The October 3 resignation of US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman comes at a sensitive time of heightened tensions between Moscow and Washington.
Wrapping up his two-year tenure, he stands down with a stark warning of “irreconcilable” divisions between Washington and Moscow, also cautioning to hold “Russia accountable when its behaviour threatens us and our allies."
His tenure was repeatedly undermined by bilateral frictions, including Russia expelling hundreds of US diplomats in retaliation for US sanctions.
At least three officials are now tipped to become Huntsman’s successors, including US Special Envoy for North Korea Stephen Biegun, US Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell and First Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
- Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun remains President Donald Trump’s likely choice, Vox News and Reuters cited unnamed White House sources as saying in August, shortly after Huntsman said earlier that month that he intended to resign from his post on 3 October, after two years in the job.
- The 56-year-old former Ford Motor Company executive is known as an expert on Russia, and he studied political science and Russian at the University of Michigan.
- Biegun headed the International Republican Institute in Moscow in 1992-1994 and was a board member of the US-Russia Foundation for Economic Development and the Rule of Law.
- He spent time on ex-President George W. Bush’s National Security Council and as a top congressional aide on national-security issues.
- After US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo appointed Biegun Special Representative for North Korea on 23 August, 2018, he reportedly showed interest in "establishing cooperation and coordination on the Korean problem between Russia and the United States.” The diplomat visited Russia in April 2019.
“Steve Biegun would be a solid choice. He has a strong background in Russia, having even lived there early in his career, and he is well-known in Washington as a professional,” Evelyn Farkas, a top Pentagon official for Ukraine and Russia from 2012 to 2015, was quoted by Vox News as saying.
- Biegun, for his part, recently told reporters he did not intend to become an ambassador to Russia because he wanted to concentrate on problems pertaining to the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.
- Richard Grenell, US Ambassador to Germany, graduated with a bachelor's degree in Government and Public Administration from Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri.
- The 53-year-old, who is an LGBT person in the Trump administration, served as political adviser to prominent GOP representatives, including George Pataki and Dave Camp.
- Grenell is best known for asserting US pressure on the German government, including by calling for Berlin to spend more on defence and pushing for a confrontational policy against Iran.
- In one move, he reportedly sent letters to a number of German companies and hinted at the possibility of imposing US sanctions for supporting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project. The ambassador's spokesperson said that Grenell’s letters should be perceived not as a “threat”, but as a clear expression of US policy.
- All those comments were perceived in Germany as interference in the country’s domestic affairs, with Wolfgang Kubicki, vice-chairman of the Bundestag, calling for the expulsion of Grenell from Germany over his remarks.
- The Wall Street Journal has, meanwhile, cited several sources as saying that there were assumptions in the Trump administration that Grenell may wish to “take the post of [US ambassador to the Russian Federation].”
- At the same time, one source quoted a person close to Grenell as saying that he was not interested in serving in this capacity.
- The 59-year-old co-chaired the global law firm Mayer Brown’s national security practice before being nominated as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s deputy in April 2017.
- Sullivan earlier served as chairman of the US-Iraq Business Dialogue, a government advisory committee on the two countries’ economic relations.
- Additionally, Sullivan held senior positions at the Justice, Defence and Commerce departments, serving as deputy secretary and general counsel at Commerce, deputy general counsel at Defence and counsellor to Assistant Attorney General J. Michael Luttig.
- In late August, Trump told reporters that Sullivan “very well could be" the next US ambassador to Russia.
- “He’s somebody that’s being put up and respected. To Russia? Yeah. Very respected”, Trump said when asked whether Sullivan could be his official of choice to replace Huntsman.
“Well I know that [Secretary of State] Mike Pompeo likes him very much and he’s very respected. He could very well be, yeah”, Trump said.
- The New York Times was not that optimistic, however, describing Sullivan as a person who has “limited diplomatic experience dealing with Moscow”.