Jon Huntsman, U.S. Ambassador to Russia is scheduled to appear on a panel at a St. Petersburg economic forum with Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian oligarch sanctioned for Russian election meddling.
Vekselberg is the chairman of Renova and has been in the news recently for being involved with payments of $500,000 to the shell company Michael Cohen, Donald Trump’s attorney, used to pay hush money to Stormy Daniels. Vekselberg has close but complicated ties to Putin and is one of the richest men in the world.
Huntsman, appointed by President Trump in 2017, took to Twitter to encourage businesses to attend the forum in an attempt to strengthen ties with Russia.
#ПосолХантсман : «Мне очень интересны вопросы, которые я получаю в соцсетях! О чем бы вы хотели спросить меня на этот раз?»
Задавайте ваши вопросы с хэштегом #AskTheAmbassador ! pic.twitter.com/8ffE2rEo8A
— Посольство США в РФ (@USEmbRu) May 10, 2018
Since Putin annexed the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014, the U.S. has discouraged businesses from attending the event. John Tefft, Ambassador to Russia before Huntsman, quietly attended last year, minus U.S. business participation. Huntsman’s appearing in a video on Twitter enthusiastically promoting the event is seen as a departure from previous policy.
The fact that the U.S. Ambassador will be sharing a stage with an individual with the highest level of sanctions, SND, or Specially Designated Nationals, is concerning to some experts. Bloomberg shares a former Treasury sanctions unit adviser’s concerns about the development.
“This is horrifying,” Brian O’Toole, a former senior adviser in Treasury’s sanctions unit and now a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, wrote in Twitter of Huntsman’s plans. “Please don’t go be a pawn at Putin’s invest-in-Russia campaign. And for the love of all that’s holy, don’t do a panel with an SDN,” he added, using the abbreviation for those subject to the strictest sanctions, like Vekselberg.
The Treasury Department website explains the SDN abbreviation:
As part of its enforcement efforts, OFAC publishes a list of individuals and companies owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, targeted countries. It also lists individuals, groups, and entities, such as terrorists and narcotics traffickers designated under programs that are not country-specific. Collectively, such individuals and companies are called “Specially Designated Nationals” or “SDNs.” Their assets are blocked and U.S. persons are generally prohibited from dealing with them.
Huntsman’s encouragement for participation in the Kremlin’s economic forum comes at a time when Russia is accused of meddling in the 2016 U.S. Presidential election and heavy sanctions against Russian individuals and companies have been imposed by the Treasury Department for participating in that meddling. The sanctions against Russia which Congress passed last year and President Trump signed into law still have not been imposed.
Why It Matters
The Trump Administration has consistently sent mixed messages on Russia, instead of drawing a firm line against Putin. Donald Trump has praised Vladimir Putin as a strong leader and now the Ambassador to Russia will be sitting on stage with an individual who is under severe sanctions. Rather than punish Putin for his actions in tampering with our electoral process, he is being rewarded by Huntsman urging U.S. businesses to attend this forum.
President Trump is under investigation in the Russia probe because his actions, and that of his campaign staff, towards Russia have been suspicious. If he is eventually exonerated and shown to have had no untoward behavior with Putin, it will be actions like Ambassador Huntsman appearing at a forum headlined by Putin and sitting onstage with an SDN which historians will be left to explain.