Ambassador Huntsman may face the biggest test since the Cold War: Rebuild Russian relations with fewer resources at a time when he needs more of them

(Pavel Golovkin | The Associated Press) U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman, left, walks after presenting credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, during a ceremony in the Kremlin in Moscow on Tuesday, Oct. 3, 2017.

Washington • The previous U.S. ambassador to Russia had a staff of more than 1,200 people, an embassy in Moscow and three consulates as well as a country house.

Jon Huntsman has about 455 staffers left, and only the embassy and two consulates remain operating.

At a tense time for U.S.-Russian ties — arguably the most turbulent since the Cold War — Huntsman, the top U.S. envoy to Russia, faces a challenge to improve relations, especially since he has fewer diplomats and support staff.

It’s hardly the ideal formula, and it’s unclear if, or when, the current spats between the two world powers will ebb.

We don’t know what’s going to get us out of this now,” says William Courtney, a former ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan and who served as the senior director of the National Security Council over Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. “There could potentially be other issues that we just can’t foresee.”

Russia had expelled some 60 percent of those working for the State Department in-country — a large number of those are Russian employees doing maintenance, janitorial services and other support work — after Washington told Moscow it must extricate a sizable number of its diplomatic staff in America because of Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential election.

The United States also reduced Russia’s staff in America — and Russia reciprocated — after Moscow was implicated in the poisoning of a former Russian spy and his daughter in England.

The result, for Huntsman, is trying to smooth over relations, and be tough when needed, but doing so with less access and less help. Russians seeking U.S. visas, for example, may have to wait longer, U.S. businesses seeking to invest in Russia may encounter hurdles, and maintenance will be delayed at U.S. facilities there.

In some ways, it’s not a new phenomenon.

U.S.-Russian relations have always had their ups and downs. There also have been times when both countries expelled diplomats — during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, for example — only to see their conflicts later cool.

Huntsman “and others at the embassy will hope the staffing levels go back up,” says Courtney, an adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corp. “But managing through difficulties is not a new challenge in Moscow.”

Huntsman, Courtney adds, is a good fit to cement a détente, given his background as an ambassador to China and to Singapore. There are always going to be “periodic blowups,” Courtney says, but generally both sides find a way to move forward.

He’s not a showboater,” the former ambassador says. “He just tries to do the job.”

The United States and Russia rely on each other on various fronts. Without a space shuttle, America needs Russia to launch its astronauts into orbit. Russia needs help with public health and agricultural concerns.

Huntsman has acknowledged the struggle in interviews with Russian media and laments that one of the best paths to a better relationship — Russians traveling to the United States and learning personally about the country — could be hampered.

‘We’re doing the best’

In an interview with RBC TV in March, Huntsman said the U.S. Embassy in Moscow has 25 state-of-the-art visa-processing booths, but he can staff only half of them because of the expulsions.

It could get even worse,” he warned. “So we’re doing the best with the people that we have remaining, because the people-to-people engagement part [is important] and making sure that Russian citizens and our Russian friends understand what America is all about. And so friends from America are able to come here as well. That will always serve as the most important part of our relationship.”

Even so, Huntsman noted that all he “can do is focus on my job” managing the U.S.-Russian relationship. And while the reduced staff isn’t ideal, he said the United States is prepared to respond to Moscow again if there are further issues like the poisoning of the former spy and his daughter.

You have a decision to make as a country,” Huntsman told the television station. “When you have a situation where a British citizen and his daughter, on the streets of Salisbury in the United Kingdom, have used against them a military-grade nerve agent, this can’t go without a proper response. And this is exactly what the United States and dozens of other countries have chosen to do. So I don’t fear their response. What I would fear is a United States that chose to do nothing, that just waited and watched and chose to not stand on principle or show support or commonality with our closest friend and ally, the United Kingdom.”

Huntsman, who was unavailable for an interview for this story, has faced tough times before as a U.S. ambassador.

When the United States sold arms to Taiwan, a common occurrence but one that rankles China, which considers the island its territory, Huntsman was summoned to a diplomatic dressing-down by Beijing’s leaders. He jumped on a bicycle and pedaled over, a show of humility, as a gesture of good faith.

‘I want to talk about the future’

The now-ambassador to Russia says the United States has a relationship with the country that sometimes “cycles up and they cycle down,” and right now, the two are in a down cycle. He said the loss of 727 staffers was “devastating.”

But, ever the diplomat, he doesn’t want to talk about the negative aspects.

I like talking a lot more about what we do from here,” Huntsman told Alexey Venediktov of Moscow Radio in January. “Because that’s what diplomats should be doing: rolling up their sleeves and saying, ‘OK, how do we then address the underlying issues that got us to where we are? How do we get to an environment that is free and clear of sanctions so we can begin to normalize what is a very important relationship for world peace and stability?’ … We’re talking about the past. I want to talk about the future.”

Getting to a brighter future won’t be easy, or likely to happen soon, as the probe continues of any interactions President Donald Trump’s team had with Russia as it attempted to turn the 2016 election in the Republican nominee’s favor, as well as the country’s seizure of Crimea in Ukraine.

Mark Simakovsky, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, which Huntsman headed before taking the ambassadorship, says the lack of staff is not only a challenge operationally but also has an impact on the “tone and tenor” of the U.S.-Russian relationship.

These are incredible obstacles,” says Simakovsky, who led the Defense Department’s response to the Russia-Ukraine crisis. To do the job well, Huntsman and his team need a wide range of sources and access and in this environment, and both of those are crumbling.

He’s got less people. I would say he probably has less access than any ambassador has had,” Simakovsky says, while adding that Huntsman is a “pro.”

“He’s been in difficult areas before, particularly in China,” he says. “I think he understands his mission.”

Editor’s note • Paul Huntsman, a brother of Jon Huntsman, is owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune.