The pair haven’t had a conversation since just before Antonov departed for Washington in 2017, the envoy admits. They haven’t spoken even in recent weeks as Russia has waged full-on war in Ukraine — a “special military operation” as Antonov dutifully calls it, in line with Kremlin demands — that has pushed U.S.-Russian ties to a breaking point.
Antonov downplays his disconnect with Putin as simply the way the Russian system works, stressing that he has a direct line to the Kremlin, if not the Kremlin boss.
But what about the growing number of cold shoulders in Washington, a city that has never truly welcomed him? It is unwise, foolish, he insists, to shut out the ambassador of a country with which the United States is “doomed to cooperate” on everything from nuclear non-proliferation to climate change.
“Frankly, we are in a blockade,” Antonov says of himself and his increasingly empty embassy. “When I came to Washington, my idea was to use the word ‘improvement’” to describe his goals for the relationship,” Antonov said. “Now I prefer to use the word ‘stabilization.’” He smiles when the word “survival” is suggested instead.
In an exclusive interview with POLITICO — conducted last week in the ornate Ukrainian Room of the Russian embassy over tea, ice cream and pastries cooked by a beloved chef the U.S. is soon to kick out — Antonov is by turns charming and unbending, with a riposte for every question that challenges the Kremlin’s official position.
The ambassador dismisses the idea that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is failing, decries growing “Russophobia,” and bemoans a post-Soviet world in which Russia was “naive,” trusted the West and saw its standing erode.
But he also admits that Ukraine is a separate country from Russia, with a right to be sovereign, although he’s not sure how long that can or should last. After all, he says, Russia’s goal is much grander than reining in its neighbor. It’s about preventing the domination of the world by any one country.
“It’s a very narrow approach to say the ‘Russian invasion of Ukraine,’” Antonov said. “We are talking about changing the world order that was created by the United States, by NATO countries after the dissolution of the Soviet Union.”
When told that perhaps his current lack of popularity in Washington is due to his unwillingness to acknowledge the realities about what Russia is doing to Ukraine, Antonov refers to the adage: “Every coin has two sides.” In other words, he has his own facts he’d like Americans to consider.
“I am not trying to dissuade you. I would like you to look,” he said, at one point handing over a set of folders thick with op-eds, statements and images promoting Kremlin talking points about the Ukraine crisis. “It’s up to you to decide whether Russian ambassador is providing you with fake news.”
‘A difficult relationship’
Let’s quickly dispatch with some of Antonov’s assertions.
Moscow is not waging an unprovoked war on Ukraine, an independent country with a democratically elected government led by a Jewish man, Antonov said. Instead, he says, Russia is carrying out a “special military operation” to purge Ukraine of Nazis and other bad actors and ensure that the country is not a staging ground for NATO or other outfits that Moscow sees as a threat.
Have Russian troops massacred civilians in places such as Bucha, a suburb of the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv? No, Antonov says, providing material in which Russian officials question the timeline behind those killings.
Have Russian forces used chemical weapons since the invasion began on Feb. 24? Of course not, Antonov insists about the latest suspicions.
Isn’t the Russian operation failing at every turn? After all, not only have Russian troops been pushed out of key areas in Ukraine, but the Kremlin just lost a warship and now Sweden and Finland are seriously considering joining NATO.
Please, Antonov replies, no military operation goes perfectly.
And what about Antonov’s claim, on CBS News’ Face the Nation, just a few days before Russia attacked Ukraine, that “there is no invasion, and there is no such plans.” The ambassador says he was alluding to “fake news” that an invasion had already begun, specifically Bloomberg News’ premature publication of a Russia invasion headline earlier in the month.
A thin, balding 66-year-old often seen in a blue suit and rust-red tie, Antonov is considered a hardliner in the Russian system, and his long experience includes negotiating nuclear arms treaties. Serving as ambassador to Washington may prove the most thankless task he’s ever had.
When Antonov first arrived in the second half of 2017, it was as controversy was billowing over Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election that vaulted Donald Trump to the White House. Few people wanted to be seen with Antonov, and he complained that he couldn’t get meetings on Capitol Hill.
Nonetheless, he doubled down on public outreach. His embassy hosted movie screenings, jazz concerts and other cultural events. It even launched a now-defunct podcast to reach Americans, while Antonov showed up at the occasional think tank event and made appearances beyond the U.S. capital. Through all this, he stuck to Kremlin talking points — denying any Russian role in subverting the U.S. election, for one.
Despite his efforts, the U.S.-Russian relationship continued on a downward slide that had preceded Antonov, even as Trump personally made friendly overtures to Putin. Both countries took tit-for-tat steps expelling each other’s diplomats, imposing sanctions and forcing closures of consulates. The Covid-19 pandemic further curtailed Antonov and his embassy’s activities.
The U.S. Embassy in Moscow – which relied heavily on local Russian staffers – has seen its employee count fall from roughly 1,200 people to around 130. The Russian Embassy in Washington, which generally does not employ Americans, has around 170 diplomats and staff left at the moment. Since May 2021, around 100 employees have been expelled or will soon be pushed out, embassy officials estimated.
Around two dozen of those departing employees — including the chef — are due to leave by late June. “What kind of problems my cook can create for security of United States if he stays here?” Antonov asks.
The Russian envoy notes, with relief, that neither country has severed diplomatic relations. The Russian embassy maintains what he describes as “technical” — or lower-level — contacts with the administration of President Joe Biden. But he bemoans a dearth of engagements with senior administration officials, and he says his letters to U.S. representatives and senators seeking meetings since Biden’s election have been met with rejections.
This can’t continue forever, he says.
“We are doomed to cooperate on various issues,” Antonov said. “It’s impossible to imagine even under such circumstances that problems of strategic stability, climate change, coronavirus, fighting against terrorism, fighting against the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction could be solved without active engagement of the United States and Russia.”
Spokespersons for the White House-based National Security Council did not offer comment despite repeated questions about contacts with Antonov and his embassy.
The State Department was somewhat more helpful, with a spokesperson saying: “The Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs maintains diplomatic communications with the Russian Embassy in D.C. It’s a difficult relationship, but the lines of communication remain open.”
It’s tricky to keep a distance in Washington from the main representative of one of the world’s largest nuclear powers, but there are downsides to engaging him, former U.S. officials and analysts say.
For one thing, it could damage a person’s reputation in foreign policy circles to be seen as being in conversation with Antonov given widespread bipartisan anger over Putin’s invasion of Ukraine.
(This, of course, depends on your political leanings. Antonov was a featured speaker earlier this month at a conference organized by the Schiller Institute, a body with links to the late fringe politician Lyndon LaRouche.)
Among current and former U.S. officials there’s also a sense that Antonov — or any Russian ambassador — has little influence in the Kremlin. The Russian foreign ministry, perhaps even the wily Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, seems sidelined when it comes to decision-making on Ukraine. It’s not even clear how much influence Russian security officials have with Putin, the only one who counts.
“At this point, I don’t think anyone really thinks he’s a proxy for Moscow,” Gavin Wilde, a former National Security Council official who dealt with Russia, said of Antonov. “Why give him a platform to troll?”
In 2021, after Biden took over the U.S. presidency and labeled Putin as a “killer” in an interview, Moscow recalled Antonov for roughly three months. The U.S. ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan, was also nudged out of Russia for much of that same period.
The men returned to their posts after Biden and Putin held a summit in Geneva in June 2021. Antonov, whose family is not with him in the United States, was quoted as saying at the time that he was in an “optimistic mood.” He likely had no idea what Putin had in mind for Ukraine.
When pressed on his lack of a single conversation with Putin in over four years, Antonov says this is normal. “I have had enough conversations with senior officials in the Kremlin, in various agencies,” he said. “We have a different system.” Has he even had a phone conversation with Putin since becoming ambassador? “To give an opportunity to FBI to listen to everything what Mr. Putin could say [to] me?” Antonov asks, exasperated.
Despite the lack of contact with Putin, Antonov dismisses reports that the longtime Russian ruler is increasingly isolated and being fed bad or too little information.
“He knows everything,” Antonov said. “He is able to study thoroughly each report that he gets from various services, and, just only after thoroughly studying these reports, he makes decisions taking into account the members of the security council of the Russian Federation.”
Antonov can be surprisingly frank about some aspects of Russian and Ukrainian life and history.
He admits that post-Soviet Russia could have done more to diversify and develop its economy, which is largely dependent on the energy sector. “We have excellent resources, and of course we have to use them for our internal development,” Antonov said. At the same time, he says Russians were naive to trust American promises on economic and military fronts.
He points to reports that American institutions are shunning Russian artists as an example of growing Russophobia. “How is it possible to cancel Pushkin, Tchaikovsky?” he said. “I don’t understand how it is possible to delete any reference to Russia everywhere.”
He says he’s upset when he sees “crying people” and “bodies on the streets” when watching the news from Ukraine. “It goes without saying that war is not a good thing for United States, for Ukraine and for Russia,” he said.
But he agrees with Putin’s belief that the dissolution of the Soviet Union was a tragedy. And he repeatedly points to foreign policy luminary Henry Kissinger’s realist argument on the importance of recognizing other countries’ national interests, not merely one’s own values or ideals, in crafting foreign policy.
“We made a lot of mistakes on the international scene,” Antonov said of Russia. “We trusted the United States that we could become a real partner.”
On that same front, he expresses anger about the heavy U.S. sanctions imposed on Russia. “You steal our money,” he said. “We decided to keep our money, our savings” in American and European banks. Now, with the sanctions, “how is it possible to trust you?”
Facts and factotums
With no end in sight to the war in Ukraine, some U.S. foreign policy hands said there could be value to quiet sessions with Antonov.
His lengthy resume indicates that he has contacts across the Russian government, including its intelligence services, and he could serve as a reliable behind-the-scenes messenger, said Rose Gottemoeller, a former senior U.S. official who dealt with Antonov extensively when the pair were negotiating the New START nuclear arms treaty.
“He’s not just a factotum at this point with no useful purpose,” she said.
A Russia analyst who has met with Antonov since the war began, and who requested anonymity to speak about sensitive conversations, said the envoy seems to realize that “the risk of something really nasty happening in the relationship has increased significantly over the past six or seven weeks because of this conflict.”
“Quite frankly,” the analyst added, “he doesn’t know how things are going to turn out, because he doesn’t know what Moscow’s next steps are going to be.”
Asked if Ukraine is a separate country from Russia — something that Putin himself has cast doubt upon — Antonov said “yes.” Asked if it should remain a separate country, he said, “You’ll see that I don’t know what will be in the future.”
“It seems to me that Ukraine has a right to be sovereign country,” he adds, “but, having said that, I’d like to draw your attention to our aims of the special military operation. We don’t want to see any threat coming from that territory. We don’t want this country to become a member of NATO. We don’t want the United States or other NATO countries to use this territory against the Russian Federation.”
The ambassador dismisses the standard lines that NATO is a defensive alliance that doesn’t threaten Moscow or that the West is not trying to keep Russia weak. He points to U.S. withdrawals from various arms control treaties — including ones U.S. officials said Russia was violating — as an example of how Washington in particular cannot be trusted.
But now, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, why should the world trust Russia?
“You have to decide who we are for you,” Antonov said. “Whether we are partner for you, whether we are rival for you, whether we are opponent, or I don’t want even to use this word, ‘enemy.’”
“As for me, I’m still sure we should be partners,” he adds. “Previously, I would say that we are partners. Now we are not partners. It’s a pity.”