The new American Ambassador to the Russian Federation

Alexander Vershbow, a Democrat, has been replaced as Ambassador of the United States by William Joseph Burns, a Republican. There is no reason to expect any major scandals with the new American Ambassador, and the atmosphere in Russian-American relations will be purely business-like.

Spaso House has a new master. Alexander Vershbow, a Democrat, has been replaced as Ambassador of the United States to the Russian Federation by William Joseph Burns, a Republican, former Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. And since no State Department instructions have ever abolished the role of the individual in diplomacy, there will be some changes in Russian-American relations. There could also be a fundamental change in the business climate at the US Embassy in Moscow, since Vershbow and Burns are very different people.

In the American political elite, Burns is known as a talented diplomat with a promising future. When he was just over 30 and working for the Security Council he organized briefings for Ronald Reagan on the situation in the Middle East. At 39 he made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most promising young global leaders. After that publication Burns was appointed Ambassador to Jordan, from where he returned to the State Department as an assistant (actually deputy) to the Secretary of State for Middle Eastern policy. Even earlier, his calm and collected style had become legendary at the State Department. In the sensitive and high-pressure Middle East situation, Burns managed to win over both the Arabs and the Israelis. He is a true diplomat, say people who know him, and can present even the extremely unpleasant and sensitive issues in a form that is not offensive and does not irritate others. From this standpoint Burns is the opposite of the former American Ambassador to Russia, Vershbow – a master of PR and a very public person. This means a victory for Russian diplomacy, although only a tactical one as yet. At least, there is no reason to expect any major scandals with the new American Ambassador, and the atmosphere in Russian-American relations will be purely business-like.

We have learned that Ambassador Burns’s family has long-standing traditions of state service, closely connected with very sensitive issues in Russian-American relations. His father, a former military man who retired with the rank of general and went into politics, had always been an example for William Burns. Richard Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, has described Burns Sr. as “among the most prominent leaders and politicians who mean so much for this country.” Lugar knew what he was talking about, since General Burns spent many weeks with him and Senator Sam Nunn working on the program for aiding Russia in destroying nuclear warheads and ensuring security in the storage of radioactive materials. Thus, in Russia there are certainly people from the Yeltsin administration, and even the Putin administration, as well as from the military community, who have encountered Burns Sr. personally.

For Burns Jr. Russia is not terra incognita either, since he has worked in Moscow as a political advisor to the American Embassy. He speaks Arabic, French and Russian. Unlike his predecessor, Burns speaks Russian almost fluently. Incidentally, the post of political advisor is the most vulnerable in diplomacy. In the event of a spy scandal, political advisors are the first to be declared persona non grata, because it is semi-officially believed that political advisor is synonymous with a foreign intelligence agent in a country of residence.

But the new American Ambassador to Moscow was never noticed in any shady dealings. At the hearings in the Congress where his appointment was approved, Burns made a strong impression on legislators with his good knowledge of American-Russian relations, not characteristic for the average American diplomat. For instance, Burns believes that good relations with Russia are vital for the US and for the “future world order” because “Russia remains the largest country in the world and this is the largest power comparable to the US in nuclear power and the world’s largest producer of energy resources.” In relations with Russia, Burns sees not only an applied political or economic expediency. According to him, Russians are “a great people, with a history to be proud of, a rich culture and amazing experience of surviving and overcoming almost unimaginable difficulties in the last century and huge potential for development in the next century.” Burns maintains that the US and Russia have many common grounds for expanding and strengthening cooperation. This is activation of international efforts for prevention of nuclear armament dissemination, addition of momentum to negotiations on problems of nuclear weapons of North Korea and coordination of the stance towards the nuclear ambitions of Iran with the US and European Union. Burns advocates World Trade Organization membership for Russia if Russia takes measures to improve protection of intellectual property – measures “necessary not only for WTO accession, but also for protection of Russia’s own long-term economic interests.”

It is probably necessary to expect that Burns will outline his vision of development of the Russian-America relations already in early October at a meeting of the American-Russian business council in Moscow. His first public speech in the rank of ambassador is included into agenda of the meeting. It is likely that then he will repeat the list of the issues causing concern of the current US Administration regarding the Russian affairs. First of all, these are the trends that according to Washington undermine superiority of the law, independence of mass media and courts, role of civil society and non-governmental organizations, as well as confidence of investors. In any case, the main thing is how this will be said.

Criticizing domestic policy of Moscow Vershbow had a ready tongue. It is impossible to expect any sharp statements from his successor. For example, it is impossible to include Burns into the ranks of the chauvinists for whom everything American is the best. This is a rare case for a state official. Nonetheless, he was already noticed to have critical approach to his own country. Even at hearings dedicated to approval of his appointment Burns admitted that American society was far from perfection and that American made a lot of mistakes too.

Moscow did not like the predecessor of Burns very much. The Kremlin and the Foreign Ministry frequently hinted that they did not consider democrat Vershbow a desirable intermediary in the Russian-American dialog primarily due to his personal stance and demonstratively preferred direct discussion of the most important problems with the White House lately.

During the diplomatic mission in Moscow Vershbow often had to parry accusations saying that he was nearly a personal enemy of Russia. He even worked out a stereotype response to this, “I have always expressed American position and point of view of my government” meaning that there was nothing personal in this. Most likely, this is true. However, sometimes Vershbow voiced an official position of Washington much more emotionally than Washington and much more actively. The list of good deeds of Ambassador Vershbow is well known not only in the diplomatic community. He took part in the scandal with import of American chickens. He expressed negative opinion about abolishment of direct gubernatorial elections and about liquidation of single-mandate constituencies in parliamentary elections, as well as about the need to create a system of reporting of authorities to the population in Russia. He also frequently expressed negative opinion about the policy of Russian authorities in Chechnya. Most of all the Kremlin did not like his stance with regard to the YUKOS affair. Probably not a single Russian liberal defended Mikhail Khodorkovsky as zealously as American Vershbow.

It is necessary to pay the due to the diplomat. In explanation of the American position he was indefatigable, for which he deserved sincere gratitude of the Russian journalists. It is much simpler to list the media to which he has refused to give interviews than those that have received such possibility. As a result, the voice of Vershbow was heard even when Russian authorities did not wish to hear it. For example, Vershbow thought that Russian authorities placed geopolitics and politics higher than rational economic logic and did not keep his opinion for himself. Along with this, it is necessary to remark that not only Vershbow but also many ordinary Americans are convinced that the main reason for Russian-American disputes is not in the field of politics but in the field of psychology and these disputes will exist as long as Russia does not understand according to example of, say, Ukraine of Georgia, that there is only one great power in the world in the form of America and it is not humiliating at all to “lay” under it. However, there are reasons to believe that Russia will never understand this. Unwillingness to accept this thought was evidently the main problem of Ambassador Vershbow.

American diplomatic style has always been distinguished because of a certain easiness. In general it is possible to represent it in the following way. There are only two standpoints in the world: one is American and the other one is wrong. Vershbow would not be a 100% American if he thought differently. At any rate, times are changing. The Bush Administration has enough problems now. First of all, this is the unstopping war in Iraq, political consequences of Hurricane Katrina and such commonplace thing as gasoline price that can bury the hopes of the Republican Party to remain in power after the next elections. By and large, the White House is too busy to keep quarreling with the Kremlin about promotion of democracy in the post-Soviet space including Russia itself. Of course, polemics on this topic will continue but it will be less heated. Burns will be quite handy for this.

Speaking to the Congress he did not say a word about the “color revolutions” in the former Soviet republics and about the disputes with Moscow about this. The view of Burs on Russia corresponds to the point of view of the most pragmatic part of the team of Bush. In general, it consists of two points. First, Russia is the only country in the world that can destroy the US in the military field. Second, this is the largest source of energy resources without which it is impossible to provide for energy security of America. This means that it is better to be friends with Moscow regardless of petty differences like consequences of the “orange revolution” in Ukraine. This friendship already starts working. The first tanker of Gazprom with liquefied natural gas reached the coasts of the US recently. Incidentally, this event occurred already after dismissal of Vershbow, which was very revealing in itself. During the office of the previous Ambassador the so-called energy dialog between Russia and the US was confined rather to mutual accusations of its sabotage. Thus, changing of the tenant of Spaso House promises to add stability and predictability to relations between the two countries.

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