Trump Picks His Ambassador to Moscow: How Russian Media Reacted

Huntsman
Former U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman (center) walks with his daughter Liddy (left) and strategist John Weaver in Manchester, New Hampshire May 20, 2011 Brian Snyder/Reuters

Russia is anticipating an ex-U.S. governor, a rockstar, a billionaire’s son and a chemical magnate to arrive in Moscow’s U.S. Embassy soon. At least, that's how Russian media has described the résumé of one man—Washington’s new top diplomat in the Russian capital, Jon Huntsman Jr.

Huntsman, a onetime presidential hopeful, has been touted as President Donald Trump’s likely candidate to take the reins of the Embassy for months. Trump made his pick official in a White House statement Tuesday night, and the Senate is expected to approve the appointment.

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As Huntsman and his wife—parents of seven children—prepare to make their home in western Moscow's Spaso House, his reputation and varied portfolio are being scrutinized by the Russian media, who are still waiting on the Trump administration to make any policy decision that reflects Trump’s campaign aspirations to “get along” with Russia.

The choice of Huntsman, a former governor of Utah and ambassador to China, brings Russian pundits more questions than answers about Trump’s overarching policy towards Moscow.

“Trump has appointed a huntsman for the Russian forest,” state news agency RIA Novosti reported Wednesday, citing expert opinion that cast doubt over Huntsman’s understanding of Russian affairs. In his analysis of Huntsman, Russian political analyst Mikhail Sinelnikov-Orishak said the diplomat’s understanding of Russia is “weak enough” for him to “learn and understand what it is like here” on the job.

“As a mormon, he is very conservative and views alcohol and smoking negatively,” the expert continued. “He is a person in favor of a healthy lifestyle which is good.”

“What is concerning is, when he was ambassador to China, there was scandal there,” Sinelnikov-Orishak said, referring to a now-famous anecdote from 2011 in which anti-government protesters photographed themselves with Huntsman, angering Beijing. Huntsman subsequently said he did not attend the protest but was only passing by with his children on his way to lunch. “This, at the very least, says that this is someone who will likely be deeply interested in domestic policy.”

A former U.S. intelligence official for the region commended Huntsman’s actions as a shrewd way of supporting human rights without serious harm to the relationship with Beijing. Huntsman’s initial aspiration in life was to be a musician, playing keyboards with the band Wizard in his teens, RIA adds.

With questions still hanging on Huntsman’s attitudes towards Russia, RIA found reason to celebrate the departure of John Tefft, the current U.S. envoy to Moscow, who they branded “the creator of color revolutions.” Color revolutions are the Kremlin's shorthand for pro-Western revolutions in its neighboring countries, and a social phenomenon of mythical status in Russia. Russian hardliners allege the U.S. was behind such revolutions in Ukraine and Georgia and frequently warn the U.S. is planning similar unrest to galvanize opposition in Russia. Tefft served in the Embassies of both Ukraine and Georgia before arriving in Moscow.

“The Barack Obama administration never hid that this appointment [of Tefft] was linked to the aim of isolating Russia,” radio anchor Svetlana Kalmykova told RIA. “Operation Isolation has failed.”

The Russian Ministry of Defense’s TV network, Zvezda, drew attention to Huntsman’s presence in the Chinese protest as soon as he was reported as a likely ambassador in March. “Huntsman’s chances of organizing a color revolution in Russia are nil,” Zvezda anchor Veronika Krasheninnikova said “What will he do in Moscow? Will he turn us against China? Will he develop relations during sanctions, which Washington does not plan to lift? His lack of knowledge of Russia will make Huntsman a weak ambassador. Evidently such are the appointments Trump needs.”

Following the White House’s announcement of their pick, Forbes Russia reminded its readers that the likely new ambassador also has an enviable business portfolio, serving on the board of directors of Caterpillar, Chevron, Hilton and Ford Motor, calling him a “billionaire’s son.”

Pro-Kremlin tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda said Huntsman’s business dealings may impact his policy on Russia as his family’s chemical company, the Huntsman Corporation, runs multiple facilities in the former Soviet Union. Speaking to the paper, expert Alexander Dormin also said Huntsman's senior role in the foreign policy think tank the Atlantic Council was likely bad news for Russia too.

“The institution in question has never done anything good for Russia,” he said, referring to the organization’s history of investigating Russian military incursions in Ukraine and other research that has reflected Russian foreign policy in a negative light.

Speaking to Newsweek in March, the Atlantic Council's John Herbst, a former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, endorsed Huntsman for the job. “There is no public record of Huntsman’s views on Russia but he has the benefit of the Atlantic Council program behind him,” he said at the time.