Jon Huntsman, whose two-year tenure as the US ambassador to Russia has been characterized by disagreements with the Kremlin, is stepping down with a stark warning of “irreconcilable” divisions between Washington and Moscow and a warning to hold “Russia accountable when its behavior threatens us and our allies”.
The two-term Utah governor, who is rumored to be considering a third term, steps down on 3 October. In his letter, he said he wanted to return to his home state “to reconnect with our growing family and responsibilities”.
Huntsman’s tenure in Moscow was repeatedly undermined by frictions between the two superpowers. Soon after he arrived in Moscow, Russia expelled hundreds of US diplomats in retaliation for US sanctions.
At the time, the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, warned that relations were at their worst point since the cold war. But the Trump administration has showed little success in improving them.
In 2018, critics called for Huntsman to resign in the wake of what they saw as an embarrassing summit in Helsinki between Trump and Vladimir Putin.
The state-run Tass news agency, quoting an unnamed spokesperson in the foreign ministry, said “the domestic political state of affairs in the US” made it impossible to fully develop bilateral ties after Huntsman’s resignation was announced.
In his letter, Huntsman reminded the president of Russia’s history of disrespecting human rights and violating the sovereignty of its neighbors. He also cautioned Trump against the kind of “reset” with Russia that humiliated the Obama administration.
“No reset or restart is going to help, just a clear understanding of our interests and values – and a practical framework for sustained dialogue,” he wrote.
According to CNN, Trump and Putin discussed the need for a new US ambassador in Russia during a telephone call last week. The White House has since denied the subject was discussed.
Huntsman’s critics will not be sad to see him go. Having served as Obama’s ambassador to China, Huntsman’s ability to then serve Trump was viewed as opportunistic.
During Trump’s 2016 campaign, Huntsman first said he would vote for Trump, then, when a recording emerged in which Trump bragged about sexual assault, he called for him to leave the race. Once Trump was elected, though, like many Republicans, Huntsman warmed to him again.
A Guardian profile at the time noted that Huntsman’s posting, coming as the Trump administration was being engulfed in accusations of collusion with Russian-sponsored election manipulation, was always going to be “an unusually delicate posting”.
Having served in the administrations of five presidents and put himself up as a 2012 Republican candidate, it was not clear if Huntsman was “a selfless public servant or opportunistic people-pleaser”.
“Frankly, I think he should be diagnosed with acute masochism,” said Ana Navarro, a former campaign aide. “He’s rich, happy, has beautiful children and grandchildren and he wants to work for Trump – in Russia of all places!
“I understand wanting to serve your country but that sounds like self-flagellation.”