well, Kramer said: “I would expect that there would be a lot less tweeting."

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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