The US has long had a multifaceted diplomatic relationship with Russia — a relationship that has taken the recent spotlight, given military interventions in Syria and Special Counsel Robert Mueller's recent report on Russian interference in the US elections. Ambassador Jon Huntsman Jr. is America's chief diplomat in Russia. The former governor of Utah and 2012 presidential hopeful has also been ambassador to China and Singapore, and has been widely hailed as an expert statesman. Huntsman has served in every US presidential administration since beginning his career as White House staff assistant to President Ronald Reagan.
Huntsman sat down with The World's Marco Werman for this exclusive interview in Moscow.
Marco Werman: Russia has come down really hard on international NGOs that work in the country — charities, democracy civil society groups. They can no longer register, they can't operate in Russia. It seems from everybody that I've spoken to, young people, that this is something that the youth need for advancement. How is this reality holding their future back?
Ambassador Jon Huntsman: I think the youth are quite right in making that conclusion. This is oxygen that they're now deprived of. And I think we'll need to be part of any kind of future development or advancement, in terms of achieving their overall aspirations. So, the lay of the land is very difficult right now in terms of the inability to organize, to create your own NGO around environmental issues or whatever strikes your fancy. It's such a big and natural aspect of American society; our experiences and those of the West that we sometimes just take it for granted. But it's oftentimes seen here as part of a broader subversive plot tied to color revolutions and undermining governments. But I do feel, as I think you have picked up, Marco, among the young people here there is a yearning for more. There is a yearning for deeper engagement with organizations that today just don't exist, for purposes of being able to talk about issues that really are going to be part of their future.
The first day I was here I went to this little festival called Woof Fest where young volunteers were encouraging Muscovites to adopt stray cats and dogs. It was something they took into their own hands. But as one of the organizers told us, when it comes to really making a change, they need legislation. They need help from the Russian government. How do you, as the chief American diplomat here, help those young people kind of get traction and get that power?
Well, we're probably limited somewhat in terms of the tools that we have. But I think it's always important to share the American experience with people. We come from generations of creativity, of experimenting with civil society, building things — all the way back to the Alexis de Tocqueville traditions that he spoke about when he wrote "Democracy in America." It really is a very unique building of a nation, but principles that have been widely adopted in many other parts of the world as part of civil society.
I see a country of beautiful, brilliant, talented people — I mean off-the-charts talented ... And I think there is a desire to package this talent and to do more with it.
So, we invite people here to Spaso House [the residence of the US ambassador to Russia]. We have lectures, we have events around music and the arts, and we always find an opportunity to highlight and showcase some of our own NGOs as an organization such as were created out of nothing for purposes of fulfilling a certain need in society and allowing people to pursue their dreams and pursue their own talents. And when I look at the people here in Russia, the young people, you know, I see a country of beautiful, brilliant, talented people — I mean off-the-charts talented — and I see that wherever I go. And I think there is a desire to package this talent and to do more with it sometimes.
At some point, Vladimir Putin will no longer be president of Russia. What do you imagine a post-Putin Russia will look like for young people?
... to stay connected, to organize, to come together around common interests. I think that's an extension of the human spirit; it doesn't matter where you live.
It's hard to know. We've never seen the kind of phenomena play out that we're seeing today in society, whether it's here, China, or a lot of other places. And that is coming to the forefront of the internet generation — those who have had at their fingertips the ability to access the world and even to organize without stepping a foot outside and to network in ways that are most unprecedented. So, it's hard to know, but it's impossible to imagine that that kind of ability and that kind of desire on the part of young people would just disappear at some point — to stay connected, to organize, to come together around common interests. I think that's an extension of the human spirit; it doesn't matter where you live. So, I think that probably will be more and more of a pressure point in politics as we go forward. It's hard to know what it will look like, but I think it will be a pressure point.
Daniel Ofman/The World
We seem to be pretty much over the hump with the Mueller report, aside from the political aspect of it. You've been pretty quiet through the whole probe. What door has now opened for you diplomatically with Russia, now that all the commotion of the Mueller report is in the past?
I think many on the Russian side conclude that [the Mueller report] is the magic elixir and all of our issues are all of a sudden solved, and we have to remind them that, no, this does not solve any of our issues.
Well, it's important that it's done, that it was investigated and that professionals put time and energy into it. And here we are. I think many on the Russian side conclude that maybe this is the magic elixir and all of our issues are all of a sudden solved, and we have to remind them that, no, this does not solve any of our issues. We still have a lot of the underlying challenges and problems that brought us to where we are today, that brought about the unprecedented level of sanctions and the deterioration in our diplomatic presence that we see both in the US mission here, and also on the US side for Russia. We have Ukraine. We have human rights concerns. The list goes on and on.
You can have profound disagreements, but I've always been one who believes that you put the disagreements on the table. ... The estrangement which we've experienced in the bilateral relationship has gone on too long.
So it may create a little more space and it may mean that members in Congress will be more willing to engage where they've been uniformly angry and concerned, rightly, about the events of 2016. But we haven't seen manifestation of that yet. But I can imagine that this will allow us to take some positive steps, maybe less on the Russia side but maybe more on the US side, in terms of our gaining a little more connectivity, which is a good thing. Because nations need to talk. You can have profound disagreements, but I've always been one who believes that you put the disagreements on the table. You talk about them. You figure out a pathway forward. The estrangement which we've experienced in the bilateral relationship has gone on too long. And the estrangement can lead to bad conclusions — always assuming the worst in the other, which is long term, I think, potentially extremely dangerous. So opening up new channels that, maybe, this kind of slightly improved environment will allow us to do I think would actually be a good thing.
Daniel Offman/The World
I'm curious what was it like a couple of Thursdays ago when the Muller report came down and you must have gotten a PDF at the embassy. How did you read it? How was it consumed? How did you digest it?
Well, I asked for our FBI office to give me an advance copy, and of course they didn't [laughs]. I thought I'd get it. I thought I'd get a little bit of inside information. But no such luck.
It's a voluminous report. And, you know, people will read it and sort through the details and I think there was a lot there on election meddling itself. And a lot of details that have already been brought out. Maybe some finer detail that people were able to reflect upon. And for purposes of our discussions here, it really does present — as we've discussed with the Russian side — the level of detail that we have talked about in terms of the meddling that took place in 2016. And hopefully that will be a cautionary note about how we go forward and stay away from meddling and interfering in our election process, which is the most valued thing we have as Americans.
Yesterday the US embassy in Syria expressed alarm over Russian bombing in Idlib province in northern Hama. The Russians are apparently ignoring pleas to not bomb the White Helmets, the humanitarian organization. That was brought up at the UN yesterday. How will you bring this up with the Kremlin?
It's been a humanitarian catastrophe in Syria and I think we can't help but reflect on the millions of people who have been forced to flee the country. And the job now has to be to settle out the security situation and allow them to return to a country they love, and to figure out a political process in Damascus that will be equal to the aspirations of the Syrian people and all their beautiful diversity.
We have a professional military-to-military relationship. ... There's a lot that is going out behind the scenes that a lot of people don't see.
And we have been a participant in that. Russia has been a participant in that. We have to stay focused on the task ahead. We have some very able representatives on the US side — Ambassador [James] Jeffrey, who is very much involved with his counterpart Mr. [Alexander] Lavrentiev; they are in conversation. They'll be seeing each other again. They have a very substantive dialogue in terms of the steps that must be taken to settle out of the security situation. We have a professional military-to-military relationship. We call it deconfliction, to make sure that we don't end up bombing each other. That's been handled very, very professionally and it's active and it's regular. Gen. [Joseph F.] Dunford [Jr.], our chairman of the Joint Chiefs, with Gen. [Valery] Gerasimov on the Russian side. So there's a lot that is going out behind the scenes that a lot of people don't see. It would be very, very important — and we stress this with our Russian counterparts whenever we can — to get back to the UN-mandated process: a political settlement in Damascus, bringing in the various factions of the ongoing civil war and coming up with a roadmap that would allow the country to settle down, both from a security standpoint and politically.
US President Donald Trump has pulled troops out of Syria and, despite this agreement for deconfliction, Russia has the upper hand. How is that going to make your conversation with the Kremlin about this more complicated?
Well, we have troops that will remain. I think there is an understanding, in terms of the presence on the ground that will be needed in order to accomplish our mission, which is the de-ISIS camp campaign, number one, and making sure that we can bring stability to the country. It's a critically important part of our dialogue between both countries and will continue to be. It's also hard to imagine, Marco, that we can get to a legitimate end point — a Middle East that has settled down without the United States and Russia collaborating. This again gets to the theme of so much of what we do here in Moscow. We have our differences and some of them are profoundly deep and maybe irreconcilable. But we do have an obligation to work together in areas where if we're not both at the table, we're not going to get to a solution. And that's going to mean lives lost.
You see it that way. Does the Kremlin see it that way — that collaboration is necessary?
They would not be as engaged in the process as they are today if they didn't see it that way. I think absolutely they see it that way.
Do they like the fact that we've written the lyrics for the world over the last 70 to 75 years? No. They'd like different lyrics.
Do they like our presence? Where we find ourselves? Do they like our power and leverage? Do they like the fact that we've written the lyrics for the world over the last 70 to 75 years? No. They'd like different lyrics. But we're where we are. And we've got to figure out a higher cruising altitude that will allow us to work collaboratively.
When we came back from Nizhny Novgorod, we took the overnight train — the speed, the cleanliness, the sleeping car — it was really impressive. I think the World Cup last summer showed the world another very different side of Russia that kind of defeats stereotypes. So, Russia clearly gets some things right — better than the US, even. What do you think is the role of Russia today in the world?
How do you responsibly manage a nation-state that covers 11 timezones, that touches North America, East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Arctic? That's an enormous responsibility. Just look at the Arctic, for example. I mean, the unwritten region of the world that is fragile environmentally, that has no rules of the road in terms of transportation, in terms of how militaries exercise. I think these are all areas — given the vastness of the geography that is covered — and Russia's ability to settle things down, as opposed to inflame things, is a really important role to play. And the United States can be a collaborator in many of these things, like the Arctic, which will be a very important part of our discussions going forward. And if I could wave a magic wand, that would be my hope in terms of the responsible contribution that Russia could make going forward, and one that, I think, in a sense, they're trying to work through, notwithstanding their desire as well to keep us off balance where for they can.
A personal question. There are videos of you motorcycling around Moscow. You are a former keyboard player. Is that calculated, or do you think there's something part of you that's innately Russian? Your appreciation of the arts? You seemed to model something that Russians appreciate?
And the street musicians! The level of talent that's out there playing — whether it's grunge rock [or] somebody playing a Stradivarius violin in an underpass ...
I have great respect for the arts, and I wish we focused more on it at home. When I walked the streets of Moscow, you know, a block or two from here I walk past [writer Leo] Tolstoy's home and it sends shivers down my spine when I think that Tolstoy lived in this neighborhood. And then you walk a block up and there's [poet Alexander] Pushkin's home, and [novelist Fyodor] Dostoyevsky, down the street from here, and [composer Pyotr Ilyich] Tchaikovsky, down the street from there. And it's just unbelievable to think that a nation-state can draw as much as Russia has from its cultural antecedents, its literary roots, its music roots, and as someone who comes from the American experience, you know, which is jazz and rock and roll, and of course we have had our own classical composers. I have great respect for the roots of this country and I'm just in awe of what has played out here over the years. Some things have played out tragically, some things have played out beautiful and brilliantly. But I love the commitment to the arts, the fact that on every street corner is a theater. And the street musicians! The level of talent that's out there playing — whether it's grunge rock, their version of Kurt Cobain, or whether it's somebody playing a Stradivarius violin in an underpass — I mean brilliantly — it's a reflection that this country is pretty powerful when it comes to the arts.