Former US Ambassador Tefft: the war situation has further alienated the Russian government from the population

John F Tefft, at the conference. Photo by Jonas Petronis
John F Tefft, at the conference. Photo by Jonas Petronis

Former Ambassador John F. Tefft, visiting from the United States for Leonid Donsky’s 6th conference “Will Russia Survive 2024?”, says that Russia’s fate is difficult to predict and depends on the outcome of the war. The key point, he said, is that President Putin dreams of restoring the Russian Empire, while Ukraine wants to be an independent state, part of the European Union. These are two very different positions, and therefore there is little reason for negotiations at the moment.

“I think the Biden administration’s position is quite clear, and the President talks about it every day. In times of war, Ukraine is openly supported, and Russia is openly condemned. Even in our political system, which is questioning whether we can afford to continue to support Ukraine financially, the majority is against Russia,” says Tefft, who has served as US ambassador to Russia, Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania, Brigita Dyburytė wrote.

You will attend the 6th Leonidas Donskis conference, which focuses on the future of Russia. How do you personally see the future of Russia?

Well, the Russian invasion of Ukraine that was launched by President Putin has changed so many of the conceptions that I think all of us have. I think it makes it harder to predict exactly what the future of Russia will be because a lot of that will be influenced by how the war, which continues unabated as we all know, actually turns out. It will have a propounded influence not just on Russia’s internal politics and its economy but also on its international standing. In addition, however, this war ends, it will have an impact on Russia in ways that we can’t fully comprehend at this point because we are right in the middle of this horrible war of aggression that Russia has launched against Ukraine.

You served as an ambassador in Russia, how did you see the situation, and connection between government and society there?

I served not only as an ambassador to Russia but I also as an ambassador in Ukraine. Therefore, I have a particular advantage point on this, and I try to understand both societies. When I was in Russia, from 2014 to 2017, I got there about six months after Russia launched its first invasion of Ukraine, taking Crimea and annexing it illegally and launching the subversion in Donbass region which by the time I got there ten thousand people had died in eastern Ukraine in Donetsk and Lugansk regions. You could already see in Russia strains of great support of taking back Crimea among the Russian population but there were people who thought that this was a very bad approach of the state. Not the least of them was Borris Nemcov, who you remember was murdered in the shadows of the walls of the Kremlin. He was working on a project, basically saying that this was wrong- Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. He was a fairly lone voice in those days, but he was a prophetic voice. I think, if anything, the situation with the war has further estranged the Russian government from the population. You have different estimates of a million Russians having fled the country, both out of political opposition and also the people who didn’t want to serve in this war and fled to neighbouring countries, including Lithuania. So, I think, if anything, the situation has gotten more tense as the aggression of the government has become more pronounced. The connection between society and Russia is restrained, and even those who outwardly support or don’t comment on the war, we know from different analyses and commentaries that those people have questions about the course of the war and choices made by the government.

During your tenure as the US ambassador to Russia, there were significant diplomatic tensions between the two countries. Can you describe a particularly challenging moment in your role and how you worked to maintain open lines of communication and diplomacy with Russian officials?

I tried in Russia, as I tried everywhere I went during my career, to be a very professional diplomat. My job was really three goals- one, I was to represent my country, the United States ambassador abroad is literally the representative of the president of the United States, but I also was representing the American people and the values that the US held core. When I got to Moscow in September of 2014, our relationship was already very strained because Putin had invaded and annexed Crimea, and the war was waging, as I said in the Donbas.

The West had put sanctions on Russia, so it was an already strained situation. Russia had really nothing to sanction the US with, so they took it out on the embassy- not just the American embassy, but also on some West European and EU member embassies. They harassed us, and they did a lot of other things that were really in violation of our work, and they made life as difficult as possible for professional diplomats to do their job inside Russia, consistent with the Geneva conventions. We did our very best to report on what was going on inside Russia, and we did our best to make sure that the Russian government understood the positions that the administration of the United States administration had. It was mainly in the Obama administration, but I was also there for the first eight months of the Trump administration before I retired.

The other thing we did was we tried as much as we could to reach out to the Russian people. I travel a lot, I was in a lot of places inside Russia, and we did representational activities in different places, everything from concerts which we held not just in Moscow but also in many regional cities with American performers. We tried to keep alive as much as we could, the idea that the United States was engaged with the Russian people. We sent out speakers to try and lay out American positions. In short, we tried to represent the US and its values as much as we could despite the really deep strains in our bilateral relationship with the government.

How do American authorities see Russia nowadays? Do you have a lot to explain as a person who has lived in Russia and had many connections with Russian people?

I think Biden’s administration’s position is quite clear; the president speaks about this every day. We support Ukraine during this war, we think it is a war of aggression, illegal, and it is really horrific, as I said, and the administration is doing everything it can to support that. There is broad support for Ukraine for this war, and there is a broad condemnation of Russia. Even those in our political system who are questioning whether we can afford to keep supporting Ukraine financially, most of them are against Russia. As I travel my own country to give speeches and as I talk to people in different places and family in the Mid-West, people are appalled by what Russia has done- the American people are appalled. We went down with our daughter and her family to South Carolina to the beach this last summer, and you see signs and Ukrainian flags all over the place. This is perceived, I think, by the American people as a horrible thing, and the opposition to the war as well as to the Russian government for prosecuting this war, is very strong and it will remain strong.

What, in your opinion, is American Authorities’ stance towards solving the conflict? Would they encourage diplomatic efforts or support Ukraine’s decision to defend its lands further without any compromise?

As to American authorities’ stance on Ukraine’s further actions, I think the administration is clear on this as well as Senior American politicians- that Russia invaded Ukraine illegally, breaking all kinds of agreements and that the war is going on and people are supporting Ukraine. At this point, there is no basis, as far as I can tell, for any serious negotiation. Putin wants to start with acceptance of the annexation of core provinces that he did on September 30th last year and say, “We’ll negotiate from that base”. Ukraine is fully refusing, and President Zelensky has made it very clear, including this past week that I was seeing in the papers, that there is no basis for negotiating. So I don’t think that the administration of the United States is in a position to try and force some kind of negotiation as there are no chances of success. Additionally, it would be against the will of the Ukrainian people. I urge your readers to take a look at the “New York Times” article by Tom Freedman, their veteran foreign policy correspondent, who was just in Ukraine attending the Yalta European Strategy conference. He makes it quite clear that while Ukrainians are exhausted and understand the cost of this war, nobody wants to let Russia take chunks of land. They are going to continue to fight. Therefore, I think as long as that’s the case, you’ll see the administration maintain the position that it has right now.

The conflict in Ukraine has been ongoing for several years, with significant political, military, and humanitarian consequences. From your perspective, what are the key underlying factors contributing to the conflict, and how do you envision a sustainable path toward peace and stability in the region?

Well I think the fundamental point here is that President Putin and those around him have this dream of restoring the Russian Empire, and that’s at the fundamental root of this. I still don’t see how you can try to find the basis for that as long as that remains the objective. You have two conflicting goals here- one, Russia doesn’t recognize the Ukrainian state despite it having 30 years of new independence since 1991. It wants to retake back and control that area and if it can’t, it seems to be intent on destroying as much as it can.  And Ukraine wants to be an independent nation- a part of the European body. They want to be a part of a Europol and at peace. Therefore, you’ve got these two hypothetical positions right now, and I just don’t see that, at this point, there’s much basis for negotiation. I don’t see that Vladimir Putin is going to change his position. We can see that he’s all in on this strategy, and I think he sees this as a war of attrition- that if he just hangs on somehow, Ukraine or the West will give up, but I don’t see that happening either. The longer he does this, the more determined people are in Ukraine, as I understand it. Also, I think certain people in Europe and the United States believe that this is a critical moment in the history of Western Europe. Take a look again, as I said in Tom Freedman’s piece – it’s a very good analysis of what people think in Ukraine, but also leaders who were at this conference with him and what they said.

Sanctions have been a key tool in the international response to the Ukraine crisis, targeting Russia. Can you discuss the effectiveness of sanctions in influencing Russian behaviour and what potential diplomatic strategies should be considered to complement or replace them in resolving the conflict?

I think sanctions are not a quick foreign policy tool. I learned a valuable lesson when I was a young foreign service officer back in the 1970s. I worked in the office of the UN political affairs, and I was responsible for sanctions that we had against Southern Rhodesia, which was in the process of trying to become an independent Zimbabwe which it did, but also sanctions for South Africa against apartheid.  We had those sanctions for some time, and they did slowly and clearly erode the basis of the economy. This eventually led the South African government, under Mr. Bolta, to make radical changes- apartheid came down. I learned the lesson working on these issues that it takes a while- sanctions are a slow instrument. I think sometimes, in the public domain, people have the sense that if you impose sanctions, you bring the country to its knees, well you don’t do that in general, but I think you don’t do it toward Russia.

That being said, the articles that I read, especially by people who live in Russia, indicate that the sanctions are having an effect. We all know that inflation has spiked, and the Central Bank has raised interest rates to be able to try to contain inflationary pressures- therefore, they are having an impact. Clearly, sanctioned evasion is a major preoccupation- there are lots of stories in the press about tech items being smuggled in from other countries. Additionally, the US administration keeps at it. Just this morning, I read an article about new sanctions that the administration has put on different Russian economic entities to try to stem some of these, and they go after people who are violating the sanctions. So, I think they are having an effect, but Russia is a big country with lots of resources and lots of capabilities to evade sanctions, so it’s going to take some time. I think as steady as it goes, they keep finding areas where there are problems and then trying to tighten up the sanctions where possible.

Many individuals draw inspiration and motivation from role models or mentors in their field. Could you tell us about someone who has had a profound influence on your career and the valuable lessons or guidance they provided?

I would mention two. When I joined the Soviet desk for the first time in to State Department back in 1983, the head of the desk was a fellow named Tom Simons, who became ambassador in Poland and in Pakistan. He was a very able diplomat, and he taught me a lot about how you should try to deal with Russia. He developed a specific system or policy framework for dealing with the Russian government. This was in the wake of Afghanistan, and also, the week after I arrived at the Soviet desk, the Soviet Air Force had shot down the Korean airline killing 275 people.

We had a policy where we stayed engaged and talked to the Russians even if sanctions were still in place, even as we opposed Russian efforts to strong-arm Europe to try to block the employment of intermediate-range nuclear forces, and it was a policy that eventually worked. Tom was a brilliant foreign service officer- he’s still alive, still working at Harvard University. He taught me a lot- both how to deal with the Soviet Union Russia but also how to conduct myself as a foreign service officer, he was a brilliant man. The second man is the fellow who became our deputy ambassador in Moscow in 1990, his name’s Jim Holmes. He eventually went on to be ambassador to Russia, and I was his deputy from 1997 to 1999. He was a man who had served three times in Russia. he had an academic background, but it wasn’t the academic background that struck me. He knew the Russian language well; he knew the Russian people well- he had a real sense of how Russian people reacted to things and how the Russian government would react to things. He was a brilliant diplomat who had, as one of my friends said, “a real feel for Russia”. It wasn’t just reading books- he understood it from a personal standpoint, and he taught me a lot of things I could go on for a long time, giving you examples, but he taught me a lot of things about how to work inside Russia. Which helped me both as a deputy ambassador, but then again, when I came back in 2014 as the ambassador, a lot of things I learned from him I was able to apply in a difficult time- it was a tough period for US-Russian relations.

Throughout your career, what have been the most significant lessons you’ve learned or experiences that have shaped your approach to your work? Can you share an example of a pivotal moment and its impact on your professional development?

That is a hard question because there were a lot of pivotal moments. The first pivotal moment was just joining the Soviet desk. I’d always wanted to do that, and I was not trained at the University as a Soviet scholar or as a specialist in this, but I had an interest in arms control. Also, I had a sense that I wanted to do something if not to bring a more peaceful world, then to manage that very dangerous relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union- with lots of nuclear missiles pointing at each other, conflicts over a lot of regional issues and a fundamental difference over human rights, over the value of the human person versus the State. I saw that goal from the very beginning, and it continued throughout my career.

When I was an ambassador, one of the main pivotal moments was the murder of Boris Nemtsov. I don’t think it surprised me too much because I had a pretty good sense of the circumstances- I have worked in Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine, and I had a pretty good sense of things, and I followed things in Russia. Still, I think the night that Boris Nemtsov was murdered was really one of those shocking moments. I had gone to sleep; I was tired, and my wife was up watching CNN, and she saw on the TV that Nemtsov had been murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin, and that woke me up. I got up the next morning, and I told my staff we were going to go down to the bridge where he was shot. We moved quickly, and I think at 10 in the morning, I took a bouquet of flowers, and I walked out on the bridge with my staff, and there were thousands of Russians who were outraged by this event. So, I put the flowers down and bowed my head, said a little prayer and then I gave a short statement on behalf of the United States and the President. It was one of those moments that just kind of crystallized for me what Russia had become.

We didn’t know who actually had done it, but it was hard to believe that Nemtsov was murdered in the shadow of the Kremlin with all the cameras and security without somebody in the system acknowledging this or letting it happen. It also showed the stance of the Russian people. I went to the funeral that they had, and I saw a lot of Russians, including officials and business people and others- this huge turnout of Russian people that came to honour the memory of this very courageous man. This is one of those events that will be forever embedded in my memory and will always be a symbol of what Russia has become, sadly. Because Boris was one of those guys who always looked to the future and hoped for the better. I think he remains an inspiration for lots of Russians obviously, but also for people who care about Russia deeply and want to see it become the kind of democracy as a part of Europe and at peace.

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