President Donald Trump’s top choice for the next US ambassador to Russia is someone he’d be moving from one tough diplomatic assignment to another: Stephen Biegun, the man who has spent the last year (fruitlessly) trying to strike a nuclear deal with North Korea, is Trump’s likely choice, according to two people familiar with internal White House discussions.
If nominated and confirmed by the Senate, Biegun would take over for Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor who’s been in Moscow since October 2017. He submitted his resignation this week and will leave his post on October 3.
It makes sense that Biegun would get the Moscow nod. A long-time Russia and GOP foreign policy hand, he seems to have earned the trust of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others after becoming the administration’s top North Korea envoy last August, US and foreign officials tell me. However, his belief that a deal is achievable put him at odds with critics of the diplomatic effort, especially with national security adviser John Bolton.
Those tensions within the government, along with the complexities of the issue, didn’t help him make any real advances in improving US-North Korea ties.
In Moscow, Biegun won’t have much easier of a time, if at all.
For all the camaraderie on display in Helsinki last year, Washington and Moscow’s animosity toward one another has only grown over the last few years, and it’s unlikely that the relationship will improve any time soon.
Among other tensions, Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election and US intelligence agencies believe it will do so again in 2020, and both countries are poised to be locked in a potentially ruinous arms race. What’s more, domestic politics in Russia remain turbulent due to weeks of protests against President Vladimir Putin’s mismanagement of the state, underscored by the nation’s continued economic decline.
Still, those that know Biegun say he’s up to the task.
“Steve Biegun would be a solid choice,” says Evelyn Farkas, a top Pentagon official for Ukraine and Russia from 2012 to 2015. “He has a strong background in Russia, having even lived there early in his career, and he is well-known in Washington as a professional.”
“Steve has real expertise and deep knowledge of Russia and the region,” the Brookings Institution’s Alina Polyakova told me. “He would be taking over at a difficult time in the bilateral relationship, to say the least, as the two countries’ interests remain at odds.”
“The most pressing issues on his radar will be the conflict in Ukraine, salvaging the arms control regime, and ensuring that the Kremlin is aware that further cyber-interference in democratic elections will come with consequences,” she continued.
The White House, State Department, and Biegun himself didn’t immediately respond to a request to formally confirm his top-candidate status. And, of course, there’s always a chance Trump changes his mind and selects someone else for the job.
There’s little doubt Biegun would welcome the change of scenery in Moscow, though.
Biegun hasn’t had much success in North Korea
A former top executive at Ford Motor Company, Biegun is known as a serious GOP foreign policy hand, having spent time on George W. Bush’s National Security Council and in Congress as a top adviser on national security issues. But he was always known more as a European security and Russia expert than an Asia scholar, which led some to question why he got the North Korea post in the first place.
He barely met with his counterparts from Pyongyang partly due to the administration’s stance that Kim Jong Un’s regime needed to dismantle large parts of its nuclear arsenal before receiving sanctions relief, while Kim’s regime wanted sanctions lifted before destroying any weapons.
Trump’s hardline stance led Biegun to publicly talk tough about how America would negotiate, prompting experts to believe the administration had little to no chance of actually stopping North Korea’s nuclear progress.
That said, many experts say he learned on the job quickly and did the best he could despite a tough situation.
Critics of Trump’s approach have been proven right lately, as North Korea has tested four sets of missiles in two weeks. And in February, Trump and Kim walked away with no deal after their summit in Hanoi, Vietnam. Biegun was actually sidelined during that meeting, his seat at the negotiating table taken by White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
In Moscow, he’ll still have quite a lot to work on, and the chances of success seem slim at the moment. But as long as he makes more progress on those sets of issues than he did with North Korea, he might consider his time in Russia a success.