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America’s last man standing in Moscow

John Sullivan was barely out of his teens when his uncle William, a Foreign Service officer who served as the last U.S. ambassador in Tehran, was briefly taken captive at his embassy during Iran’s revolutionary tumult in 1979.

Four decades later, Sullivan himself is an American ambassador and under siege in a different, but still eerie, way. He’s in Russia, trying to stop a war, while leading an isolated, barely staffed embassy under constant watch and pressure from the Kremlin.

If history is rhyming, it’s partly because Sullivan’s uncle — whose experience was captured in a Newsweek cover Sullivan proudly displays in his office — deeply impressed upon him the importance of public service and respect for America’s diplomats. Those beliefs are why, even though he was a political appointee of President Donald Trump, Sullivan agreed to stay in Moscow when asked by President Joe Biden.

“It may be passé now, but I was taught that when a president asks an American to serve, only the most compelling excuse can justify a refusal with great remorse,” Sullivan said this weekend in written responses to a series of questions from POLITICO. “And I had no excuse, because I love my job, and I love working with my colleagues at Embassy Moscow.”

Sullivan and his shrunken team are likely to be pushed to their limits in the days ahead. The Biden administration expects that Russian leader Vladimir Putin will soon re-invade Ukraine after amassing more than 150,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. The conflict could be the biggest land war in Europe in decades, and Sullivan is a critical interlocutor in Moscow, even as the Kremlin makes his life harder by the day. He’s the one whom the Russian Foreign Ministry summons when it wishes to air grievances, whose qualifications are questioned in state-run Russian media, or more recently, who is handed written demands from Russia over what it might take to prevent another invasion of Ukraine.

“He’s in an awful position,” said Russia analyst Daniel Fried, who spent decades in the Foreign Service. Sullivan is “surrounded by more official hostility” than any U.S. ambassador in Moscow since George Kennan, whom the Soviet Union kicked out in 1952, Fried said. “Of course, the threat of a war makes it worse.”

‘Row after row of empty cubicles’

Sullivan, who previously served as deputy secretary of State under Trump, is one of a rare species in the U.S. political scene: a moderate with respect from across the political spectrum and within the government bureaucracy.

He’s managed to keep that respect despite having to carry out some uncomfortable tasks, such as telling U.S. diplomat Marie Yovanovitch that Trump was pushing her out as the America’s ambassador to Ukraine, part of a series of incidents that led to Trump’s first impeachment and subsequent acquittal.

“He’s a really good human being,” Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official who advised Trump on Russia, said of Sullivan, echoing many others. “For the Russians, it’s very important to have someone they can talk to. He’s a guy they know. They know he’s a straight shooter.”

When Sullivan took over as ambassador, as Trump began his final year in office, relations between Washington and Moscow were already in a downward spiral, not least due to Russian interference in U.S. elections and despite Trump’s repeated efforts to curry favor with Putin.

The two countries were engaged in tit-for-tat pressure on the other’s embassies, resulting in staff cuts and turnover. Over the past five years, the number of employees at the U.S. embassy has fallen to around 150 from around 1,200, according to Sullivan. Critical embassy functions, including visa processing, have been largely suspended, and some facilities outside Moscow closed.

“The halls and offices of the embassy are mostly quiet today, unfortunately,” Sullivan wrote. “There are entire floors of the embassy that are not occupied — row after row of empty cubicles and long hallways with dark offices on either side.”

One big blow to embassy functions came in 2021, when Russia effectively forced the United States to lay off hundreds of local Russian staffers. There was a reported breakthrough on negotiations about staffing in December, but that agreement appears unlikely to bring the embassy back to its full strength.

“My biggest concern is that our infrastructure is aging, and important systems need to be maintained or replaced, and we can’t get visas from the Russian government for trained personnel to do the work,” Sullivan wrote. “We have had problems with elevators, generators, electrical transformers, fuel tanks, and water pumps. And it is not just a matter of inconvenience. There are real health and safety issues that need to be addressed.”

Russia, meanwhile, has been complaining about a U.S. decision to bar many of its diplomats from staying more than three years in America. Russian officials say their embassy is suffering, pointing out that Russia does not hire Americans to work at its mission and needs diplomats with more experience.

Just days ago, in what the U.S. viewed as retaliation for that measure, the No. 2 official at the U.S. embassy, Bart Gorman, was expelled, leaving Sullivan without a key member of his team. U.S. officials, while criticizing Russia’s actions, say Russia still has more staff at its mission in the United States than America has in Russia.

“If the expulsions by the Russian government continue, it will be very difficult to continue to function safely as an embassy,” Sullivan wrote to POLITICO.

Sullivan has been serving in Moscow without his wife, prominent lawyer Grace Rodriguez, or adult children by his side. The Covid-19 pandemic wrecked their plans for regular visits, and the geopolitical tensions aren’t helping, either.

In the first half of 2021, Sullivan — under pressure from Moscow — returned to the United States for several weeks to consult with Biden administration officials. It was an unofficial expulsion that came after the Kremlin recalled its ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, for roughly three months. The envoys returned to their posts after Biden and Putin held a summit in Geneva last June.

Sullivan lives in Spaso House, which he described as “a beautiful residence not far from the embassy.” It has been the home of America’s top envoy to Moscow for decades.

Still, Sullivan and his dwindling staff always are wary. U.S. diplomats have at times been harassed in Russia, enduring random police stops and even physical assaults, making security all the more important.

Mike Lackey, a longtime friend who worked with Sullivan at the Mayer Brown law firm, said the ambassador seemed like he was living an isolated life. “He likes jogging,” Lackey said of Sullivan. “He’s got this path he runs and diplomatic security services following him. It’s an important release.”

‘It was about him’

In a sign of how much the Biden administration appreciates Sullivan’s willingness to stick around, both White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan — no relation — and Secretary of State Antony Blinken gave POLITICO on-the-record statements praising him.

“We have relied on his wisdom and guidance on Russia since Day One of the Biden administration,” Jake Sullivan said. “He has been instrumental in helping achieve early priorities like extending the New START Treaty to preparing the President’s June meeting with President Putin to dealing with the current Russian threat to Ukraine.”

Blinken described Sullivan as a “trusted adviser” and “gifted leader.” “In an incredibly challenging environment and amid constant actions by the Russian government to undercut his mission, Ambassador Sullivan represents the United States with the utmost professionalism and skill,” the secretary said.

Most new presidents expect political appointees of the previous administration — which usually includes dozens of ambassadors — to resign by their Inauguration Day, and that was true for the most part for Biden. Sullivan, though, was a rare exception.

“We knew from the start that we wanted Sullivan to remain in Moscow,” a senior State Department official said. “He’s the right person, and the post isn’t one that we wanted to see vacant.” When pressed, the official insisted the decision had “nothing to do with other candidates or lack thereof,” but that “it was about him.”

Given efforts by some Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, to block many of Biden’s national security nominees from taking up their posts, Biden’s decision to keep Sullivan in place looks even better in hindsight, his supporters said.

The looming war with Ukraine, which has led the United States and its NATO allies to beef up their own military preparedness, is obviously of huge concern for Sullivan. His duties have included handing over written American responses to Russian security demands related to NATO and Ukraine, which Russia earlier invaded in 2014.

Some foreign affairs observers point out that the U.S. embassy itself isn’t getting nearly as many headlines as it could be, despite the hostility between Washington and Moscow and given state-run Russian media’s penchant for misinformation.

“This has everything to do with John’s leadership — calm, steady, listening to and watching out for his team,” said Stephen Biegun, who took over as deputy secretary of State after Sullivan headed to Moscow.

Sullivan also is passionate about an issue that gets less notice: Russia’s detention of two American citizens, Paul Whelan and Trevor Reed. Whelan was sentenced to 16 years on espionage charges and Reed to nine years on allegations of assaulting police. The United States suspects the Kremlin is holding the pair as bargaining chips.

Hill said Sullivan is determined to get Reed and Whelan released. “He takes this very, very, very seriously,” she said.

Impeachment scars

Sullivan, who is in his early 60s, has worked in both the private and public realms, including as a partner at the Mayer Brown law firm and in top roles at the Pentagon and the Department of Commerce.

His main government positions have been held under Republican presidents, including both Bush administrations. But he chaired a government advisory committee dealing with Iraq during the Democratic administration of Barack Obama.

Sullivan had to walk a particularly fine line during the Trump years, when the State Department came under attack from the president and his aides, who viewed its diplomats as part of a leftist “deep state” determined to thwart their agenda.

Sullivan was generally well-regarded by those diplomats, even though he served as the deputy under two secretaries who were deeply unpopular.

The first, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, was viewed as aloof and dismissive of the career experts in his department. The second, Mike Pompeo, grew steadily less popular over time as he took steps that U.S. diplomats saw as breaking with the tradition that secretaries of State avoid partisan politics. Pompeo, for example, spoke to the Republican National Convention during the 2020 campaign while on a trip to Israel.

Sullivan didn’t emerge unscarred. He was at times the one Pompeo sent to face career diplomats and civil servants angered by the actions of political appointees, some of whom were openly hostile to the career staffers in the department.

It was Sullivan who informed Yovanovitch, the ambassador to Ukraine, that she was being pulled out of the job because Trump wanted her gone. Trump allies, among them former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, had been deriding Yovanovitch as they sought to enlist Ukrainian officials to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter.

Yovanovitch told lawmakers that Sullivan said she “had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause.” He also admitted she’d been the victim of a smear campaign.

Senators grilled Sullivan about this incident when they reviewed his nomination to be ambassador to Russia, one of his most uncomfortable moments in the public eye.
Sullivan implicitly said Trump and his allies were wrong to enlist a foreign government to investigate a political rival, and he praised Yovanovitch’s work. But he also said, that, regardless of the reason, if a president wants an ambassador out, that’s what happens.

He also was evasive on certain matters, enough so that one senator accused him of a “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” approach to his job. Still, he was confirmed as envoy to Russia on a 70-22 bipartisan vote.

Asked how long he intends to stay in Moscow, Sullivan wrote that he “will continue to serve at [Biden’s] pleasure, so long as he is satisfied with the job I am doing.”

He noted that most ambassadors to Russia serve two or three years, and that he’s already served two, so it would not be odd for him to leave later this year. “But I have no plans to do so now and nothing to announce today,” he wrote.

Sullivan wrote that he thinks about his uncle every day.

William Sullivan, who died in 2013, served in the Navy during World War II; his ship, the USS Hambleton, participated in the Normandy invasion. His 32 years in the Foreign Service included serving as ambassador to Laos, where he oversaw a secret bombing campaign, and as ambassador to the Philippines and Iran. He was in Iran in the late 1970s as the country underwent a revolution that ultimately deposed its monarch and left Islamist clerics in power.

On Valentine’s Day in 1979, Sullivan and his aides were taken captive by a group of Iranians who seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The crisis was resolved within hours. But his relations with the White House had grown testy, and William Sullivan left in the months afterward, before the longer Iran hostage crisis that began in November 1979.

“His career has always been an inspiration for me,” John Sullivan said of his uncle. “I am a piker compared to him — he is the real Ambassador Sullivan.”

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