US President Donald Trump has recently announced plans to nominate the deputy secretary of state as US ambassador to Russia. If confirmed by the Senate, Sullivan would replace John Huntsman, who tendered his resignation in August. Huntsman, who spent two years trying to improve ties between Moscow and Washington, is rumoured to be running for governor of Utah, a post he held from 2005 to 2009.
In 2017, when Sullivan testified at his confirmation hearing for the post as deputy secretary of state, he vowed to take a tough line on Russia. Many wonder how Sullivan’s potential nomination will affect ties between the geopolitical rivals. Dr Thomas Whalen, an associate professor of social sciences at Boston University, said that Sullivan's potential nomination won't lead to significant changes in Washington's policy on Russia.
"The Sullivan appointment should make little difference in Trump administration policy. Trump has made it clear he is the architect of his own foreign policy, which currently means promoting closer US-Russian relations and accommodating President Putin on a number of wide ranging issues, including matters pertaining to Syria. Sullivan is more spear carrier than policy maker anyway", said Dr Thomas Whalen.
Sullivan’s potential nomination comes at a very important moment for relations between the two major powers. The Ukrainian crisis and differences over Syria have worsened US-Russia ties in recent years. Although Trump has signalled his desire to mend ties with the Kremlin, his presidency has been marked by tit-for-tat sanctions, diplomatic expulsions, and the demise of a decades-old arms control treaty, which led to speculation about the beginning of a Cold War 2.0.
Earl Rasmussen of the Eurasia Centre think-tank in Washington, DC said he doesn’t expect relations between the sides to deteriorate further under Sullivan, but at the same time he noted that chances are slim that the ties will improve.
"I do not anticipate any further deterioration with US-Russia relations and perhaps some openings especially when it involves common interests and potential business cooperation. However, due to the political hysteria and the new allegations being raised from Ukraine-Gate here in the US, unfortunately, I do not see any significant improvement in relations", said Earl Rasmussen.
President Trump withdrew the United States from the INF treaty, which banned ground-launched nuclear missiles with ranges of 500-5,500km, citing alleged violations by Moscow, a claim that the Kremlin has denied. Signed by Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev, it ended the dangerous standoff between the two rivals. Trump has repeatedly said he wants to strike a new accord with Moscow. Earl Rasmussen noted that under John Sullivan, the two sides might start work on an arms treaty that will include other nuclear powers.
"It is indeed unfortunate that we have seen the demise of both the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty under the watchful eye of Mr Bolton. However, I would hope that sounder minds do exist. Hence, I would expect some movement in the New START Treaty. That said, there may be a desire to include other nuclear powers in the treaty to some degree, especially China. I believe allowing the lapse of START will directly result in a new arms race which is already starting as a result to the INF collapse, and will significantly place the world at risk. Let’s hope that we see positive movement on START negotiations", said Earl Rasmussen of the Eurasia Centre think-tank in Washington, DC.
Before joining the Trump administration, Sullivan served as a deputy secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush, and before that he was a general counsel at the Department of Commerce. He served as a senior adviser to four presidential campaigns and was also a partner at the law firm Mayer Brown LLP.