October 3, 2017 at 4:10 PM
MOSCOW — Jon Huntsman Jr., the new U.S. ambassador to Moscow, presented his credentials to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Tuesday and pledged to work on repairing relations that are at their worst since the twilight years of the Cold War.
The former Utah governor and ambassador to China, who had called on Donald Trump to drop out of last year's presidential race, arrived this week as President Trump's envoy toRussia amid several investigations into Moscow's interference in the 2016 election and its role in Trump's victory.
He inherits a powder keg from John Tefft, the outgoing ambassador who spent the past three years quietly trying to build bridges in Moscow, and he will preside over a deeply depleted embassy that cut 755 employees last month as a punishment ordered by Putin.
Russia and the United States are trapped in tit-for-tat retaliations in which hundreds of diplomats have been expelled by both sides and diplomatic properties seized, including the San Francisco consulate of Russia's mission to the United States.
On Monday, Russia's Foreign Ministry accused U.S. authorities of illegally breaking into residences at the San Francisco consulate and threatened retaliation.
Seething over the seizure of five diplomatic properties, Moscow complained that "now the front doors have been broken open and a total search has been executed within."
"We declare our strong protest against this latest hostile action by the United States," the ministry said in an acerbic statement. "We reserve the right to respond."
What exactly that response might be has not been revealed.
In Washington, the State Department denied the Russian allegation, saying that its personnel had simply entered to "look around" and make sure no one was still living at the consulate past an extended Oct. 1 deadline.
Tempers were somewhat more subdued Tuesday at a ceremony in the Kremlin's St. Alexander Hall, where Putin received credentials from more than 20 foreign diplomats, including Huntsman. In remarks before the ceremony, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he hoped Huntsman could "repair the damage" caused to the relationship between the two countries "by Washington's actions."
Putin called current relations "unsatisfactory" and demanded greater respect for "national interests and noninterference in internal affairs," a reference to his anger at alleged U.S. meddling in Russian politics.
"I look forward to working to rebuild trust between our two countries and to strengthening the bilateral relationship based on cooperation on common interests," Huntsman said following the ceremony, according to the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. "I will seek out Russian people from all walks of life to share perspectives, to relay American values, and to deepen my growing appreciation for Russia's rich and fascinating history and culture."
Huntsman, whose nomination was approved by the Senate on Thursday in a voice vote, has said there is no question that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, putting him at odds with Trump, who has played down the charge.
Huntsman ran for president in the 2012 Republican primaries before throwing his support to Mitt Romney, the eventual GOP nominee. He is a former chairman of the Atlantic Council, an international think tank that has criticized Russia for its support of Ukrainian separatists and interference in U.S. politics.
William Branigin in Washington contributed to this report.