The outgoing United States Ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, just weeks before his departure, has said he has mixed feelings about the state of the U.S.-Russia relationship but holds out hope for progress.
In a joint interview in Moscow with the Russian Services of VOA and RFE/RL, Tefft expressed remorse for a lack of progress in helping resolve the conflict in Ukraine, which sent U.S.-Russia relations spiraling down to the worst level since the Cold War.“I’m sorry we didn’t have greater progress in resolving the Ukrainian problem. Because, I think that’s one of the core issues that needs to be addressed,” said Tefft, who came out of retirement to become ambassador after relations plummeted.
The U.S. ambassador said he regrets the suffering caused to families in the conflict that erupted with Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and ongoing support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“I feel, personally, very very bad. Because I’ve been ambassador almost four years in Ukraine. And, I know a lot of Ukrainians personally. And, I know the relationship Russia and Ukraine had and I think it’s a horrible tragedy that what has happened has happened,” said Tefft. “So many people have died and so many families, Russia and Ukraine as nations, different businesses organizations, they have all suffered. I don’t think it needed to happen.”
The Ukraine crisis was sparked when the Kremlin reacted to a pro-European, popular uprising against Russia-backed President Viktor Yanukovych in March 2014 by sending Russian special forces to take over Ukrainian military bases in Crimea. Subsequent Russian military support for Russia-leaning separatists in eastern Ukraine fueled an ongoing conflict with the Ukrainian military that has so far left more than 10,000 people dead.
“The use of force in another sovereign country broke, as I’ve said before many times, broke the fundamental rules of European politics. The EU and the effort to build a Europe whole, free, and at peace, which has been the goal of (the) European Union and successive American presidents, was broken when Russia sent military forces into Crimea,” said Tefft. “The Europeans all have problems where different pieces of land in different countries used to belong to other countries. But, the European policy has been-you don’t use force to try and go back and get those pieces of land.”
The Kremlin responded to Western sanctions over Ukraine with counter-sanctions on Western food products. Sanctions have compounded over allegations of Russian spying and attempts to influence the U.S. 2016 presidential election through cyber hacking.
Tefft said U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said it best when describing the current U.S.-Russia relationship during his April meeting with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow. “He was very very clear, very blunt. He said that, you know, that the relationship is very bad. We have no trust. We need to work on this to improve it. There are some possibilities that are out there. But, we've got to try to work hard to do it. Now, since then we've had some other setbacks,” noted Tefft.
In the latest tit-for-tat, the U.S. closed the Russian consulate in San Francisco and two annexes in Washington, D.C., and New York City after the Kremlin ordered the U.S. Embassy to reduce its staff by 755 personnel. The U.S. was forced to limit non-immigrant visa processing to its Moscow Embassy, slowing down processing times for Russians hoping to visit the U.S.
“We are back open in Moscow. We are not only issuing visas, we are increasing the number of interviews as we've gotten back into this week and seen how we can manage this. It’s not in our interest to prevent people from going to the States,” said Tefft.
“We also want to encourage continued business between the United States and Russia. Yes, there are sanctions but there’s a lot of business going on between our two countries that can and should be encouraged,” added the U.S. ambassador.
WATCH: VOA/RFE/RL Interview with Amb. Tefft
Despite the tensions, there is some positive cooperation going on, said Tefft. “If you look for example at Syria. We have now down in the corner by Jordan and you know, very close to the Golan Heights, an area where we have had for seven weeks a fairly successful ceasefire. I don’t want to make too much out of this because it’s a small piece. But, it’s still something we work on.”
U.S.-Russia cooperation on Syria has been limited as Moscow, along with Tehran, backs Syrian President Bashar al-Assad against Syrian rebels, including some supported by the U.S. While all claim to be fighting against Islamist militants, Russia helped Assad’s forces turn the tide of defeat from Damascus to the rebels.
Mutual accusations of violations on U.S.-Russia arms control measures have further aggravated tensions. The U.S. ambassador told VOA/RFE/RL he hopes talks will soon be convened to address the issues.
“One of the things that has been discussed, and I’m hopeful we will have in the not too distant future, are what we call ‘strategic stability talks.’ These would be talks between Russia and the United States - not just about arms control but about broader strategic kinds of issues that we would like to open up a channel. This was proposed by us back in the last administration – the Obama administration – but it’s my hope that we’ll be able to soon get to the point where we can do that. I think there’s are the kinds of things that can help build confidence, clarify issues, resolve problems.”
Disappointment in Trump
Since Russia’s actions in Ukraine, anti-American sentiment fueled by Kremlin-controlled state media has grown in Russia, posing a challenge to people-to-people relations. Russians are expressing disappointment in President Donald Trump for not fulfilling their expectations of improving U.S.-Russia relations as he said he wanted to do during his campaign. Multiple investigations into Russian connections to the 2016 election and Trump’s campaign have made any step by the U.S. president toward the Kremlin a closely watched political minefield.
WATCH: Tefft on proof Russia hacked US election
Ending the Ukraine conflict will be key to making any major improvements in U.S.-Russia relations, said Tefft.
“And, the issue of Donetsk and Lugansk is going to have to get resolved,” said Tefft, referring to separatist-controlled areas in eastern Ukraine. “And, ultimately, they’re going to have to deal with the situation in Crimea. That’s the big issue in my view. If we can make progress on that, that would perhaps open up some doors to resolving some other things. And, in the meantime, we are doing some cooperation on Syria and hopefully on North Korea.”
“So, the challenge is to move forward,” said Tefft. “I’m very happy that we’re going to have, I think, a very good ambassador to follow me here - Jon Huntsman is a man who is deeply experienced. I think everyone knows he ran for president. But, he has also been ambassador in two countries, one of which is China.
He has been deputy secretary of commerce, he has been a very very successful businessman. And, I think President Trump’s decision to send him here now is a actually a very very good sign.”