Ambassador Jon Huntsman
Remarks at Media Roundtable
April 24, 2018
Ambassador Huntsman: I am delighted to be in Vladivostok in the Russian Far East. It is my first visit to Vladivostok. I have lived south of here in China, and I’ve lived in Southeast Asia and Taiwan, so I’m familiar with the broader East Asia region and the Pacific region.
My purpose is simple: First, it is to visit our consulate here, which serves the largest consular district in the world – not the largest population, but the largest geographical area. We rely on our Consul General and his staff to do enormously important work here, and we’re very proud of the work that they do, today more important than ever. Second, my desire is to engage in people-to-people relationship building. I’ve spent the day, as I will tomorrow, meeting people from all backgrounds, students, professionals, people who love rock-n-roll, journalists. I really enjoy it, because I find every time I meet with Russian people how much commonality there is between Americans and Russians.
We lose perspective sometimes – we lose sight of that when we read only the politics of the U.S.-Russia relationship, which sometimes is strained as it is today. But we can find solutions to all those issues. There isn’t one issue that is impossible to resolve. We can resolve all of them if there is a will on both sides to work towards that end. In the meantime, I’m interested in how the health of our relationship is from a people-to-people standpoint. We need more of it – we need more people going back and forth. We need more students from America here. We need more young people from here in the United States. We need more people hearing about what the United States is all about. That’s where meeting with you is so important to me, and I’m grateful for the time with you.
I’ve worked with journalists throughout my career, as a governor of a state and as a diplomat. You have a very important function, and I respect the function that you have in getting messages out to the public, which for us is one of the most important things we do. We try to get the message out about the United States: who we are and what we desire in the U.S. – Russia relationship, so that people can understand the truth and through it they will see that the U.S. and Russia do have a lot more in common than those things that divide us. Aa a diplomat, that’s what I’m always focused on – finding common ground and finding commonality between our people and between our countries.
It’s a great pleasure to be here in a city that is so beautiful. It reminds me a lot of the area that is my native ground, where I was born – in San Francisco, in the Bay Area of California, often called the City by the Bay. Many songs have been written about the City by the Bay, and Vladivostok reminds me of the City by the Bay. It’s beautiful. It’s important. It’s the crossroads of many key countries in Northeast Asia and will continue to be the crossroads more so in the future because of trade, because of politics, because Northeast Asia will soon be 20 – 25% of the world’s GDP. This region will be increasingly important, and I’m delighted to learn more about it.
With that, I’m happy to take any questions you have.
Question: Mr. Ambassador, President Ford visited Vladivostok and really liked this city. That visit was connected with the détente policy. My question to you: how do you like our city and can we read your visit as another sign of détente?
Ambassador Huntsman: President Ford was a very even-handed president. He wasn’t in for very long, but he followed a tumultuous presidency and he restored order and calm. And part of that was ensuring that the United States had a good relationship with Russia. He came here with that message.
Détente is driven by the desires of the head of state – the President. It started in 1969 and it led to good things, such as arms control agreements, which are very good for the world. And it really ended in the Helsinki Accord of 1975, which yielded very important results that I’m not sure would have been possible without the détente that started in 1969.
I don’t know what the proper diplomatic term for it is, but my president has said repeatedly that he wants a better relationship with Russia. Repeatedly. And he has said quite clearly that he would like to engage personally with President Putin. Every time I’ve met with President Trump or talked with him about this subject, many times now, he’s said the same thing. From day one. You can call it a desire for détente or a desire for a healthier relationship. I think my president is very sincere when he says he wants a stable, predictable, manageable U.S.-Russia relationship. And I think President Putin would like the same thing, because I heard from him when I first met him, when I gave him my credentials, that he expects a better relationship. So, we have both presidents that want to move in that direction. And I think, I’m hoping, and I’ve said this before, and I hope I’m not proven wrong, that despite the events that we’ve experienced, the ups and downs, that we will end 2018 in a better place. And I still believe that to be the case.
President Ford and President Brezhnev met in 1974. The environment was no easier than it is today. But they figured out a way to get it done, and I think our presidents can also figure out a way to get it done. I have confidence.
Question: My question is quite easy and down to earth. You were quite right to say it is really important to strengthen and promote people-to-people relationships. It is important to promote exchanges: cultural exchanges, professional exchanges. It is important for students to study in each respective country. But the problem that all the people are faced with are visa issues. We all know about them. Do you expect any change in the visa policy in the near future? Will it be relaxed or will it be tightened? Do you expect the closure of any of the U.S. consulates remaining in Russia, for example Yekaterinburg, and will it increase the workload on the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, making it virtually impossible to secure a visa interview slot?
Ambassador Huntsman: Thank you for that question. I live in the real world, so you have to deal with what you have. You have to deal with the issues that are before you. Right now, we have a challenging relationship, one that has resulted in almost 800 expulsions from my staff, one in August of last year and once a few weeks ago. Almost 800 people, which represents 70% cut from my staff. If we were a business, we would go bankrupt, because you don’t have enough people to get the work done. But the reality is, we make do and we work with what we have.
The most important investment we can make long term is in people-to-people exchanges. I believe that very deeply. So that’s the long-term goal. The short-term reality is that we’ve been cut by 70%. To put that into perspective, we just opened up a brand-new building in Moscow. It’s state of the art; it’s beautiful. Inside of it, there are about 25 or 26 visa interview booths, which have the best sound systems, the best processing equipment, everything. And we don’t have enough people to staff even half of them right now. This is our problem. But, here’s the good news: if you look at the total number of visas that were issued last year, and if you look at the numbers that have been issued this year, over the first four months, even with the 70% reduction, we’re going to end the year with almost the same level of visas issued. I hear a lot of complaining about visas, and indeed it is a difficult process, but we’re going to do OK this year, despite some of the cuts we’ve been forced to accept.
We must focus on improvements, and this is an area that we will continue to improve. If any of you are in Moscow, I invite you to come to our Embassy. You can also see it here in our Consulate, but if you come to our Embassy, you can see what I’m talking about: the number of people we have working every day to process the visas with a 70% cut. It’s very, very difficult, but we’re doing the best we can.
Question: When you were planning to visit the Russian Far East last December, you were planning to have a meeting with the Commander of the Pacific Fleet. Do you still have these plans valid for this visit and what would be the agenda of this meeting?
Ambassador Huntsman: Not planned for this visit. I have, however, had the opportunity to meet with General Gerasimov, and I’ve had a good opportunity to meet with Minister Shoigu and MOD. We had some very good discussions about our cooperation and counter-terrorism, about our deconfliction channels in Syria, which just two weeks ago worked very well, and on some broader topics. But this visit is less official and more about just meeting Russian citizens, people-to-people.
Question: Could you please tell us, are you concerned with the delivery of the Russian air defense systems S-300 to Syria?
Ambassador Huntsman: Obviously, we want to lessen the possibility of conflict in Syria. We want to move more rapidly toward, ultimately, the governance of a unified Syria. That should be the thing we work on most. What should be on our agenda right now is how we move back into the UN-mandated Geneva process for sorting out the leadership in Damascus. This is the most important question going forward. It’s how you reduce tension. It’s how you reduce danger on the battlefield, and how you rid Syria of terrorist elements, which is what Russia and the United States have in common.
I think we have in common, although we have not practiced it very well, the steps that we must take to fulfill the UN Security Council resolution on the future of governance in Syria, which means important constitutional reform. It means returning diaspora populations so that they can participate in the vote. And it means overall reducing violence and the prospects for casualties so that citizens feel safe to go out and actually participate in a political process.
These are all things that are what are most important in Syria right now. It will take the United States and Russia both along with many other to approach that cooperatively in keeping with the UN Security Council Resolution.
Question: Currently the world media is discussing a possible summit between President Trump and the North Korean President Kim Jong-un. The press is discussing four possible venues: Beijing, Ulan Bator, Vladivostok, and the DMZ. Is your visit considered to be an advance visit in order to prepare the potential summit?
Ambassador Huntsman: You should read nothing more into my visit other than that which was stated initially: to conduct business as United States Ambassador. We’ll let the White House make that announcement in due course. What is significant is that the President of the United States has stated a desire to meet with the head of North Korea, Kim Jong-un. This has never happened in history. We’re already seeing results before this proposed meeting by way of a freeze on North Korea’s missile and weapons programs, which is significant.
I’m not sure that anyone could have predicted this 6 months ago. When President Obama handed over the White House to President Trump, he said that the most pressing and important issue we face today is a nuclear North Korea. Many thought it would result in war. It seems that it is moving in a track that will not in war, but rather will end in North Korea making some wise decisions on freezing their programs and ultimately moving toward denuclearization, which for Northeast Asia and all the countries involved in this very important economic reason, is very good news.
Question: You mentioned several times during this meeting that you had to cut diplomatic staff considerably during the last several months and that is causing enormous difficulties in order to implement those functions. We should also note that the Russian side also had to cut its diplomatic staff. It had to close the consulates in San Francisco and Seattle. The question is: how soon do you think this diplomatic tit-for-tat will end and when will we get back to business as usual, open up closed consulates, and get back to diplomatic cap limits we had in the past?
Ambassador Huntsman: It may surprise you to learn that my counterpart, Ambassador Antonov, in Washington is my friend. We communicate our challenges sometimes. It’s interesting to note that he didn’t have 800 people taken from the Russian mission in the United States. We had far more that were cut from our mission. We’re having to make do. We’ve having to re-prioritize. We’re having to cut things that were absolutely core to our mission, because we cannot do them anymore. I hope that’s temporary, because diplomatic relationships are supposed to engage and grow and yield good things in bilateral relationships. I want to prove we can do that. In order to achieve the things we need to achieve in our relationship, we will need to staff back up again at some point. So, I don’t think where we are right now is the new normal. I think it’s a temporary holding pattern, and I hope in due course that we’re able to rebuild in some of our key functions so that we can engage normally in a diplomatic relationship.