The new U.S. ambassador to Russia presented his diplomatic credentials to President Vladimir Putin at a ceremony in the Kremlin, a move that marks the formal start of Jon Huntsman's work in Russia.
Huntsman, who has twice served as a U.S. ambassador, arrived in Moscow on Sunday to take over from John Tefft who left Russia two days earlier after serving in Russia for three years, a period that was marred by a deep and rapid deterioration of ties, unseen since the end of the Cold War. The relationship soured even further in recent months following a series of expulsions of diplomats and closures of diplomatic missions.
Huntsman, the former Utah governor who once called for Donald Trump to drop out of the presidential race, won easy confirmation as U.S. ambassador last week. He was the nation's top diplomat to Singapore under president George H.W. Bush and ambassador to China under president Barack Obama before returning to the U.S. to run for president in 2012.
Huntsman had an up-and-down relationship with Trump during last year's campaign. The former governor was slow to endorse any candidate for the Republican nomination, though he did back Trump once he became the presumptive nominee. But Huntsman then called for Trump to drop out after the October release of a 2005 audio in which Trump was captured on a hot microphone making lewd comments about women.
Although Trump has called Russia's interference in the 2016 presidential election a hoax pushed by Democrats to sully his victory at the polls, Huntsman said at his confirmation hearing last week that ‘there is no question, underline, no question” that Moscow interfered. He also said he would not hesitate to remind Russian officials that they are accountable for their actions.
Huntsman comes into office with a drastically reduced staff after the Russian Foreign Ministry ordered the U.S. to cut its embassy and consulate staff in Russia by 755, or by two-thirds, heightening tensions between Washington and Moscow after U.S. Congress approved sanctions against Russia. In response, the U.S. suspended issuing non-immigrant visas in Moscow for a week in August and stopped issuing visas at its consulates elsewhere in Russia.
Relations between Russia and the United States cooled following Russia's annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, where fighting since 2014 has left 10,000 people dead. Reports of Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election put a further damper on hopes for better ties that the Kremlin had pinned on Trump's presidency.
In August, the U.S. adopted a new package of stiff financial sanctions, aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the election and for its military aggression in Ukraine and Syria, where the Kremlin has backed President Bashar al-Assad.