America’s Top Diplomat in Russia Has One of the World’s Toughest Jobs

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ann M. Simmons headlined “America’s Top Diplomat in Russia Has One of the World’s Toughest Jobs”:

The moment when ambassadors present their credentials to their hosts is usually a staid affair. There could be a little chitchat. Some courtesies might be exchanged.

When the U.S. ambassador presented herself at the Kremlin in April, Russian President Vladimir Putin railed at Washington during the televised ceremony, accusing it of sparking the war in Ukraine. With Putin set off behind a podium at the other end of the Alexander Hall, there was no way for Lynne Tracy or the other new ambassadors to respond.

It was, she thought, a glimpse of how hard her new job might be.

“I think it’s a larger reflection of where we are these days in Russia that there is almost absolutely no space for dissent,” said Tracy, a career diplomat whose assignments in Russia with the State Department date back to the 1980s. “What we’ve seen is unfortunately Russia going backward. Where we are now feels like a level of repression that I certainly don’t recall seeing in the times or the experience that I’ve had with Russia or the Soviet Union.”

Relations between the U.S. and Moscow have rarely been as tense as they are now. Not since the worst days of the Cold War has there been as much animosity. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year, the U.S. has imposed sanctions, export controls, oil embargoes and price caps to deter the Kremlin from pursuing its campaign.

“The very difficult state of the U.S.-Russia relationship, really the deterioration, is directly attributable to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine,” Tracy said, speaking in a recent interview from Moscow.

Russia has responded to the U.S. measures by accusing the West of forcing the conflict by pushing the enlargement of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization up to Russia’s borders. At home, dissidents have been convicted on what critics say are phony charges and sentenced to lengthy terms. Journalists have been arrested, including The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, a U.S. citizen accredited to work in Russia who was detained on an espionage charge during a reporting trip in March. He, the Journal and the U.S. government vehemently deny the allegation.

A week after Tracy began her posting in January, the Russian Foreign Ministry sent her a note demanding that the U.S. Embassy stop interfering in Russia’s internal affairs. The state news agency, TASS, reported that the ministry warned American diplomats against “attempts to carry out subversive work, recruiting agents of influence, with the aim of sowing discord in Russian society, and inciting anti-state protests.”

Two weeks later, the ministry summoned Tracy to protest the U.S.’s move to provide weapons to the government in Kyiv and demand the U.S. and NATO withdraw from Ukraine, according to the foreign ministry website.

Tracy has been summoned to the Foreign Ministry at various other times since then, notably after she condemned the 25-year prison sentence given to dissident and journalist Vladimir Kara-Murza, a dual Russian-British national, and, according to the ministry’s website, voiced support for his right to disagree with the Russian government.

Since the start of the war in Ukraine, Russian authorities have moved quickly to tamp down any criticism, often branding opposition groups or anyone else speaking out as “foreign agents” or “undesirables” for receiving overseas funding or support. Independent media has largely been shut down while prominent figures already in jail, notably opposition politician Alexei Navalny, have been sentenced to longer prison terms.

“It’s just a sign of weakness to shut down voices of disagreement—honest disagreement, constructive disagreement, disagreement that is guaranteed [under] freedom of speech,” Tracy said in the interview with the Journal.

Her outspokenness has ruffled feathers at times. In April, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Moscow city government-owned weekly newspaper, Argumenty i Fakty, that dialogue with the U.S. Embassy was difficult, with very few areas of consensus, “if they exist at all.”

“Tussling, exchanging jabs and mutual grievances are now the norm,” Ryabkov said. “We clash both publicly and behind closed doors.”

But he gave Tracy credit for having “relevant experience” of working in Russia. She first worked as a contractor in the embassy’s consular section in the late 1980s during the Soviet era, later returning as deputy chief of mission between 2014 and 2017. She has been a senior adviser for Russia affairs in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs at the U.S. Department of State, and most recently she served as ambassador to Armenia, a former Soviet republic.

Still, tasks as seemingly mundane as ensuring adequate staffing at the embassy or simply traveling around Russia—the basic mechanics of diplomatic work—are a challenge.

Tit-for-tat expulsions have reduced staffing numbers of diplomats in both Moscow and Washington. Tracy wouldn’t divulge the number of employees currently at the U.S. mission in Moscow. Her predecessor, John Sullivan, said in May last year that around 130 personnel remained, compared with some 1,200 five years prior, and that almost half of those remaining were U.S. Marines and other security staff.

Tracy has also found it difficult to go out and meet ordinary Russians, something she sees as an important part of her work.

She recalled how when she served as the embassy’s deputy chief of mission, she traveled extensively, including to the cities of St. Petersburg, Veliky Novgorod, Yekaterinburg, Perm, Chelyabinsk, Vladivostok, Sakhalin Island and Yakutsk.

She managed to return to Yakutsk, in eastern Siberia, in March this year, where she was hosted by the local Rotary Club, she said. But such trips are now few and far between. In the past year or so, the Russians have increasingly been making it difficult for certain embassy personnel to travel, “not just officially, but even for personal travel,” she said.

An embassy spokesman said that while Tracy doesn’t have specific travel restrictions as ambassador, the embassy staffers who would typically facilitate the connections outside Moscow, or who support Tracy while she travels, are under constraints. They need to get approval from the Russian Foreign Ministry to go beyond a 25-mile radius from the Kremlin and such travel requests are often denied, he said. Russian diplomats in the U.S. face similar restrictions, he said.

The Russian government didn’t respond to a request for comment.

“Sadly, in the present climate, the restrictions on travel and the environment of repression make that kind of trip and contact almost unimaginable and really underscores what is being lost as the Russian government seems determined to isolate its citizens and take them backward rather than forward,” Tracy said, referring to her recent Yakutsk trip.

Other bones of contention have included access to detained Americans, including two whom the U.S. government considers to be wrongfully detained: the Journal reporter, Gershkovich, and businessman Paul Whelan, who is serving a 16-year sentence on an espionage conviction that he, his family and the U.S. government say is bogus.

Tracy said the situation regarding consular access is improving, at least for Gershkovich, who is being held in pretrial detention at Lefortovo prison in Moscow until at least Nov. 30.

“I would say we have settled into a fairly regular rhythm of once a month and fairly good notification about or confirmation of our access being granted,” Tracy said.

Still, she said the jailing of Gershkovich and Whelan shows Russia is willing to use innocent civilians as leverage.

“I think what’s sad is that we see Russia treating these citizens, ordinary citizens, as pawns in some larger game that they’re playing, but it’s no game,” Tracy said. “These are their lives. I think this is really a strategy, an approach of desperation when you’re out nabbing an innocent journalist or throwing into jail a businessman who was here on just more or less a holiday.”

Another American journalist, dual U.S.-Russian national Alsu Kurmasheva, was arrested this month. An editor with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty who normally lives in Prague, Kurmasheva was detained on Oct. 18 during a family visit to Russia. Her employer said she was held for failing to register as a foreign agent, and she was formally arrested on Oct. 23 and ordered to remain in pretrial detention until Dec. 5.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov has rejected the assertion that Russia is playing politics with innocent Americans and intentionally targeting U.S. nationals.

Following Kurmasheva’s detention, he told reporters that appropriate measures are taken against those who violate the law. Russia’s Foreign Ministry has said that Russia adheres to its legal system when dealing with detainees, no matter their nationality.

As the friction points multiply, though, arguably the biggest task facing Tracy is to keep the door open for dialogue.

That can be easier said than done. Expulsions of lower-ranked diplomatic staff from both sides have been relatively commonplace over the years, while at times both the U.S. and Russia have recalled their ambassadors. America pulled its representative out of Moscow in 1980 after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Russia withdrew its ambassador from Washington after U.S. airstrikes on Iraq in 1998, and in 2021, after the U.S. accused Moscow of interfering in the 2020 presidential election.

“The importance of maintaining a channel of communication remains one of our highest priorities here,” Tracy said. “It is very focused on topics of the most immediate concern. But the channel of communication is there and we want to keep it open just to ensure that we don’t misunderstand each other or miscalculate.”

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