Russia's new ambassador to the United States has been described as both ruthless and charming. Since his arrival in Washington six months ago, he has emphasized the charm — hosting parties, giving speeches and even launching a bluegrass-backed embassy podcast at a moment of bitter U.S.-Russian relations.
But Anatoly Antonov says he has been disappointed to find a cold reception on Capitol Hill, where he’s had a hard time obtaining meetings. Some lawmakers’ offices have even asked him not to publicize the sessions.
Antonov’s first meeting with a U.S. lawmaker came three months into his tenure, when he sat down in December with Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin. His most recent, with Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, took place on Tuesday.
“The Congress, overwhelmed by Russophobia, is led by politically biased emotions, rather than a clear-thinking mind,” the Kremlin envoy told a POLITICO reporter, who interviewed him in a combination of written and face-to-face chats. "We are bluntly told they fear criticism."
U.S. lawmakers are going beyond the silent treatment. Some successfully pushed the District of Columbia to recently rename a stretch of road outside the Russian Embassy to honor Boris Nemtsov, a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin who was gunned down near the Kremlin in 2015.
That hasn't stopped Antonov from opening the heavy gates of his fortified embassy compound north of Georgetown, where the Russian flag was lowered to half-staff last month in observance of the school shootings in Parkland, Florida.
At a recent Russian film screening at the embassy, where guests nibbled on meat and cheese under the watchful eyes of plainclothes Russian security guards, Antonov was quick with a smile — and heavy on scripted Kremlin talking points — as he discussed the political climate in a Washington rattled by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s suspected role in the 2016 U.S. election.
“All I hear is ‘meddling, interference,’" complained Antonov, drink in hand and eyebrows raised. “I don't know these words. I want to talk about friendship, cooperation.”
A former top official in Russia's foreign and defense ministries with a specialty in arms control, Antonov — who is in his early 60s — is no stranger to working with U.S. officials, particularly when he was a lead negotiator on the 2010 New START nuclear agreement.
Antonov did tell POLITICO he has received “quite a warm and friendly welcome” at the White House and State Department, though he did not offer details of those meetings, but he lamented that “the constructive attitude of my American colleagues does not turn from words into practice.”
Despite President Donald Trump’s often-expressed desire to work with Putin, his Republican administration — under bipartisan pressure from a skeptical Congress — has generally kept in place tough Obama-era policies toward Russia.
The White House did not respond to a query about how often Antonov has visited there and with whom he has met. A chummy May 2017 Oval Office visit by Antonov’s predecessor, Sergey Kislyak, and Russia's foreign minister caused a furor after Trump reportedly shared classified counterterrorism intelligence with his foreign guests.
Trump has encountered Antonov at least once: in September, when the Russian envoy joined other new ambassadors to formally present his credentials to the U.S. leader.
Meanwhile, Antonov’s reception on Capitol Hill has been downright frosty. Contacts with Kislyak caused grief for several Trump associates, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who recused himself from the Justice Department’s Russia investigation after giving shifting accounts of his 2016 talks with the Russian envoy while he was a senator and Trump campaign adviser.
“After what happened to Jeff Sessions, no member wants to be in the press for meeting with the Russian ambassador,” said a congressional aide, adding that any lawmaker who does meet with Antonov should be upfront about it. “At least for now, any meeting would have to be bipartisan and publicly acknowledged. And even under those conditions, there’s not much common ground for a fruitful discussion.”
Congressional officials also worry that the Kremlin could exploit such a meeting for propaganda purposes, to obscure the fact that most U.S. lawmakers are suspicious of Moscow's motives and support tougher sanctions on the country.
POLITICO reached out to more than four dozen Senate and House offices, mainly those of lawmakers on the foreign affairs committees. Most didn’t reply; several said the Russians haven't requested a meeting.
Of the lawmakers whose offices POLITICO queried, only two acknowledged meeting Antonov: Johnson and Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican.
Corker's office said he met with Antonov in February and that the pair discussed issues ranging from Russian election interference to "shared interests, including recent arms control developments." Corker met with Antonov on the recommendation of U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, his office said.
According to a congressional staffer, Huntsman — who arrived in Moscow last October — has told U.S. lawmakers of his own difficulty arranging meetings with Russian officials. Russia often emphasizes the diplomatic principle of reciprocity, and Huntsman has indicated that his situation in Moscow could be linked to Antonov's challenges in Washington. The U.S. ambassador told reporters in January that he’d spoken to Antonov about it.
“I wish we had more meetings, and we will continue to ask,” Huntsman said, according to Russian news agency Interfax. “It is important on both sides that we have access to senior people, because unless you are talking to people, you cannot create a dialogue and you cannot solve issues together.”
Huntsman, too, has confronted questions about election meddling: In late February, he denied allegations that the U.S. is trying to interfere in Russia’s March 18 presidential election. “I don’t know how that’s possible,” Huntsman said, according to Moscow’s TASS news service.
Antonov and his aides declined to address specifics about his meetings with lawmakers.
Johnson, who also sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Antonov in December ahead of a planned visit to Russia. Johnson scrapped the trip after a fellow senator who planned to join him, New Hampshire Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, was denied a visa.
Hatch met with Antonov at the Russian embassy on Tuesday. The Utah senator arranged the meeting, which included emissaries of the Mormon church. The Utah-based church has faced challenges operating in Russia.
“Senator Hatch met with the Russian ambassador and LDS Church leaders this afternoon to discuss U.S.-Russian relations, religious issues, and the hope that the ambassador will accept the invitation to visit Utah in the near future,” said Hatch spokesman Matt Whitlock.
A tweet from the Russian embassy featuring a photo of Antonov shaking hands with Hatch declared that "[b]oth sides agreed on importance of restoring normalcy in our relations."
Antonov is described as more hard-edged than Kislyak, a soft-spoken but well-connected figure who generally avoided the media. He has a reputation of being particularly assertive when it comes to promoting and protecting Russia's military capabilities. The European Union has sanctioned Antonov for his role in orchestrating Russian aggression in Ukraine, though he has not been sanctioned by Washington.
"He can turn on the charm, and he can also be a Rottweiler," said Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. "I don't think he wants to burn bridges in his first year."
Added a former Western diplomat: “At the end of the day, he’s quite ruthless and a political survivor.”
For now, Antonov's instincts are leading him to reach out to Americans instead of hunkering down in his massive embassy compound. He has instructed aides to get out more often, and attend functions around Washington, D.C., to gauge the temperature on Russia-U.S. relations, according to Russia experts in Washington.
Antonov himself often leaves the U.S. capital to spread a message of goodwill. But he can be firm about Russia’s prerogatives, even if it means mocking the United States.
During a trip last fall to San Francisco — where Antonov reportedly stopped by Russian consular facilities shut down by the U.S. government — he rejected allegations of any Russian role in the 2016 campaign while slyly critiquing the American political system.
“It’s said by your president that the United States is a superpower. Nobody can beat it,” Antonov said, according to one press account. “Please. What just happened?”
Antonov’s embassy now releases a weekly newsletter and podcast, whose host begins each episode by saying, "Hello, America!" or "Good morning, America!" amid the energetic music of a Russian bluegrass band.
The ambassador described the approach as a modern revival of a Soviet legacy.
"During World War II, the Soviet Embassy used to publish information bulletins. Now we basically do the same thing — only we post it online," Antonov wrote in response to a series of questions. "Reality shows that leading American media practically does not use Russian original info-sources. We are trying to fill this gap."
Antonov is also continuing to pursue Kislyak's tradition of hosting cultural events, including screening modern Russian films.
In February, the embassy drew a large audience eager to watch "Going Vertical," a Russian movie based on the Soviet Union's improbable 1972 Olympics gold medal win over the heavily favored U.S. men's basketball team — a contest the U.S. considered stolen by suspicious refereeing.
While Antonov said he plans to deliver several speeches in Washington in the coming months, he feels his message seems to resonates best elsewhere in the United States.
"The further from Washington," he wrote, "the less prejudice towards Russia."