Mr. Huntsman goes to Moscow

Mar 09 2017

President Donald Trump has chosen Jon Huntsman to represent the United States as  Ambassador to the Russian Federation.

Huntsman has an extensive record in public service. He served two terms as Governor of the state of Utah and was Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China under President Obama. He also briefly ran for president in 2012, but failed to gain much traction.

Governor Huntsman’s acceptance of this post comes at a time when the relations between the United States and Russian Federation are at a massively important and controversial crossroad.

In the primaries, Trump raised many eyebrows when he claimed that he’d “be friends with” President Vladimir Putin. This came as a considerable surprise when Congressional Republicans and Democrats were nearly unanimous in their support of the sanctions levied against the Kremlin for its actions in Eastern Ukraine, as well as Putin’s assistance to President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, by all accounts a bloodthirsty dictator.  When asked about Ukraine, Trump shrugged and said it was Europe’s problem. When asked about the suspicious deaths of dissident Russian journalists and opposition figures, Trump flipped the question and asked “You think we [the United States] are so innocent?” When pressed for an explanation on Trump’s controversial remarks and actions during the Vice Presidential debates, now-Vice President Mike Pence seemed to deny everything, reverting back to the traditional Republican lines about holding the Kremlin accountable.

The Russian connection has only ballooned in press coverage since Trump’s remarks early in the presidential election. Democrats, cautious in their actions against Russia since the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, started to take a more hard-line stance against cooperation with the Kremlin. Rumors started to swirl around Mr. Trump, alleging he was a pawn of the Kremlin.

These allegations are not without considerable evidence, but nothing has been proven quite yet. Investigations are underway and will require thorough scrutiny. Many Congressional Republicans, as well as almost all Congressional Democrats, have been sitting on their hands for an answer.

As Ambassador, Jon Huntsman does not possess a large amount of enumerated political power, but his experience should allow him to be an influential voice nonetheless. Huntsman bucked his own party when he accepted an ambassadorship to China under President Obama, and he seemed to gain considerable approval for his work.

Russia is a different animal altogether from China, though. Chinese foreign policy, while not passive, is not quite as direct and bold as Russia’s has been, especially in regards to Ukraine. It’s true the Chinese government is building islands in the South China Sea, much to the rage of Vietnam, but Beijing is much more reliant on soft power than Moscow. Anti-American sentiment in China certainly exists, but it is not as pronounced as that of Russian state media. The economic relationship between the United States and Russia is also quite different than that of the Sino-American relationship. The United States does not rely on Russian goods the way it does with Chinese goods, and a protectionist trade policy like Trump is promising would affect our relations with China much more than Russia.

The Trump Administration, while young, has been mired in slip-ups and controversy since it started out of the gate. Whether these scandals and controversies deserve the scrutiny and criticism they are getting is up for debate, but a by-product of the clumsy start has been that the Trump Administration has not produced a lot of concrete results – good or bad – in regards to foreign policy. It’s important to remember that Trump has only been in office for less than two months, so there’s a lot more time to write about his presidency. Messages regarding the Administration’s policy on the Kremlin have been inconsistent. Allegations of telephone calls concerning possible sanctions removal between Trump and President Putin are often followed by statements that there will be no sanctions removal “until Crimea is returned to Ukraine”.

Huntsman is an interesting choice for the Ambassadorship. During his brief run for president in 2012, he was often, for better or worse, portrayed as the “moderate” in the Republican party primary because of his beliefs on LGBT rights, climate change, and evolution. One could argue this was more due to his demeanor than his actually being “moderate” as his economic views are quite conservative and he was Governor of one of the most conservative states in America, but the perception seemed to stick.

Huntsman, when judged purely on his own experience, is earnestly qualified for this job. He claimed he was proud to have taken the Ambassadorship to China under President Obama because he saw it as an opportunity to serve his country. However, he will not be setting policy in the same way his boss will, and Ambassadors do not typically dissent against the government they serve, though they can obviously lend their counsel. Therefore, what Huntsman does is likely going to depend on how the Trump Administration manages to weather the storm of possible deeper involvement with pro-Kremlin officials and what type of relationship they decide to pursue with the Kremlin. As of now, we can only really speculate, but the choice itself seems to be well thought out.

By Kyle Menyhert,
columnist of Free Russia Foundation

Huntsman has an extensive record in public service. He served two terms as Governor of the state of Utah and was Ambassador to the People’s Republic of China under President Obama. He also briefly ran for president in 2012, but failed to gain much traction.

Governor Huntsman’s acceptance of this post comes at a time when the relations between the United States and Russian Federation are at a massively important and controversial crossroad.

In the primaries, Trump raised many eyebrows when he claimed that he’d “be friends with” President Vladimir Putin. This came as a considerable surprise when Congressional Republicans and Democrats were nearly unanimous in their support of the sanctions levied against the Kremlin for its actions in Eastern Ukraine, as well as Putin’s assistance to President Bashar Al-Assad of Syria, by all accounts a bloodthirsty dictator.  When asked about Ukraine, Trump shrugged and said it was Europe’s problem. When asked about the suspicious deaths of dissident Russian journalists and opposition figures, Trump flipped the question and asked “You think we [the United States] are so innocent?” When pressed for an explanation on Trump’s controversial remarks and actions during the Vice Presidential debates, now-Vice President Mike Pence seemed to deny everything, reverting back to the traditional Republican lines about holding the Kremlin accountable.

The Russian connection has only ballooned in press coverage since Trump’s remarks early in the presidential election. Democrats, cautious in their actions against Russia since the beginning of the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, started to take a more hard-line stance against cooperation with the Kremlin. Rumors started to swirl around Mr. Trump, alleging he was a pawn of the Kremlin.

These allegations are not without considerable evidence, but nothing has been proven quite yet. Investigations are underway and will require thorough scrutiny. Many Congressional Republicans, as well as almost all Congressional Democrats, have been sitting on their hands for an answer.

As Ambassador, Jon Huntsman does not possess a large amount of enumerated political power, but his experience should allow him to be an influential voice nonetheless. Huntsman bucked his own party when he accepted an ambassadorship to China under President Obama, and he seemed to gain considerable approval for his work.

Russia is a different animal altogether from China, though. Chinese foreign policy, while not passive, is not quite as direct and bold as Russia’s has been, especially in regards to Ukraine. It’s true the Chinese government is building islands in the South China Sea, much to the rage of Vietnam, but Beijing is much more reliant on soft power than Moscow. Anti-American sentiment in China certainly exists, but it is not as pronounced as that of Russian state media. The economic relationship between the United States and Russia is also quite different than that of the Sino-American relationship. The United States does not rely on Russian goods the way it does with Chinese goods, and a protectionist trade policy like Trump is promising would affect our relations with China much more than Russia.

The Trump Administration, while young, has been mired in slip-ups and controversy since it started out of the gate. Whether these scandals and controversies deserve the scrutiny and criticism they are getting is up for debate, but a by-product of the clumsy start has been that the Trump Administration has not produced a lot of concrete results – good or bad – in regards to foreign policy. It’s important to remember that Trump has only been in office for less than two months, so there’s a lot more time to write about his presidency. Messages regarding the Administration’s policy on the Kremlin have been inconsistent. Allegations of telephone calls concerning possible sanctions removal between Trump and President Putin are often followed by statements that there will be no sanctions removal “until Crimea is returned to Ukraine”.

Huntsman is an interesting choice for the Ambassadorship. During his brief run for president in 2012, he was often, for better or worse, portrayed as the “moderate” in the Republican party primary because of his beliefs on LGBT rights, climate change, and evolution. One could argue this was more due to his demeanor than his actually being “moderate” as his economic views are quite conservative and he was Governor of one of the most conservative states in America, but the perception seemed to stick.

Huntsman, when judged purely on his own experience, is earnestly qualified for this job. He claimed he was proud to have taken the Ambassadorship to China under President Obama because he saw it as an opportunity to serve his country. However, he will not be setting policy in the same way his boss will, and Ambassadors do not typically dissent against the government they serve, though they can obviously lend their counsel. Therefore, what Huntsman does is likely going to depend on how the Trump Administration manages to weather the storm of possible deeper involvement with pro-Kremlin officials and what type of relationship they decide to pursue with the Kremlin. As of now, we can only really speculate, but the choice itself seems to be well thought out.

By Kyle Menyhert,
columnist of Free Russia Foundation

Lukashenka’s Ryanair Hijacking Proves Human Rights is a Global Security Issue

May 24 2021

The forced diversion and landing in Minsk of a May 23, 2021 Ryanair flight en route from Greece to Lithuania, and the subsequent arrest of dissident Roman Protasevich who was aboard the flight, by the illegitimate Lukashenka regime pose an overt political and military challenge to Europe, NATO and the broad global community.  NATO members must respond forcefully by demanding (1) the immediate release of Protasevich and other political prisoners in Belarus, and (2) a prompt transition to a government that represents the will of the people of Belarus. 

The West’s passivity in the face of massive, continuous and growing oppression of the Belarusian people since summer 2020 has emboldened Lukashenka to commit what some European leaders have appropriately termed an act of “state terrorism.”

The West has shown a manifest disposition to appease Putin’s regime —Lukashenka’s sole security guarantor. It has made inappropriate overtures for a Putin-Biden summit and waived  Nord Stream 2 sanctions mandated by Congress. These actions and signals have come against the backdrop of the 2020 Russian constitutional coup, the assassination attempt against Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment on patently bogus charges, the arrests of close to 13,000 Russian activists, and the outlawing of all opposition movements and activities. All this has led Putin and Lukashenka to conclude that they eliminate their political opponents with impunity.  

Today’s state-ordered hijacking of an international passenger airplane—employing intelligence agents aboard the flight,  and accomplished via an advanced fighter-interceptor—to apprehend an exiled activist, underscores that violation of human rights is not only a domestic issue, but a matter of international safety and security.  Western governments unwilling to stand up for the victims of Putin’s and Lukashenka’s regimes are inviting future crimes against their own citizens. 

Absent a meaningful and swift response, the escalation of violence and intensity of international crimes committed  by Lukashenka’s and Putin’s regime will continue, destabilizing the world and discrediting the Western democratic institutions. 

CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS – THE KREMLIN’S INFLUENCE QUARTERLY

May 20 2021

The Free Russia Foundation invites submissions to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly, a journal that explores and analyzes manifestations of the malign influence of Putin’s Russia in Europe.

We understand malign influence in the European context as a specific type of influence that directly or indirectly subverts and undermines European values and democratic institutions. We follow the Treaty on European Union in understanding European values that are the following: human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law, and respect for human rights. Democratic institutions are guardians of European values, and among them, we highlight representative political parties; free and fair elections; an impartial justice system; free, independent and pluralistic media; and civil society.

Your contribution to The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly would focus on one European country from the EU, Eastern Partnership or Western Balkans, and on one particular area where you want to explore Russian malign influence: politics, diplomacy, military domain, business, media, civil society, academia, religion, crime, or law.

Each chapter in The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly should be around 5 thousand words including footnotes. The Free Russia Foundation offers an honorarium for contributions accepted for publication in the journal.

If you are interested in submitting a chapter, please send us a brief description of your chapter and its title (250 words) to the following e-mail address: info@4freerussia.org. Please put The Kremlin’s Influence Quarterly as a subject line of your message.

Criminal operations by Russia’s GRU worldwide: expert discussion

May 06 2021

Please join Free Russia Foundation for an expert brief and discussion on latest criminal operations conducted by Russia’s GRU worldwide with:

  • Christo Grozev, Bellingcat— the legendary investigator who uncovered the Kremlin’s involvement, perpetrators and timeline of Navalny’s assassination attempt. 
  • Jakub Janda, Director of the European Values Think Tank (the Czech Republic) where he researches Russia’s hostile influence operations in the West
  • Michael Weiss, Director of Special Investigations at Free Russia Foundation where he leads the Lubyanka Files project, which consists of translating and curating KGB training manuals still used in modern Russia for the purposes of educating Vladimir Putin’s spies.

The event will take place on Tuesday, May 11 from 11 am to 12:30pm New York Time (17:00 in Brussels) and include an extensive Q&A with the audience moderated by Ilya Zaslavskiy, Senior Fellow at Free Russia Foundation and head of Underminers.info, a research project on post-Soviet kleptocracy

The event will be broadcast live at: https://www.facebook.com/events/223365735790798/

  • The discussion will cover Russia’s most recent and ongoing covert violent operations, direct political interference, oligarchic penetration with money and influence; 
  • GRU’s structure and approach to conducting operations in Europe
  • Trends and forecasts on how data availability will impact both, the Kremlin’s operations and their investigation by governments and activists; 
  • EU and national European government response and facilitation of operations on their soil; 
  • Recommendations for effective counter to the security and political threats posed by Russian security services. 

YouTube Against Navalny’s Smart Voting

May 06 2021

On May 6, 2020, at least five YouTube channels belonging to key Russian opposition leaders and platforms received notifications from YouTube that some of their content had been removed due to its being qualified as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

They included: 

Ilya Yashin (343k YouTube subscribers)

Vladimir Milov (218k YouTube subscribers) 

Leonid Volkov (117k YouTube subscribers)

Novaya Gazeta (277k YouTube Subscribers) 

Sota Vision (248k YouTube Subscribers)

Most likely, there are other Russian pro-democracy channels that have received similar notifications at the same time, and we are putting together the list of all affected by this censorship campaign. 

The identical letters received from YouTube by the five account holders stated:

“Our team has reviewed your content, and, unfortunately, we think it violates our spam, deceptive practices and scams policy. We’ve removed the following content from YouTube:

URL: https://votesmart.appspot.com/

YouTube has removed urls from descriptions of videos posted on these accounts that linked to Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting website (votesmart.appspot.com).

By doing this, and to our great shock and disbelief, YouTube has acted to enforce the Kremlin’s policies by qualifying Alexey Navalny’s Smart Voting system and its website as “spam, deceptive practices and scams”. 

This action has not only technically disrupted communication for the Russian civil society which is now under a deadly siege by Putin’s regime, but it has rendered a serious and lasting damage to its reputation and legitimacy of Smart Voting approach. 

In reality, Smart Voting system is not a spam, scam or a “deceptive practice”, but instead it’s a fully legitimate system of choosing and supporting candidates in Russian elections who have a chance of winning against the ruling “United Russia” party candidates. There’s absolutely nothing illegal, deceptive or fraudulent about the Smart Voting or any materials on its website.

We don’t know the reasons behind such YouTube actions, but they are an unacceptable suppression of a constitutionally guaranteed freedom of the Russian people and help the Kremlin’s suppression of civil rights and freedoms by banning the Smart Voting system and not allowing free political competition with the ruling “United Russia” party. 

This is an extremely dangerous precedent in an environment where opposition activities in Russia are being literally outlawed;  key opposition figures are jailed, exiled, arrested and attacked with criminal investigations; independent election campaigning is prohibited; and social media networks remain among the very few channels still available to the Russian opposition to communicate with the ordinary Russians.

We demand a  swift and decisive action on this matter from the international community, to make sure that YouTube corrects its stance toward Russian opposition channels, and ensures that such suppression of peaceful, legal  pro-democracy voices does not happen again. 

FRF Lauds New US Sanctions Targeting the Kremlin’s Perpetrators in Crimea, Calls for Their Expansion

Apr 15 2021

On April 15, 2021,  President Biden signed new sanctions against a number of officials and agents of the Russian Federation in connection with malign international activities conducted by the Russian government.

The list of individuals sanctioned by the new law includes Leonid Mikhalyuk, director of the Federal Security Service in the Russian-occupied Crimea.

A report issued by Free Russia Foundation, Media Initiative for Human Rights and Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union in December 202, identified 16 officials from Russian law enforcement and security agencies as well as the judiciary operating on the territory of the Ukrainian Crimean Peninsula currently occupied by the Russian Federation. These individuals have been either directly involved or have overseen political persecution of three prominent Crimean human rights defenders – Emir-Usein Kuku, Sever Mustafayev and Emil Kurbedinov.

Leonid Mikhailiuk is one of these officials. He has been directly involved and directed the repressive campaign in the occupied Crimea, including persecution of innocent people on terrorism charges and massive illegal searches. The persecution of Server Mustafayev was conducted under his supervision. As the head of the FSB branch in Crimea, he is in charge of its operation and all operatives working on politically motivated cases are his subordinates. 

Within the extremely centralized system of the Russian security services, Mikhailiuk is clearly at the top rank of organized political persecution and human rights violations.

Free Russia Foundation welcomes the new sanctions and hopes that all other individuals identified in the report will also be held accountable.