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The loneliest Russian in the world Should we feel sorry for Putin's ambassador to the United States?

Please answer his calls, somebody. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Please answer his calls, somebody. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)


May 2, 2022   6 mins

No one in Washington will speak to him. His phone calls go unanswered, and he can’t get meetings. Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, is the most isolated man in the American capital.

When an interview with Antonov containing these laments  appeared in Politico this month it became the talk of the diplomatic circuit. At social gatherings, several ambassadors shared that his office had contacted their office, and on their instructions, been rebuffed. And seriously, they wondered, how could he expect anyone to agree to meet him for lunch? To be seen dining with the city’s principal pariah was out of the question. As for taking his calls, who wanted to hear him spout Moscow’s party line at a time like this?

Having spent a decade as a ‘diplomatic spouse’, I find myself strangely fascinated by Antonov’s situation. The average Russian citizen may be inundated with propaganda, but Antonov has access to international news and commentary. He knows exactly what his country is doing and is personally experiencing the revulsion this has engendered. Demonstrators regularly gather in front of his embassy. They beam the Ukrainian flag onto the walls. In a way, having people refuse to see him or take his calls is a kindness and reflection of their good manners, given what most of us would like to say to him.

I can’t claim intimate knowledge of his state of mind or moral compass, but Antonov always struck me as a decent man. I remember him telling me that one of his personal projects when he first came to the US had been the rehabilitation of the historic cemetery in Ft. Ross, a settlement of Russian immigrants in Northern California. It was a moral obligation, he explained, to ensure that the dead could rest with dignity. A few months after that conversation, his army would be torturing and murdering civilians, then shovelling them into mass graves, or just leaving the bodies on the roadside to rot. What do his morals say about that?

Overnight Russia, which was working to regain its position as the serious and sober world power that in so many ways it seemed qualified to be, revealed a different face. Instead of playing a role on the world stage, it has been excluded from multiple economic, diplomatic and institutional affiliations. Even once this ends — as eventually it must — no one will forget that Russia wrecked its neighbour without anything even distantly approaching a proportionate provocation. The consequences of this act of aggression — Sweden and Finland preparing to join Nato, Germany rearming — are far-reaching and will last.

Antonov’s main assignment was to improve relations with the United States. And I believe this was a mission he embraced with sincerity. During a small lunch in December in his elegant residence, he expanded persuasively on that goal. Our two countries had important interests and global concerns in common, he said. But there was mutual distrust to overcome. Perhaps one could organize some youth programs, he suggested. These could bring Russian young people together with their American counterparts, to start building mutual understanding and forge relationships. What he had in mind was organic, gradual and positive.

And I think he was making headway. Serious voices in the Washington policy world were beginning to conclude that diminishing Russia was counterproductive, that Moscow’s feeling of being boxed in by Nato and treated like a second-rate power should be given consideration, that a Russia possessed of heft and respect could be a partner against an aggressive China, a volatile Central Asia and the resurgence of Islamist terrorism. Wasn’t it time to bury the hatchet, and besides, did Washington really want to shoulder the world’s burdens all by ourselves?

Over time, this view might have prevailed. But instead of playing the judicious long-game envisioned by Antonov, Putin decided to speed things along with tanks, missiles, and genocide, and now his envoy is left holding the fort as representative of a Mongol-era scorched earth barbarian, a country whose neighbour no one wants to be, a leader President Biden has termed a war criminal, and a state that has been ignominiously kicked off the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Ambassadors tend to be well educated, well-traveled and self-possessed. There is an esprit de corps among them, even when they represent hostile states. Everyone shares a lifestyle of transience and understands the obligation that comes with the job: to defend positions whether or not one agrees with them. You see each other constantly in social settings where everything is light and civil and wine is served, and then you clash in a debate or security council vote; it engenders a sense of irony.

They are comparable to soldiers in that they don’t make policy; they obey directives. A sensible government will consult them, listening to their estimations of the chances for success, heeding their warnings about unanticipated fallout. In the end though, ambassadors must represent whatever decision is made, and with conviction.

But what if they simply can’t? Here is where diplomats, as a rule, are in a better place than soldiers. A soldier or officer who walks away in protest can be prosecuted or, depending on the circumstances, even executed for desertion or treason. For most ambassadors, the stakes are not quite that high.

As with military officers, they are patriots, so it’s unlikely to be an easy decision, especially at the hard-won career level of ambassadorship. But what if they come to feel that they can no longer, in good conscience, defend the actions of their government? They have options: retire, resign, or jump ship altogether and seek asylum. The first two can either be accomplished quietly or be accompanied by statements of dissent. And what happens then? That very much depends on what country they are from.

Some ambassadors, by resigning, improve their personal circumstances. Diplomats from Afghanistan were famous for abandoning their posts, even before the recent Taliban takeover. Currently — though now at least with some justification — 55 Afghan ambassadors and staff have requested asylum in the U.S. In general, it’s more common for diplomats from volatile, poor, or conflict-ridden countries to resign postings in more prosperous, Western countries. Without doubting the sincerity of their motives, the move has at least as many benefits as costs. They and their families receive asylum, gain residency, and typically receive a comfortable sinecure.

The Trump era was studded with ambassadorial resignations. In 2018 James Melville resigned as U.S. ambassador to Estonia in protest over President Trump’s stance towards the European Union. He moved on to become Associate Dean at the College of Charleston. In the same year, U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feeley went public about his resignation in an op-ed in the Washington Post, titled “Why I Could No Longer Serve This President.” Therein he wrote that Trump had “warped and betrayed” what to him were “the traditional core values of the United States.” He moved to Miami and joined a media company. Everyone remained alive, well, and able to earn a respectable living.

But then there are countries that take a far dimmer view of absconding diplomats. During Communist era Poland, for example, their ambassador to Japan Zdzislaw Rurarz defected to the U.S. to protest his government’s imposition of martial law. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. He was stripped of his citizenship, and his property in Poland was confiscated. Information about North Korean diplomats who defect to the South is murky, with rumours of their children being abducted and forcibly repatriated, and their family members back at home being punished or possibly even killed.

There is one last, less dramatic way ambassadors can exit their posts — they can have their accreditation yanked and be expelled, not for anything they did wrong but as stand-ins for their government. The State Department is not quite ready yet to do this to Antonov; so far they have only expressed their displeasure by withholding visas for his embassy staff’s spouses and family members, and as he laments in the Politico article, sending home his cook. Our U.S. diplomats in Russia have seen worse; they’ve had family pets killed and their young children waylaid and intimidated on the way to school, all to signal Russia’s anger with the administration they represent.

American ambassadors to Russia have resigned in years gone by, but I couldn’t find evidence of the reverse. Given the treatment of dissidents and even of private citizens who are seen to be disobedient, I suspect it’s not extremely advisable for Russian officials or diplomats to express public disagreement, let alone defect. Yet to their immense credit, in light of the horrific actions of their government in Ukraine, some courageous individuals in public roles have done just that.

Russian climate envoy Anatoly Chubais resigned his position and departed Russia, citing his opposition to Putin’s war in Ukraine as the reason. Ironically, it was Chubais who gave Putin his first Kremlin job in the mid-1990s, remained his strong supporter and held several important posts in various state companies. Arkady Dvorkovich, was the senior economic adviser to Dmitry Medvedev during his presidency, and was deputy Prime Minister until 2018. He stepped down as head of the state-backed Skolkovo technology fund after condemning the invasion.

Andrei Kozyrev, who was Russia’s Foreign Minister and later a Duma member under President Boris Yeltsin, told Newsweek that Russian envoys have the responsibility to oppose the actions of Putin by resigning in protest. But his career ended some years ago and he lives in balmy Florida, so that’s easy advice to give.

What should Antonov the Abandoned do? His choices are not great. Unless the US expels him he can remain in place, but his goal of bridge-building has been blown to smithereens right along with the buildings of Mariupol. Perhaps there will be a thaw again at some future point, but not until Putin is well and truly out of the picture. And any new and different leader will appoint his own people as diplomats. Is walking away a possibility, or does he have family members who would pay a price? Or does he, perhaps, out of loyalty or conviction actually support the unfolding barbarism?


Cheryl Benard is an academic and an author.

 


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David Nebeský
DN
David Nebeský
1 year ago

Russia did not “reveal a different face” overnight. The face of the murderous beast was there long before and it was clearly visible. But most of the West opened its eyes overnight.

Warren T
Warren T
1 year ago
Reply to  David Nebeský

“…no one will forget that Russia wrecked its neighbour without anything even distantly approaching a proportionate provocation.”
Seriously?

zee upītis
zee upītis
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren T

Yes, seriously as you would have known if you been following or researched the chronology and development of the Donbass conflict as well as its statistics and perhaps then compared it to the damage done only in two months of this war.

judith englander
judith englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren T

I thought Cheryl Benard’s sentence was particularly well put. Spot on, in fact.

N T
NT
N T
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren T

seriously.

ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
1 year ago

“An ambassador is an honest gentleman sent to lie abroad for the good of his country.”*

(* Sir Henry Wotton, 1604.)

Warren T
Warren T
1 year ago
Reply to  ARNAUD ALMARIC

“What do his morals say about that?”
The same could be asked about the Washington correspondents for just about every media outlet, who lie beyond belief about just about everything today.

Last edited 1 year ago by Warren T
Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren T

Stuck to the subject would you. There are plenty of articles critical of America on UnHerd, and I don’t see you complaining about the behaviour of Putin & co on those, so why try and deflect when the articles are critical of Russia?

Andrew Watson
AW
Andrew Watson
1 year ago
Reply to  Warren T

What a ridiculously irrelevant contribution – so Russian in its deflective whataboutery, and complete refusal to address the matter at hand. Pathetic.

Iris C
Iris C
1 year ago

I am asked every time I log on if I am a member. If the content of your articles and the responses continue to be bland without any controversy, I can’t see the point of being a member. Have you been hacked? Or have I been hacked and that is why I am asked for my details every time I log on?

Last edited 1 year ago by Iris C
Richard Aylward
RA
Richard Aylward
1 year ago
Reply to  Iris C

Groupthink by definition is anti-liberal and a harbinger of further descent into censorship and tyranny.

judith englander
judith englander
1 year ago
Reply to  Iris C

Another one who has lost his moral compass. Where’s the nuance in the unprovoked invasion and trashing of another country?

Last edited 1 year ago by judith englander
Billy Bob
BB
Billy Bob
1 year ago
Reply to  Iris C

So you’d rather they parrot nonsense from Russia State television? Just because there are two sides to every story, that doesn’t mean both sides are correct or equally valid. Ukraine has done nothing to cause the slaughter and destruction Russia has put upon its people, the blame for this falls entirely on Putins shoulders

Peter Scott
Peter Scott
1 year ago

In my view the first thing to say is, that Putin is a tyrant with blood-soaked hands.
The second thing is that anyone who hopes/expects Russia to become a peaceful civilized democracy, as understood by Thomas Jefferson, is living in the same dreamland that produced the invasion of Iraq (with the sincere but deluded wish that that country would be a beacon example to the rest of Middle Eastern Arabia). Strong man rule is probably all that Russia can know and cope with – alas!
All that fully acknowledged, I still feel that the Occidental democracies behaved in a mean cheap way to Russia’s people post-1991.
The Russians gave up their large empire almost wholly pacifically. They even committed the huge self-sacrifice of letting Ukraine go and with it their only warm water ports and balmy seaside resorts, and (above all) what to them is the holy city of Kiev, one of the main founts and origins of Russian culture.
How did we respond? By sending dignitaries of highest rank to stand shoulder to shoulder with their chiefs at various commemorations of their country’s huge losses in WWII? No.
By talking about them politely? No. They were (absurdly) cast in the role of Election-Fixer when our elites were scandalised by the success of our Leave vote and Donald Trump’s ascent to the US Presidency in 2016.
By organising a sort of mini-Marshall Aid programme designed, as much as might be, to evade all the skimming that it would be subject to in such a land? No.
Very probably everything which has happened in Russia since 1991 would have occurred anyway, regardless of grace and courtesy from the Occident.
Nevertheless I cannot rejoice in the meanness our politicians and journalism all but constantly displayed. And I would certainly feel that Ukraine might still not be invaded if both NATO and the EU had not intimated a willingness to let the Ukrainians join those bodies – much too provocative after all the banquet of humble pie the Russians had already tried to digest.

Terry M
Terry M
1 year ago

“Our two countries had important interests and global concerns in common, he said. But there was mutual distrust to overcome. Perhaps one could organize some youth programs, he suggested. These could bring Russian young people together with their American counterparts, to start building mutual understanding and forge relationships. What he had in mind was organic, gradual and positive.”
Putin’s War Corps has put this on the ash-heap of history.

N T
NT
N T
1 year ago

It is possible to further isolate Moscow by being overtly friendly with those not in Moscow. I would love to break bread with the man and learn things that he has to share, if only because I believe that by showing him and others friendship, we remind them that there is another way.

Jim R
JR
Jim R
1 year ago

Maybe as a Russian, he’s actually on Russia’s side? Maybe as diplomats, these people ought to be talking to each other – you know, diplomacy. Maybe there was just a teensy-weensy bit of provocation – the kind Obama warned about. The kind the Pope just intimated – i think he called it barking at the gates of Russia or something. Maybe an off ramp for the Russians that recognized this provocation could end a war and save a few hundred thousand lives and a few trillions of dollars. Maybe lots of people don’t want the war to end. Radical thoughts, I know.

Last edited 1 year ago by Jim R
Nicholas Rynn
NR
Nicholas Rynn
1 year ago

Putin’s appointee – accept the consequences.

Dustshoe Richinrut
Dustshoe Richinrut
1 year ago

“Ambassadors tend to be well educated, well-traveled and self-possessed.”

The hyphen in “well-traveled” is unnecessary. In fact, it’s … incorrect spelling-wise. (Or should I say punctuation-wise?).
And for that matter, “self-possessed” has an unnecessary hyphen, too.

According to my dictionary, “well” is used for making many compound adjectives (formed from two or more words: such as “well-brought-up” or “well-thought-of”). These adjectives should appear with a hyphen or hyphens when they are used BEFORE a noun: a well-known musician, for example.

When these compound adjectives are used AFTER a noun, they should be written without a hyphen: a person who is well travelled has been to many different countries and is familiar with their culture, for example.

This business is independently owned.
An independently-owned business.

They are working class.
They are working-class heroes.

I just saw the discrepancy between one unhyphenated adjective (well educated), and then in the next breath a hyphenated one (well-traveled) and I thought why should there be any difference.

Well, let’s get well educated! Then!

If I am not mistaken, Lennon’s “working class hero” song is spelt just so: without a hyphen. If the record company had printed the lyric (back in the day) with a hyphen, Lennon might have grumbled: “Don’t be snooty!”

And I’m sorry for being so snooty about an otherwise very interesting piece here. The story of the ambassador might make for a very interesting one- or two-person play, in a few wee years. Don’t you think?

Anyway, it’s early, a cuppa is due, and it’s spring-time, and I’m trying to ward off this stupid, stupid conflict. Never mind all those pictures of fancy mega-yachts that mock us all!

Nicholas Rynn
NR
Nicholas Rynn
1 year ago

I really am not that worried. The content of the article is more important. I wonder, nevertheless, is this a Russian sponsored diversion piece. Have – a – wonderful – day!