KIEV, Ukraine—In Russia it’s often said that “deputy directors” in the federation bureaucracy are the actual decision makers. If so, over the past decade the Russian military officer and diplomat Gen. Anatoly Antonov has been making a lot of very important decisions indeed.
He has held positions as deputy foreign minister and deputy defense minister, as well as director of the Department of Security and Disarmament.
And earlier this month the Russian government approved the appointment of the 62-year-old diplomat for one more strategically important position: as Russia’s next ambassador to the United States.
He will replace Sergei Kislyak, now notorious as the supposed “Russian connection” for such Trump administration notables as fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, recused Attorney General Jeff Sessions, and son-in-law/adviser Jared Kushner.
Russian experts believe that Antonov is going to Washington to hammer the U.S. whenever it starts to tread on Russia’s interests. But the bureaucracy has been more than a little mysterious about the new assignment.
The Russian foreign ministry traditionally works behind a cloud of such deep secrecy that journalists grumble its Russian acronym, MID, actually stands for the Ministry of Denials.
Earlier this week, when the former U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul, wrote on Twitter that Kislyak was preparing to leave Washington, the MID spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, denied that was the case. She referred to McFaul’s tweet as the result of a kind of “phantom pain,” like an amputated limb, caused by a failed diplomatic career.
But Moscow has been buzzing about Antonov’s appointment for months, so the news coming from McFaul was hardly new.
“We have heard that the Kremlin was going to replace Kislyak with Antonov for at least the last eight months,” Igor Bunin, the director of Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies, told The Daily Beast. “Considering the current tensions in U.S.-Russia relations, Moscow wanted to bring a tough character to Washington.”
And “tough” Antonov is. He was responsible for the Kremlin’s decisions and statements about the conflict in Ukraine, Turkey, and the Middle East and often voiced the Kremlin’s decisions and attitude on foreign policy for media.
Antonov accused the United States of deliberately “throwing out untruths” about a Russian military presence in Ukraine. He would ask rhetorically, What have Russian officers been doing in Ukraine for the last three years? Only a small contingent is in Ukraine on the official peacekeeping mission, he would answer.
Both Canada and the European Union put the general on their lists of sanctioned Russian military men for the intervention in Ukraine, but the general never agreed that there was any intervention at all.
In the midst of the war in eastern Ukraine, as Deputy Defense Minister Antonov at the time, he was speaking on behalf of the Kremlin on Russia Today (RT), the Kremlin’s global network, criticizing the West’s “miscalculations” on the Russian role in the fight.
“First, it was not the Russian side, who organized the coup in Kiev,” he said, referring to the popular uprising that ousted Ukraine’s president in 2014. “We only decided to help the Russian people,” Antonov said, blaming nationalists and bandits for staging the uprising that ousted President Viktor Yanukovych.
“I am sure that without the help of the West it could not happen. The United States and other states have succeeded in conducting so-called Color Revolutions,” Antonov said, denying several times during the RT interview any Russian military involvement in the war.
“He was an important figure during the conflict with Ukraine: like a consigliere for the mafia,” senior military analyst Alexander Golts told The Daily Beast. Antonov was the spokesman for the Kremlin, providing the explanation for Russia’s military presence, and justifying Moscow’s decision not to allow any foreign observers on its border, when thousands of Russian military forces were moved to the Ukrainian frontier first for a test, then for full-scale training.
Back in 2015 Deputy Defense Minister Antonov said he was convinced that eventually Ukraine would “understand that only with Russia is it possible to construct the real independence of Ukraine.”
Two years later, Ukraine was farther away from Russia than anybody in the Russian defense ministry had imagined possible. Ukrainian teenagers wear anti-Putin bracelets, while authorities ban Russian businesses, websites, media, and imported goods.
Unlike many of the MID’s employees who tend to stay quiet and avoid reporters, Antonov has been famous for creating sensational news.
During the Russia-Turkey conflict in 2015 after Turkey downed a Russian warplane flying out of Syria, Antonov told Russian reporters that Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was involved in business with terrorists.
“Terrorism without money is like an animal without teeth, the oil income is one of the most important sources for terrorists in Syria—ISIS spends about $2 billion every year on recruiting insurgents from all over the world and supplying them with weapons,” Antonov told journalists. “That is why ISIS is defending the oil production so much. Turkey is one of the biggest consumers of that oil and, according to our latest data, the highest leadership of the country, President Erdoğan and his family, are involved in it.”
Antonov then pointed out satellite images allegedly showing ISIS tanker trucks freely crossing the Syrian border into Turkey. He did not mention the extensive intelligence and allegations that the Russian-backed Assad regime has been one of the biggest buyers of “ISIS” oil.
The war of words between Moscow and Ankara ended when Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan held a joint press conference in St. Petersburg and shook hands. Nobody in the Kremlin spoke about Erdoğan and ISIS again.
“Antonov was successful as a negotiator for nuclear talks on disarmament with the United States back in 2009; and then a few years later completely changed his rhetoric—turning with the wind, he will always say and do what the Kremlin tells him,” Golts told The Daily Beast. “Comparing him to Kislyak, who was a quiet diplomat, Antonov is a man of big rough words.”
His style should fit very well in Donald Trump’s Washington.