For diplomats of any country, Moscow represents a plum posting. If you are selected to serve there it implies your government has great trust in your abilities and you have had a previous career of meritorious service. Or it means you are John Tefft.
Controversy follows John Tefft wherever he goes. This diplomatic pit bull has a disturbing talent for stirring up trouble – exactly the opposite of what diplomats are supposed to do. Whenever he leaves a posting local commentators assume his career is finished. Yet he keeps showing up wherever the US wants to foment trouble – pretending he is a simple functionary, out of his depth, when in fact there are few depths he will not sink to.
It is therefore strange, on the surface, that Moscow has confirmed his appointment as US Ambassador. However, as with all official actions, there is something said, something else implied and a real reason it is happening. Washington and Moscow may be trying to achieve different things through this appointment, but ultimately they both have a vested interest in it.
The devil you know
Tefft has been in Russia before. Between 1996 and 1999 he was deputy chargé d’affaires to the US Ambassador in Moscow. This was the period when the former Communists, in alliance with other parties, came perilously close to gaining a majority in the Duma but mysteriously chose to continue with the power-sharing practices they had campaigned on abolishing. It is widely believed that US Embassy blackmail played a considerable part in this process, and it is no coincidence that Russia received a massive IMF loan, seemingly as a reward, once this about-face had occurred.
Between 2000 and 2003 he was US Ambassador to Lithuania, an obvious promotion. At this period a wave of rabid Russophobia developed, despite the fact Russia wasn’t threatening Lithuania in any way and ordinary Lithuanians have no history of hostility to ordinary Russians, even though the country’s nationality policy could be seen as discriminatory towards them.
We subsequently discovered that NATO wanted to install attack missiles and bases in countries bordering Russia. Ambassadors are routinely removed from countries because they might start adopting the local point of view if they stay too long. As Lithuanian commentators pointed out at the time, Tefft left when the distance between US ambitions in the country and the Lithuanian idea of nationalism and statehood became too obvious.
From 2005 to 2009 Tefft was Ambassador to Georgia. During this period the US supported state- sponsored terrorism in Georgia, by recruiting, training and equipping the terrorists under an “assistance programme” costing several billion dollars which the actual Georgian Armed Forces never saw, as the 2008 war with Russia made painfully obvious. This terrorism was conducted against the Georgian people themselves, as in the case of the notorious Khurcha Incident.
Tefft was of course the ambassador during the 2008 Georgia-Russia war. The imminence of this was known to everyone who had been in an English-speaking bar in Tbilisi and listened to drunken American soldiers individually trying to demonstrate their manhood by blurting out dates and places where Uncle Sam was going to invade, alongside Georgian forces, and heard the same details from all these different people. The US only failed to support the subsequent action because Saakashvili invaded on a different date, to claim all the glory for himself, not because it didn’t agree with an action Georgia could not sensibly undertake without US involvement.
After Georgia, Tefft moved on to Ukraine. It is at this point that the agitators who had failed once to get rid of supposedly pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovich, because the people inconveniently voted him back in after a supposed “popular revolution” had deposed him, decided to enlist neo-Nazi elements with little popular support to encourage, and then hijack, a new wave of unrest.
We have all seen the bloody consequences of this policy, and the active US support for this blatant attempt at regime change, in which “peace brokers” and open supporters of the protestors travelled there on the same planes to deliver ostensibly contradictory messages. We have also seen the same terrorists inserted in Georgia during Tefft’s time suddenly appear in Maidan Square, shoot at people indiscriminately, then disappear to Georgia, travelling on Georgian passports regardless of their nationality.
Russians have long expressed alarm at Tefft’s track record. Washington knows this, and is playing on it by appointing him. Boys at Roman Catholic schools who don’t like the discipline are routinely told that if they misbehave they will be sent to a Christian Brothers boarding school, and live in an even more repressive environment. For public consumption, it is being implied that Tefft has been sent to Moscow for the same reason: the Russians won’t stop complaining about him, so now they get him themselves.
Seth Ferris has written in this journal that, “Tefft represents America’s friends always being right, and acting with impunity, simply because they are America’s friends. We are left to wonder what sort of countries seek such a friend, and why.” More pertinently however his career has had two common features. Firstly, his actions have been progressively more anti-Russian in each country he has been appointed to. Secondly, the consequences of this have been progressively more serious, as Ukrainians now know, and Georgians and Lithuanians could have told them.
Moscow is well aware of all this. Even the mouthpiece of US and European Policy, Radio Free Europe, has published an article on its website entitled A Bogeyman in Russia, U.S. Envoy Appears Poised for Moscow Job, which credits Moscow with describing him as a regime-change expert, or “diplomatic diversionist” – a hit man dispatched by Washington to foment unrest in Russia’s neighbouring states.
The Russian media is openly speculating that Tefft has been sent to Russia to arrange yet another revolution. A recent ITAR-TASS article pointed out that when The Kremlin confirmed Tefft’s appointment as US Ambassador to Russia Presidential Aide for Foreign Policy Issues Yuri Ushakov refused to comment on Tefft’s behaviour during his tenure in Georgia and Ukraine. He would only say that Tefft is “a professional diplomat” and “the fact that he used to work in Russia and that he knows our country and speaks Russian is also worth mentioning”.
Moscow is trying to tell the public that it is better to “keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” It is trying to show the concerned public that it can control him if he is actually living there. Maybe it has forgotten that when the Obama administration presented its “reset button” to start new relations with Moscow it actually put “overcharge” on the button rather than “reset”, despite the large number of Russian speakers, such as John Tefft, in the US. This wasn’t an accident, as Tefft’s appointment and career have confirmed, but Russia went ahead and pressed it anyway.
Chalk, cheese and Tefft
A former trainer of diplomats from Damascus once said:
“There are many kinds of diplomats. There are professionals, who are sent to important countries (China, India, UK etc) after faultless advancement in their careers. Then there are the former somethings: ex-generals, ex-spies, ex-lovers of someone etc., who are sent abroad at the end of their service to gain prestige, money and posts for their relatives and servants. Then there are people who are always “deployed” to dirty places. They are not real diplomats, since they are nominated by agencies, not the White House, and their credentials are generally miserable. Having lost their virginity many times, they will never be sent to first-class countries and are often laughed at by their own colleagues for the dirty deeds, or “misdoings” they have committed.”
Despite being now sent to Russia, John F. Tefft has put himself firmly in this final category. He seems to think that his affable style, genuine Mormon faith and willingness to make himself look stupid in public will save him from close scrutiny over his track record in Georgia and other former Soviet states. But his track record is what it is – and has a disturbing aspect to it which reveals the real, unspoken reason why he has been appointed to Moscow.
There remain serious questions as to who Tefft is really working for. On the one hand, his anti-Russian conduct is an extension of US policy, which would be the same without his involvement. On the other, although the US has achieved its objectives in these countries, its reputation has been fundamentally damaged.
As has been pointed out elsewhere, although most people in Lithuania, Georgia and Ukraine are generally pro-American they have an increasing problem with official America. For example, everyone knows that the US celebrates its Independence Day on 4th July, and in every country the US has an embassy there is some sort of public celebration of this. But although individuals may wish the USA well, those who attend these celebrations are always asked why they are doing so, what they want, who they think they are, and what their attitude towards their own country is.
So has Ambassador Tefft decided that showing us US policy in all its gory detail is the best way to harm America? He would not be the first ambassador to become increasingly disenchanted with his own country the more he represents it – Colin Malan, the former South African Ambassador, left the diplomatic service to found an opposition party, as did Georgia’s current Defence Minister, Irakli Alasania. But those individuals left. Is Tefft actually trying to destroy the US from within?
The task in hand
John Tefft does make a positive impression on those he meets. He has a homespun charm and seems to like meeting people, as long as he doesn’t have to say anything controversial. He doesn’t go out of his way to pick fights with his statements, like former US envoy to the region Matthew Bryza. He presents himself as an ordinary man just doing his job, who feels somewhat uneasy at being so important.
This may be largely disingenuous, but it is the sort of thing people want to hear. If the man representing the most powerful nation on earth is humble, he is likely give your country the respect you feel it deserves, so the thinking goes.
Tefft will have to deal with many issues in Moscow. Energy policy is taking a new turn, with countries which sought to build pipelines to bypass Russia now wanting to invest in Russian pipelines for the sake of greater returns and long-term energy security. Though the US claims to support Georgia and Ukraine’s integration with NATO the French Defence Minister, a loyal US ally, has spoken out against this. US relations with China are largely conducted through Moscow, and this will involve greater engagement with the Russian Far East, a notoriously impenetrable region for Russians themselves, let alone foreign interests.
But given his track record, either Russia or John Tefft will crash and burn. Washington knows this and Moscow knows this. Causing trouble, with the surface intent of damaging Russia, is what Tefft has always done, and his other “achievements” in the countries he has worked in are so small as to be invisible to the naked eye.
One way or another, this appointment is designed to be the end of the line. The US government is challenging Tefft to prove he is really working for them. Moscow has accepted him so he can prove he is really working against the US.
Whatever the outcome, he will then retire. How many Russians and others have to die while the great powers argue over this one man remains to be seen, but they are not part of any official calculations.
Henry Kamens, columnist, expert on Central Asia and Caucasus, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.