Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as the one-time diplomat-turned-politician bids for another ambassadorship – this time to Russia.
Huntsman was being questioned by members of both parties on the committee, ahead of a Thursday vote at which the former ambassador to both China and Singapore is expected to be confirmed as the top US diplomat in Moscow.
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The committee also heard from Wess Mitchell, candidate for the post of Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs. The hearing was characterized by anti-Russian rhetoric, most notably claims that Russia meddled in last year’s US presidential election. Moscow has denied all accusations.
Huntsman’s opening remarks made it clear what he believes on the subject.
“There is no question that the Russian government interfered in our election last year, and that Moscow continues to meddle in the democratic processes of our friends and allies,” he said.
He also argued that “Russia continues to threaten the stability of Europe, violating the sovereignty and territorial integrity of its neighbours. Russia also restricts the human rights of its own people.”
Senator Ben Cardin (D-Maryland) led the questioning, saying that the goal of the US mission must be to “change Russia’s behavior, particularly as it affects US interests.”
“Yes, we always want to have constructive relationships,” said Cardin, the senior Democrat on the committee. “But for us to have that bond we need to have a country that respects our independence and universal values, and it’s clear that Russia does neither.”
Asked by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Delaware) if there was a way the US could combat perceived “disinformation campaigns” originating from Moscow, Huntsman said the US must first recognize that such a campaign actually exists, “and not be delusional about it.”
The aspiring ambassador then raised the prospect of organizing a counter-campaign within Russia and hinted that the US is looking at “options on the private sector technology side” for the purpose.
“I think the work on funding some efforts that would maybe produce a counter-narrative is really important,” Huntsman said.
Mitchell, founder and former CEO of Central European Policy Analysis (CEPA), joined Huntsman by issuing criticism of Russia in his opening remarks.
Questioned by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-New Hampshire) about who should lead the US government’s counter-disinformation campaigns, Mitchell suggested that was a job for the Global Engagement Committee, a $60million program led by the State Department.
The outfit was originally established to combat Islamic State messaging, but ended up devoting three quarters of its funding against Russia. After the recent resignations of its chief technology officer and senior staff, however, the GEC is reportedly in disarray.
“Russia must realize that a return to normal relations will be impossible as long as it attacks its neighbors, abuses its people and attempts to undermine confidence in America’s institutions and those of its allies,” said Mitchell.
He is scheduled to take the post formerly held by Victoria Nuland, the former senior State Department official in charge of relations with Russia and Eastern Europe, who became notorious for aiding the 2014 anti-government uprising in Ukraine.