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John Sullivan: “Vladimir Putin does not want an off-ramp”

The former US ambassador to Moscow on dealing with the Russian president face to face, and what the Kremlin’s next move will be.

By Katie Stallard

In early November 2021, the CIA director Bill Burns and the US ambassador to Russia John Sullivan boarded a flight for Moscow. Russian troops were massing on the borders of Ukraine. Satellite images showed tanks and artillery batteries moving into position. The US intelligence community was increasingly convinced that Vladimir Putin was preparing to launch a full-scale invasion. The purpose of that trip, Sullivan told me, was to deliver an unequivocal message from the United States to the Russian president: “We see what you’re going to do. We know you’re planning to invade Ukraine. Don’t do it.”

The response from Putin and his top officials, Sullivan recalled, was a mix of denial and arrogance. Burns spoke to the Russian president, who was at his Black Sea residence in Sochi at the time, by phone. He met Nikolai Patrushev, the secretary of the Russian security council, as well as other senior officials, in Moscow. In every meeting, the message was the same. “First, they denied that they were going to do it,” Sullivan said. But he also noted an ominous subtext. “There was this underlying sense that – you know what, if we were planning to do this, we could handle it. We are back militarily. This is our neighbourhood. We can handle this.”

[See also: Biden and Putin agree on one thing – the future of the global order is at stake in Ukraine]

During the three months that followed, Sullivan met repeatedly with senior Russian officials in Moscow to try to avert the looming conflict. He travelled back and forth from the US embassy compound, where he had been based since January 2020, to the towering Stalinist skyscraper overlooking the Moskva River that houses the Russian foreign ministry. Most often, he spoke with the Russian deputy foreign minister, Sergei Ryabkov. On a personal level, the reception was always polite and professional, but it was clear that the meetings were a charade.

“Negotiating with the Russians in the lead-up to the war, my interlocutor would inevitably read from his notes,” he told me. “There was never a back and forth. They never engaged seriously in negotiations.”

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We were talking in a sleek, glass-walled conference room of the Mayer Brown law firm in Washington DC, where Sullivan, who is a lawyer by training, returned after completing his posting in Russia in September 2022. He is also a distinguished fellow at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. It was a crisp winter’s morning outside, rendering even K Street – whose buildings are as beige and unremarkable as the lawyers and lobbyists who occupy them are expensive – quite attractive.

It was a long way, in every sense, from the dark winter in Moscow the previous year when it had become clear that the Kremlin was preparing for war. Sullivan, who is in his sixties, with neatly combed grey hair and a hint of a Boston accent, remembers the moment he realised that Putin was set on conflict.

“In mid-December, the Russian foreign ministry presented us with two draft treaties,” he said, which nominally addressed Russia’s security concerns and demanded what amounted to a wholesale revision of Nato’s posture in Europe. The documents themselves were “pretty flimsy”, Sullivan recalled, and he was told he had 48 hours until the Russians made them public. “It just wasn’t an effort by somebody who was serious about negotiating. What it was, was somebody who wanted to demonstrate publicly that they were negotiating, or at least going through the motions of negotiating.” It was all done in such an unserious way that he remembers telling his colleagues at the White House at the time, “I interpret this as the Russians telling us to go jump in a lake.”

Western diplomatic efforts to avert war nevertheless continued for another two months. Sullivan personally delivered the US’s written responses to the draft treaties on 26 January 2022. Two days later, however, there were reports that Russia was stockpiling blood supplies at field hospitals close to the Ukrainian border, suggesting that an invasion was imminent. “The Russians were inviting negotiations to discuss their security, but at the same time they put a gun on the table with the military build-up. That was what they were threatening Ukraine with,” he said. “With the scale of that build-up and what I perceived as their lack of interest in genuine negotiations, my view was that they were certainly going to invade Ukraine. It was just a matter of time.”

[See also: Vladimir Putin’s speech shows he still thinks the West will blink first]

Sullivan grew up in the suburbs of Boston, Massachusetts, and graduated from Columbia University’s law school in 1985, where he was the book reviews editor of the Columbia Law Review. He clerked for the Supreme Court justice David Souter and joined Mayer Brown in 1993, where he could have settled for a comfortable and lucrative career in private practice. But there was a history of public service in his family. He had always been inspired by his uncle William Sullivan, who served in the US Navy during the Second World War and then in the Foreign Service, becoming the last US ambassador to Iran, where he was briefly detained in February 1979, nine months before the infamous hostage crisis. The younger Ambassador Sullivan kept a picture of his uncle on the wall of his office during his tenure in Moscow.

US-Russia relations were already deteriorating when he arrived in January 2020. Putin was intensifying his repression of civil society and making revisions to the constitution that would allow him to stay in power until 2036. The Covid-19 pandemic led to extensive lockdowns in Moscow in May and June. Then, in August, the Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was poisoned. In March 2021, Russia temporarily recalled its ambassador from Washington after Joe Biden called Putin a “killer”. The following month, after being frozen out by Russian officials, Sullivan also returned to the US for “consultations” and a long overdue visit to his family. That spring, Russia began gathering its military on the borders of Ukraine.

[See also: Europe’s new Iron Lady: Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas]

Sullivan was appointed by Donald Trump, but Biden asked him to stay on as ambassador to Russia. He has met Putin on numerous occasions, most recently during his summit with Biden in Geneva in June 2021. Over the course of a career that has spanned four decades in public service under five presidents, including stints as deputy secretary of state and acting secretary of state, he has interacted with many world leaders, and I asked him for his impressions of the Russian president.

“I didn’t look into his soul – but his eyes are clear,” he said. (The former US president George W Bush once claimed to have looked into Putin’s eyes and been able “to get a sense of his soul”.) “When I last saw him, he looked very healthy,” Sullivan said. “My impression was that he always spoke in a soft voice. He seemed calm, in control of himself and what he was presenting, and he had a sense of humour,” he continued. “He was a smart and effective interlocutor for the Russian government. And he is rational. There is no doubt in my mind about that.”

Sullivan was struck by Putin’s “imperialist ambitions”, which are shared by many Russian nationalists. “I think it’s mistaken to regard him as someone seeking to recreate the Soviet Union,” he explained. “[His imperialism] pre-dates the Soviet Union; this is about gathering the Russian people.” He was referring to the notion first articulated by 15th-century leaders of “gathering the Russian lands”.

[See also: Vladimir Putin is under pressure]

As the scale of Putin’s military build-up became clear, Sullivan was struck by the frequency with which Russian officials would invoke the country’s nuclear arsenal. “In the course of conversations on issues like the implementation of the Minsk agreements [the international deals intended to end the conflict that began in eastern Ukraine in 2014], there were moments when they would veer from a technical discussion of those agreements to, ‘You know, if we don’t solve this, it’s going to be like the Cuban Missile Crisis’; ‘It’s going to be a nuclear stand-off between the United States and Russia’.”

“Wait, this conversation went from zero to 60 miles an hour in seconds flat,” Sullivan recalled telling at least one Russian counterpart. “How do you get from the Minsk agreements in Donetsk and Luhansk to nuclear war between the US and Russia?” The other thought that went through his mind, he told me, which he did not share with his Russian counterpart, was that, “If I ever, on behalf of any American president, invoked nuclear war without precise instruction from the very top of my government, I would be recalled, fired, and the president, no matter who it was, would probably suggest that I have my head examined. But it is a standard Russian negotiating technique.”

Those threats have become even more explicit over the past year. Last month, the former prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, now the deputy chairman of Russia’s security council, warned that a Russian defeat in Ukraine “may trigger a nuclear war”. Putin announced on 21 February that he was suspending participation in the last remaining strategic arms-control treaty with the US. I asked Sullivan whether these threats should be taken seriously or viewed as a negotiating tactic. “Both.”

“With the degradation of their conventional military, what they’ve got left is their nuclear weapons stockpile,” he said. “So, it does not surprise me in the least that they are rattling the nuclear sabre and engaging in nuclear blackmail. This has been a negotiating technique that the Russians have used for a long time.”

But this does not mean that these threats can be dismissed. “It is such a drastic thing to threaten, the risk that they would use even a tactical nuclear weapon in Ukraine is so extreme, that the US has to take this seriously, and has taken it seriously and engaged with the Russian government on this.”

[See also: Will China stop Russia going nuclear?]

On 20 February, Biden travelled to Kyiv to meet Volodymyr Zelensky. Air-raid sirens wailed as the two leaders walked through the city, in a visit that was intended to signal that the US will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes. Yet, as the war now grinds into its second year, there have been calls from veteran diplomats such as the former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger for Kyiv to pursue peace talks with Moscow. Given Sullivan’s recent experience of negotiating with the Kremlin, I asked him whether he thought such a settlement was possible, and whether Putin, who has said he is “ready to negotiate”, was serious about diplomacy. “Now?” he asked, somewhat incredulously. “Absolutely not.”

“There is no indication that I have seen, subtle or otherwise, that the Russian government has varied from the goals of its ‘special military operation’,” he said, speaking quietly but emphatically. He believes those goals amount to the removal of Zelensky’s government in Kyiv and the subjugation of the Ukrainian people. “Given what Putin, what his government, what his country, has invested in this, the idea that he would walk away from it by negotiating something short of those goals, even if they got some piece of the Donbas? I have seen nothing to suggest that they are serious about discussing that.”

Negotiations that might lead to a temporary ceasefire were possible, Sullivan said, but this would just allow the Russian military time to regroup and prepare for another assault on Ukraine. “I’m often asked: ‘What off-ramp can the West offer Putin?’ What off-ramp does Putin want?” he said, sounding genuinely exasperated. “Putin doesn’t want an off-ramp. If we want to continue the highway analogy, he wants a rest area, but he doesn’t want an off-ramp.”

So what does that mean for the war and Ukraine’s future? Were there any circumstances in which Putin’s word could now be trusted? “After almost a year of this, I can’t imagine anybody could answer that question in the affirmative,” Sullivan replied. “They promised not only that they were not going to do it, but that they had no plans to do it. They were clearly lying at the time. President Ronald Reagan famously said to Mikhail Gorbachev, ‘Trust, but verify,’ quoting a Russian proverb. Well, that has now been blown up.” He shook his head. “There is no more trust. There is only verification.”  

[See also: Russia and the new language of war]

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This article appears in the 22 Feb 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Undoing of Nicola Sturgeon