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March 1, 2024

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia speaks at MSE Symposium

By MAYA BRITTO | October 17, 2023



Students expressed their interests in hearing about John Sullivan’s perspectives on the United States-Russia relationship.

The Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium welcomed John Sullivan on Wednesday, Oct. 11, as the first guest of the ”Navigating Tomorrow” 2023 speakers series. Sullivan served as the U.S. ambassador to Russia from 2019 to 2022. The event was co-hosted by the Aronson Center for International Studies, The Hop and the Johns Hopkins University Henry Kissinger Center for Global Affairs.

In a discussion moderated by political scientist and visiting professor Robert Freedman, Sullivan described his interactions with Russian diplomats, his differing experiences in the Trump versus Biden administration and his thoughts regarding the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Sullivan began by claiming that his biggest challenge in dealing with Russian diplomats was that nothing with them was easy.

“The easy stuff that should take no effort always takes it. It was a big challenge dealing with that kind of adversarial government,” he said.

Sullivan served as Deputy Secretary of State for three years before his work as ambassador in Moscow. As a result, he has extensive experience with foreign policy work among senior officials. 

According to Sullivan, the true, underlying motive behind Putin’s actions is his imperial ambition, derived from regret over the collapse of the Soviet Union (USSR). Russian concerns about the West and the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization serve only as rationale used to justify a special military operation to a foreign audience. 

“The USSR is this colossus, much bigger than the Russian Federation is now. When the USSR had fallen, those internal borders of the Soviet Union, including the border with Ukraine, became international borders. And that’s the great catastrophe,” he explained. 

In addition to discussing American interactions with Russia, Sullivan touched on domestic politics. Sullivan worked under five presidents and served as the U.S. Ambassador to the Russian Federation under Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Sullivan shared some similarities and differences that characterized his experience working as an ambassador for the two administrations. 

Sullivan explained that on a day-to-day basis, though his work as an ambassador did not differ much under the two presidents, there were some changes. For example, during the last year of the Trump administration, no sanctions were imposed on Russia. Once the Biden administration entered the White House, within a few months, sanctions on Russia were reinstated. However, policies towards Russia and bureaucratic procedures stayed consistent.

Sullivan did not share the view that Trump had any sort of corrupt relationship with Putin, as Trump’s way of conducting presidential business seemed to be highly personalized with many political leaders. In fact, the speaker claimed that Trump did not seem to care about Russia at all. He explained that as Deputy Secretary of State, Trump met with him frequently. However, after assuming the role of ambassador to Russia, Sullivan had little to no communication with the president. 

“I knew Trump. I had a lot of meetings with him. As soon as I became ambassador, the day after I became ambassador, for the entire time I served as ambassador, I never spoke to him once. He didn’t care. Which is not to say that he did not care about his relationship with Putin,” he said. 

In contrast, under President Joe Biden, Sullivan communicated with the Biden administration regularly. 

“What changed in the Biden administration was that I spoke all the time to the White House, including to the president, who was deeply invested in our Russian policy,” he said. “I got more direction from the White House in a week from under Biden than I got in a year from the Trump White House.”

Sullivan shared a number of anecdotes from his time in the Trump White House and his interactions with the administration. Sullivan’s stories included descriptions about correspondence with presidents and their secretaries of state through phone calls and meetings and revealed how errors in communication could lead to confusion. In one anecdote about a communication breakdown in the Trump White House, Sullivan almost got fired.

In an interview with The News-Letter following the symposium, freshman Natalie Bernstein expressed her interest in hearing about how the ambassador and general administrative departments collaborate with the president and his cabinet. 

“It was really interesting to learn about how politics work in Washington and hear more about the insides of how an administration works, the different connections between the bureaucracy and the executives and how they all work together,” she said. 

Towards the end of the symposium, Sullivan also discussed his thoughts on the impact of Russian propaganda in the United States, his concerns over the amount of influence Putin and members of his regime have over Russian diplomats and the honesty of Russian diplomats.

As both Deputy Secretary of State and ambassador, Sullivan stated that he never intentionally said anything false. In contrast, according to Sullivan, Russian diplomats are pressured to repeat lies that the Putin regime wants perpetuated. He pointed out calling Ukrainian President Zelensky a Nazi as an example of the fabrications the regime pushes.

“[Putin] has been saying things recently that Zelensky, the democratically elected Jewish President of Ukraine, whose grandfather fought in the Red Army against the Nazi Germany, is himself a Nazi,“ he said.

In an interview with The News-Letter, Nathan Henriquez, a freshman student majoring in Biophysics, explained that he was motivated to come to the event because he wanted to learn about U.S.-Russia relations from Sullivan as a highly relevant government figure.

“I wanted to hear the first-person perspective rather than the filtered perspective we hear through the media,” he” said. 

After the symposium concluded, Sullivan shared his thoughts on the importance of keeping up with foreign affairs in an interview with The News-Letter. 

“You don't have to be a foreign affairs specialist or have relatives in Russia or Ukraine to have an interest in this and for this to have an impact on your life,” he said. “Think about the effect on grain markets, the effect on energy markets and its effect on inflation and what that does to people in the United States or around the world where prices are rising. It has a global impact.” 

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