The Biden administration recently decided to keep the Trump-appointed US ambassador on the job in Moscow for the foreseeable future, two senior administration officials told CNN, demonstrating a willingness to nurture areas of stability in the US-Russia relationship after it got off to a tumultuous start.
John Sullivan has been on the job for almost a year and a half. He is viewed by administration officials as a steady hand as the administration ramps up the pressure on Russia for taking actions to undermine the US and democratic values broadly. President Joe Biden is still deciding on other ambassadorial posts, and the White House said Monday the President had not decided on the “vast majority” of positions.
The Biden administration has already made it clear that they will break from President Donald Trump’s approach to Russia. Trump largely sought to flatter Russian President Vladimir Putin and famously said he believed Putin that Russia did not seek to interfere in the 2016 US presidential election, despite a finding from US intelligence agencies that it did.
The White House signaled that it would approach Russia on a case-by-case basis early in the administration when they extended a key arms control treaty with Russia, New START, and also ordered an intelligence review of Russian misdeeds.
Keeping an ambassador in Moscow who already knows the players, as well as inviting Putin to the climate change conference later this month, signals that the administration remains open to diplomacy and working with Russia where is it possible. Biden invited dozens of leaders to the summit, though the Kremlin said when the list was announced it would need some time to confirm Putin’s participation.
The Biden administration “decided the professionalism that John Sullivan has brought to the job is valued at a time of important political transition in the US and US-Russia reactions, in both standing up to Russia’s bellicose efforts near Ukraine as well as exploring possible engagement on climate, security and other issues,” said John Tefft, the former US ambassador to Russia. “These transitions can often take a long time which works to our detriment in terms of having a consistent foreign policy.”
These moves come as Biden is currently weighing a package of sanctions and other moves in response to a US intelligence review of Russia’s malign actions, including election interference and the Solarwinds breach.
Senior administration officials have met over the last week to discuss the potential response, which the White House has also said would include an “unseen” component. Complicating the deliberations, however, has been Russia’s massing of troops along Ukraine’s eastern border, ratcheting up tensions with the US.
Officials now are weighing how the potential new sanctions and other punishments might provoke further escalation.
Last month US-Russia relations grew more tense when Biden said he believed Putin is a “killer.” After that the Kremlin pulled their ambassador from Washington and brought him back to Moscow for discussions on the US-Russia relationship. It is unclear when he will return to Washington.
And as the Biden team works on crafting and rolling out their Russia policy they are doing so without key players in place. Though Victoria Nuland, Biden’s under secretary for political affairs nominee who has extensive experience working on Russia, is expected to have her confirmation hearing this week, congressional aides told CNN.