MOSCOW - “You can never stage or time things perfectly,” laughs Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia.
He is discussing the controversial phone call President Donald Trump made last week to Vladimir Putin, in which he congratulated the Russian leader on his re-election.
The call surprised White House advisers who’d urged Trump to withhold compliments — it also raised expectations, falsely, in Moscow the United States might not join a coordinated campaign by two dozen Western countries to retaliate for the poisoning of a former Russian spy in Britain that London has blamed on the Kremlin.
In an exclusive interview with VOA appraising where the relationship stands between the U.S. and Russia, Huntsman says Trump has remained consistent in his strategy towards Russia.
“I can tell you that as long as I have discussed Russia with the President, which goes back to when he sat me down and asked me to take this job, he has been very consistent about wanting to engage, notwithstanding our challenges, his desire to engage and keep a dialogue alive and well.”
But he stresses Trump has made it clear "... he expects any kind of engagement and meetings at the head of state level to be based on progress on the issues that matter most. Coming from the private sector, and I have worked for many presidents, Republican and Democrat, he is a results-oriented person. He wants to know where we are going, what’s been done, what kind of progress, for example, on Ukraine and issues like that. He is very much into the results and where the relationship is heading.”
For an ambassador who’s in the eye of a Cold War-style storm, Huntsman remains determinedly upbeat.
He is braced for the Kremlin response to the U.S. decision to expel dozens of Russian diplomats. “I expect they will respond, whether it will be an asymmetrical response or a symmetrical response, we will have to wait to see,” he said.
Hours later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia will expel an equal number of U.S. diplomats.
Huntsman said however the Kremlin reacts, “It is the responsibility of both countries to stay engaged, no matter how difficult these bilateral issues or regional issues become.”
WATCH: US Ambassador to Russia Jon Hunstman on the U.S.-Russia relationship
And to remain engaged in wake of a Russian presidential election Huntsman says bore no relationship to a real poll. “I am not sure you can call it an election,” he says. “I have run for office a few times, and I recognize an election when I see it. When you have got robust debate; you have a fully-engaged media that are talking about the issues that matter the most. I did not hear a lot of dialogue about the issues that are front and center,” he adds.
Huntsman says the confrontation with Russia won’t end even if the Kremlin restricts its retaliation to a proportional tit-for-tat. The issues dividing the West and Russia isn’t only about the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his 33-year-old daughter Yulia.
“It depends on how you define the end-point,” he says. "But clearly a successful outcome would be that Russia steps back from its malign activity and becomes a responsible partner.” He cites Syria as an example, complaining that Russia voted five time on the U.N. Security Council “against investigating chemical weapons abuses by Syria."
Trust in Britain
In his interviews with Russian media, he is asked often why the United States believes Britain that the Russian state was behind the March 4 Skripal assassination attempt.
To VOA he says, “You don’t just decide to believe. We are a grown-up mature democracies. We have robust civil society, we are open, transparent countries, both the United States and the UK. So it is not like you can conduct an investigation without a lot of very interested and probing eyes following the case the entire way. So that is the environment we are operating in. The burden is on the UK to look at the case, to investigate and to come up with their results. And of course there has been some close sharing of information, that is the way these things go with the security services.”
He says people “will learn a lot more as we go forward, I suspect.”
But even in the middle of diplomatic standoff that most veterans liken to some of the lowest points of the Cold War, Huntsman says the United States must stay engaged as best it can, pushing for change and improvements. The relationship is stressed, he says. “For those who say there’s nothing left, nonsense,” he adds.
He says it would be highly irresponsible not to continue engagement with Russia on issues like strategic stability and arms control, peace and stability in the Middle East, and Syria, which he says "... must be brought to an end, both from a conflict standpoint and a creation of a government thereafter.”
But he acknowledges a sudden breakthrough is unrealistic. “Hopes are dashed, relationships crumble, we have seen that over and again. The focus has to be on where our interests overlap and “can come together and begin to forge a dialogue.”