US ambassador refuses to leave Russia despite Kremlin warning

The US ambassador to Russia refuses to leave the country after the Kremlin “advised” him to return home following new sanctions from the Biden administration, two sources with knowledge of the situation told Axios.

Why is this important: John Sullivan, a respected diplomat President Biden has so far retained from the Trump era, is at the center of one of the most important early tests of Biden’s resolve.

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  • Russia’s Foreign Ministry said on Friday it would expel 10 U.S. diplomats and ban current officials, such as Attorney General Merrick Garland, from visiting Russia.

  • But the Russians did not expel Sullivan. Instead, the Kremlin summoned him to meet with a senior foreign policy official, Yuri Ushakov, who recommended that he return to Washington for consultations with Biden officials.

  • Sullivan’s point of view, according to people familiar with his thinking, is that if Putin wants him to leave, he will have to force him.

  • A State Department spokesperson declined to comment.

The big picture: Last week, in response to Russian cyber espionage and interference in the U.S. election, Biden unveiled a series of sanctions targeting the Russian economy.

  • Biden spoke to President Putin last Tuesday, telling him sanctions were coming while also exploring the possibility of a summit between the two later this year.

  • In announcing the sanctions, Biden called them “proportionate” and was careful to note that he did not want to start an escalation cycle with Putin.

  • National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council on Monday, discussed a possible presidential summit and “agreed to continue to stay in touch,” according to a House statement. White.

Go back: Last month, Biden agreed that Putin was a “killer.” The Russian – accused of having poisoned some of his enemies – replied by wishing the new president “good health”.

  • Putin also recalled US Ambassador to Russia Anatoly Antonov to Moscow for consultations.

  • The diplomatic signal was intended to underscore the Kremlin’s dissatisfaction with the Biden administration.

Between the lines: In response to the new sanctions, Russia has not expelled Sullivan – nor made him a “persona non grata”, “PNG” in diplomatic parlance.

  • “If the Kremlin wants to send him PNG, that would be a very escalating move,” said Mike McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Obama. “The last Moscow PNG Ambassador was George Kennan, by Stalin in 1952.”

  • “I congratulate Ambassador Sullivan for continuing his work,” he said.

The plot: Russia amassing thousands of troops along its border with Ukraine.

The bottom line: Biden wants stability and predictability to define his relationship with Putin and Russia, while his administration focuses on China.

  • By ignoring the Kremlin’s suggestion to recall Sullivan, the administration is not taking the bait to escalate, while making it clear that Biden can decide who its ambassador is, not Putin.

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