May 2, 2022

No one in Washington will speak to him. His phone calls go unanswered, and he can’t get meetings. Russian ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, is the most isolated man in the American capital.

When an interview with Antonov containing these laments  appeared in Politico this month it became the talk of the diplomatic circuit. At social gatherings, several ambassadors shared that his office had contacted their office, and on their instructions, been rebuffed. And seriously, they wondered, how could he expect anyone to agree to meet him for lunch? To be seen dining with the city’s principal pariah was out of the question. As for taking his calls, who wanted to hear him spout Moscow’s party line at a time like this?

Having spent a decade as a ‘diplomatic spouse’, I find myself strangely fascinated by Antonov’s situation. The average Russian citizen may be inundated with propaganda, but Antonov has access to international news and commentary. He knows exactly what his country is doing and is personally experiencing the revulsion this has engendered. Demonstrators regularly gather in front of his embassy. They beam the Ukrainian flag onto the walls. In a way, having people refuse to see him or take his calls is a kindness and reflection of their good manners, given what most of us would like to say to him.

I can’t claim intimate knowledge of his state of mind or moral compass, but Antonov always struck me as a decent man. I remember him telling me that one of his personal projects when he first came to the US had been the rehabilitation of the historic cemetery in Ft. Ross, a settlement of Russian immigrants in Northern California. It was a moral obligation, he explained, to ensure that the dead could rest with dignity. A few months after that conversation, his army would be torturing and murdering civilians, then shovelling them into mass graves, or just leaving the bodies on the roadside to rot. What do his morals say about that?

Overnight Russia, which was working to regain its position as the serious and sober world power that in so many ways it seemed qualified to be, revealed a different face. Instead of playing a role on the world stage, it has been excluded from multiple economic, diplomatic and institutional affiliations. Even once this ends — as eventually it must — no one will forget that Russia wrecked its neighbour without anything even distantly approaching a proportionate provocation. The consequences of this act of aggression — Sweden and Finland preparing to join Nato, Germany rearming — are far-reaching and will last.

Antonov’s main assignment was to improve relations with the United States. And I believe this was a mission he embraced with sincerity. During a small lunch in December in his elegant residence, he expanded persuasively on that goal. Our two countries had important interests and global concerns in common, he said. But there was mutual distrust to overcome. Perhaps one could organize some youth programs, he suggested. These could bring Russian young people together with their American counterparts, to start building mutual understanding and forge relationships. What he had in mind was organic, gradual and positive.

And I think he was making headway. Serious voices in the Washington policy world were beginning to conclude that diminishing Russia was counterproductive, that Moscow’s feeling of being boxed in by Nato and treated like a second-rate power should be given consideration, that a Russia possessed of heft and respect could be a partner against an aggressive China, a volatile Central Asia and the resurgence of Islamist terrorism. Wasn’t it time to bury the hatchet, and besides, did Washington really want to shoulder the world’s burdens all by ourselves?

Over time, this view might have prevailed. But instead of playing the judicious long-game envisioned by Antonov, Putin decided to speed things along with tanks, missiles, and genocide, and now his envoy is left holding the fort as representative of a Mongol-era scorched earth barbarian, a country whose neighbour no one wants to be, a leader President Biden has termed a war criminal, and a state that has been ignominiously kicked off the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Ambassadors tend to be well educated, well-traveled and self-possessed. There is an esprit de corps among them, even when they represent hostile states. Everyone shares a lifestyle of transience and understands the obligation that comes with the job: to defend positions whether or not one agrees with them. You see each other constantly in social settings where everything is light and civil and wine is served, and then you clash in a debate or security council vote; it engenders a sense of irony.

They are comparable to soldiers in that they don’t make policy; they obey directives. A sensible government will consult them, listening to their estimations of the chances for success, heeding their warnings about unanticipated fallout. In the end though, ambassadors must represent whatever decision is made, and with conviction.

But what if they simply can’t? Here is where diplomats, as a rule, are in a better place than soldiers. A soldier or officer who walks away in protest can be prosecuted or, depending on the circumstances, even executed for desertion or treason. For most ambassadors, the stakes are not quite that high.

As with military officers, they are patriots, so it’s unlikely to be an easy decision, especially at the hard-won career level of ambassadorship. But what if they come to feel that they can no longer, in good conscience, defend the actions of their government? They have options: retire, resign, or jump ship altogether and seek asylum. The first two can either be accomplished quietly or be accompanied by statements of dissent. And what happens then? That very much depends on what country they are from.

Some ambassadors, by resigning, improve their personal circumstances. Diplomats from Afghanistan were famous for abandoning their posts, even before the recent Taliban takeover. Currently — though now at least with some justification — 55 Afghan ambassadors and staff have requested asylum in the U.S. In general, it’s more common for diplomats from volatile, poor, or conflict-ridden countries to resign postings in more prosperous, Western countries. Without doubting the sincerity of their motives, the move has at least as many benefits as costs. They and their families receive asylum, gain residency, and typically receive a comfortable sinecure.

The Trump era was studded with ambassadorial resignations. In 2018 James Melville resigned as U.S. ambassador to Estonia in protest over President Trump’s stance towards the European Union. He moved on to become Associate Dean at the College of Charleston. In the same year, U.S. ambassador to Panama John Feeley went public about his resignation in an op-ed in the Washington Post, titled “Why I Could No Longer Serve This President.” Therein he wrote that Trump had “warped and betrayed” what to him were “the traditional core values of the United States.” He moved to Miami and joined a media company. Everyone remained alive, well, and able to earn a respectable living.

But then there are countries that take a far dimmer view of absconding diplomats. During Communist era Poland, for example, their ambassador to Japan Zdzislaw Rurarz defected to the U.S. to protest his government’s imposition of martial law. He was tried in absentia and sentenced to death. He was stripped of his citizenship, and his property in Poland was confiscated. Information about North Korean diplomats who defect to the South is murky, with rumours of their children being abducted and forcibly repatriated, and their family members back at home being punished or possibly even killed.

There is one last, less dramatic way ambassadors can exit their posts — they can have their accreditation yanked and be expelled, not for anything they did wrong but as stand-ins for their government. The State Department is not quite ready yet to do this to Antonov; so far they have only expressed their displeasure by withholding visas for his embassy staff’s spouses and family members, and as he laments in the Politico article, sending home his cook. Our U.S. diplomats in Russia have seen worse; they’ve had family pets killed and their young children waylaid and intimidated on the way to school, all to signal Russia’s anger with the administration they represent.

American ambassadors to Russia have resigned in years gone by, but I couldn’t find evidence of the reverse. Given the treatment of dissidents and even of private citizens who are seen to be disobedient, I suspect it’s not extremely advisable for Russian officials or diplomats to express public disagreement, let alone defect. Yet to their immense credit, in light of the horrific actions of their government in Ukraine, some courageous individuals in public roles have done just that.

Russian climate envoy Anatoly Chubais resigned his position and departed Russia, citing his opposition to Putin’s war in Ukraine as the reason. Ironically, it was Chubais who gave Putin his first Kremlin job in the mid-1990s, remained his strong supporter and held several important posts in various state companies. Arkady Dvorkovich, was the senior economic adviser to Dmitry Medvedev during his presidency, and was deputy Prime Minister until 2018. He stepped down as head of the state-backed Skolkovo technology fund after condemning the invasion.

Andrei Kozyrev, who was Russia’s Foreign Minister and later a Duma member under President Boris Yeltsin, told Newsweek that Russian envoys have the responsibility to oppose the actions of Putin by resigning in protest. But his career ended some years ago and he lives in balmy Florida, so that’s easy advice to give.

What should Antonov the Abandoned do? His choices are not great. Unless the US expels him he can remain in place, but his goal of bridge-building has been blown to smithereens right along with the buildings of Mariupol. Perhaps there will be a thaw again at some future point, but not until Putin is well and truly out of the picture. And any new and different leader will appoint his own people as diplomats. Is walking away a possibility, or does he have family members who would pay a price? Or does he, perhaps, out of loyalty or conviction actually support the unfolding barbarism?