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Meet Anatoly Antonov, Set To Be Russia's Next Ambassador To U.S.


You know, one of the few concrete agreements to come out of a meeting between President Trump and Vladimir Putin at the G-20 summit was to speed up the process of appointing new ambassadors to both Washington and Moscow. Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, has, as we know, been at the center of allegations about Kremlin meddling in the presidential election in the U.S. Let's turn now to NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow to talk about the man set to replace him. Hey, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Hey, good morning.

GREENE: Good morning to you. So Anatoly Antonov is ready to become the new Russian ambassador to the United States. What should Americans know about him?

KIM: Well, first, I need to say one caveat when talking about all these ambassadors - or possible ambassadors - is that this is all 99.9 percent sure because we still don't have an official confirmation. And the reason for that is governments, including the U.S. government. They typically make ambassadorial nominations public only after they've reached a preliminary agreement with their host country. As for Antonov, what we know about him - he's 62 years old. That means he also has experience in the Soviet diplomatic tradition. Interestingly enough, he was - his last position was actually as a deputy defense minister, and that sort of attests to his experience in arms control.

I actually managed to speak with some American - former American diplomats who had dealt with him, and he's described as being very competent, professional - also, on a personal level, very friendly. But one diplomat said - a former diplomat called him one hell of a negotiator. And that just kind of shows his toughness. He also has a certain suspicion about U.S. intentions, and that gives him somewhat of a bad reputation in Washington.

GREENE: It's so interesting. You taught me some - a lesson about diplomacy. I didn't realize that a country has to get like an official agreement with the host country before they can make things totally official. That's interesting.

KIM: Well, they want to do that to avoid any kind of embarrassment. I mean, the U.S. does the same thing. You kind of want to - kind of pre-vet them so that when you go through the nomination process, the host country doesn't come back and say, we don't want to have this person.

GREENE: OK. So Antonov, if he is indeed - if he does indeed come to Washington - certainly interesting times in relationship between the U.S. and Russia. What do you think his main mission will be?

KIM: Well, I mean, quite simply, it's just fixing relations, right? I mean, there are a lot of disagreements.

GREENE: Easy, quite simply, no big deal (laughter).

KIM: Well, yeah, exactly. I mean, that's the short version. I mean, there are a lot of disagreements that Russia has with the United States on international issues like Syria, Ukraine, North Korea.


KIM: But his job will really be normalizing relations. And, you know, the thinking here in Moscow is that President Obama, shortly before leaving office, he intentionally kind of ruined relations with Russia so that Donald Trump would have trouble, you know, difficulty. Late in December, the Obama administration expelled 35 Russian diplomats and closed two Russian diplomatic compounds in the U.S. And that did get relations off to a bad start under the Trump administration.

GREENE: So he created problems for President Trump, but what Obama was doing was - I mean, in theory at least - punishing Russia for the election meddling.

KIM: Exactly, that was the Obama administration's response to that.

GREENE: OK. So Antonov would be arriving in not so easy times. And as you say, he has the huge task of trying to normalize relations. What about the U.S. ambassador? I know John Tefft, the current ambassador, is about to leave. What is - what's the current situation with that job?

KIM: Well, again, it's actually a little bit murky. John Tefft, he's a career diplomat. He came to Moscow in 2014. It was really the height of the Ukraine crisis. He came out of retirement to take the job. And as far as - from what I'm hearing, he really wants to go home now. But as far as his replacement, again, we don't have official confirmation for the same reason that we just discussed.


KIM: But the person that we think will be the next nominee at least is Jon Huntsman. He, of course, is a former Republican governor of Utah, and he served as an ambassador to China under the Obama administration.

GREENE: Do these jobs matter in the broader relationship?

KIM: Well, it's a good question. I mean, ambassadors are essentially representatives of their respective presidents. But I think what's important here is that they can change atmospherics, right? I mean, just - I mean, they're doing their jobs, but they can also become lightning rods if something goes wrong in the relationship. I mean, just look at Sergey Kislyak. Everyone I've spoken to says he's very professional. He was just doing his job. But, you know, look at how he appears now in the public light in the U.S.

GREENE: Yeah, perhaps drawing more attention to himself than he expected. NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow, talking to us about the ambassadors from Russia to the U.S. and from the United States to Russia. Lucian, thanks.

KIM: Great talking to you.

GREENE: You, too. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.