Jon Huntsman returns to Utah after serving two years as the ambassador to Russia during a historically tense time

(Pavel Golovkin | AP Photo) Russian President Vladimir Putin, shakes hands with U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, left, as U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, stands behind prior to their talks in the Black Sea resort city of Sochi, southern Russia, Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Pompeo arrived in Russia for talks that are expected to focus on an array of issues including arms control and Iran.

Washington • After two years lodged between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman is leaving his post Thursday, returning to Utah, where he is weighing a bid to again run for governor.

Huntsman, who took on the role as America’s top envoy to Russia during a tumultuous time between the two world powers, said as he departs that things could have been worse if not for diplomatic efforts to stem a further slide in the relationship.

“Our tour began with the bottom falling out of America’s relationship with Russia — one that has seen only marginal improvements since,” Huntsman said in a Facebook post with his wife, Mary Kaye. “We’ll never know how bad things could have been but for the efforts of many tireless, courageous and dedicated public servants. It was a great honor to lead them. Their acts of devotion will never be forgotten.”

Huntsman, who had been elected twice as Utah's governor before leaving to serve as U.S. ambassador to China, landed in Moscow in October 2017 as both countries were issuing sanctions, kicking out diplomats and closing consulates.

It also came in the wake of American intelligence agencies declaring that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election with the goal of helping Trump get elected, a point that the president questioned while standing side by side with Putin.

Huntsman said the U.S. Embassy came together during “one of the most tumultuous periods in diplomatic history” and lamented seeing the American flag removed from the St. Petersburg consulate and expulsion of scores of diplomats “at the depths of bilateral tension.”

“Our struggles to rebuild and reengage with the Russian government and people will remain with us forever,” the Huntsmans said in the Facebook post. “The challenges for America preceded us and will most certainly follow.”

Huntsman, a seasoned diplomat, faced a challenging job in trying to improve relations between the two countries with a significantly smaller staff as well as sometimes unclear foreign policy directives from the White House. Trump’s personal relationship with Putin also meant Huntsman was left out of conversations the two had.

Even as he was preparing to leave, Russian authorities summoned Huntsman to the Kremlin two weeks ago after the United States denied visas to some members of a Russian delegation traveling to New York City for the United Nations General Assembly. Huntsman didn’t go and sent his deputy instead, Reuters reported.

Huntsman, who previously served as ambassador to Singapore and China, was hamstrung from the start, Russian experts say.

Michael McFaul, who served as U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2012 to 2014 and is now banned from Russia by the Kremlin, said he left because he felt there was little progress that could be made.

“I feel pretty good about that decision because I don’t think there has been any major substantive — you know what we call in the diplomacy [world] — deliverables that have advanced U.S. interests,” McFaul said. “And that is not a criticism of Ambassador Huntsman. That is a statement about where U.S.-Russian relations are today and principally I would blame Putin for that.”

McFaul, who wrote the book “From Cold War to Hot Peace: An American Ambassador in Putin’s Russia,” said the opportunity to get anything done was “extremely low” before Huntsman showed up and, “I don’t think anything changed in the two years that he was there.”

“The nature of the relationship right now was such that you couldn’t do much,” McFaul added.

That’s a thought shared by Stephen Sestanovich, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who worked on Russian policy in the Reagan and Clinton administrations.

“Truth is, Huntsman ended up having very little to do — it’s hard to think of a worse time to have been the American ambassador in Moscow,” Sestanovich said. “Trump so mishandled the relationship that Russians saw less and less value in trying to do business with us. A shame, really, because that also meant there was less pressure on the Russians to ask themselves what they had done wrong.”

Huntsman did not respond to a request for comment but noted in the Facebook post that "no embassy has been more united in the face of historic adversity.”

Huntsman is expected to return to Utah this week, though is unlikely to announce any future plans immediately.

A source close to Huntsman, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the ambassador's future plans, said he is considering a gubernatorial run but nothing yet is decided.

“Jon Huntsman's passion for public service is unrivaled and unfinished, but he's ready to be back home,” the source said. “He's going to take some time to talk to Utahns and find out how he can best continue to serve.”

There are a lot of people urging him to run for governor, the source continued.

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