Russia names tough but pragmatic veteran diplomat Anatoly Antonov as new US envoy

Then Russia's Deputy Minister of Defence Anatoly Antonov speaking during plenary session at the 15th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, on June 5, 2016.
Then Russia's Deputy Minister of Defence Anatoly Antonov speaking during plenary session at the 15th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, on June 5, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

MOSCOW (Reuters, AFP) - Russia’s next ambassador to Washington will be a former defence official who is subject to European sanctions over his role in the conflict in Ukraine, the Kremlin announced on Monday (Aug 21).

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.  

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.

A person who has dealt with Antonov said that he was a tough, military-style man.  “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 Centre.  

“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.” 

The name of outgoing ambassador Kislyak has emerged in relation to several of Trump’s associates as a special counsel and congressional panels investigate Russian meddling and possible ties with the Trump campaign.

US Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself in March from matters connected to an investigation by the FBI following his admission he had talked to the Russian envoy.  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 adviser 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.  

Moscow has denied any interference, and Trump has said his campaign did not collude with Russia.

Antonov rose up through the ranks of Soviet diplomacy before donning a military uniform to become deputy defence minister from 2011 to 2016 at a time when ties with the West plunged to their worst levels since the Cold War.  

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 regular 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 Erdogan and his family of involvement in the illegal oil trade with extremists from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group.  

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

‘Business is business’

Antonov – who speaks English and Burmese according to his foreign ministry profile – has considerable experience negotiating complex weapons control issues with the United States.  He headed the Russian delegation that agreed the New START treaty on nuclear arms reduction with the US in 2010, a brief highwater mark in ties between the US and Moscow.  

“The best words to describe the spirit of the talks would be ‘mutual respect’. It is thanks to that mutual respect that our meetings were always businesslike and very productive,” US negotiator Rose Gottemoeller said in 2011.  

“As Ambassador Antonov would frequently say, ‘business is business’.”

Kommersant daily had reported that Antonov was being lined up to move to Washington before Trump’s surprise election victory over Hillary Clinton.  And despite his reputation as a hardliner Antonov insists Russia and the US need to mend ties – even if he remains convinced it should be on Moscow’s terms.

“There is a big job before us – getting out of this slump. But no one is talking about giving in,” Antonov said after a parliamentary vetting hearing in May.  “We need to convince our American colleagues that friendly, equal, respectful relations are in the interests of the people of both Russia and the US.”