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U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan. Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

The United States ambassador to Russia is refusing to leave the country after the Kremlin "advised" him to return home following new Biden administration sanctions, two sources briefed on the situation tell Axios.

Why it matters: John Sullivan, a respected diplomat who 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.

  • Russia's foreign ministry announced Friday it would expel 10 American diplomats and bar current officials, such as Attorney General Merrick Garland, from visiting Russia.
  • But the Russians didn't expel Sullivan. Instead, the Kremlin summoned him to meet with a top foreign policy official, Yuri Ushakov, who recommended he go back to Washington for consultations with Biden officials.
  • Sullivan's view, according to people familiar with his thinking, is that if Putin wants him to leave, he'll have to force him.
  • A State Department spokesperson declined to comment.

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

  • Biden spoke with President Putin last Tuesday, telling him that 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 he did not want to kick off a cycle of escalation with Putin.
  • National security adviser Jake Sullivan spoke Monday with Nikolay Patrushev, secretary of the Russian Security Council, discussed a possible presidential summit and "agreed to continue to stay in touch," according to a White House statement.

Flashback: Last month, Biden agreed Putin was a "killer." The Russian — accused of poisoning some of his enemies — responded by wishing the new president "good health."

  • Putin also recalled Russia's U.S. ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, to Moscow for consultations.
  • The diplomatic signal was meant to underscore the Kremlin's unhappiness with the Biden administration.

Between the lines: In response to the new sanctions, Russia didn't expel Sullivan — or make him a "persona non grata," "PNG" in diplomatic parlance.

  • "If the Kremlin wants to PNG him, that would be a very escalatory move," said Mike McFaul, who served as ambassador to Russia under President Obama. ”The last ambassador to be PNG'd from Moscow was George Kennan, by Stalin in 1952."
  • "I applaud Ambassador Sullivan for continuing his job," he said.

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

  • U.S. officials have been working behind the scenes with allies to warn Russia of the costs of seizing additional territory but have made clear they're not going to intervene militarily to deter Russia in a non-NATO nation.

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

  • By ignoring the Kremlin's suggestion to recall Sullivan, the administration isn't taking the bait to escalate, while making it clear that Biden gets to decide who his ambassador is, not Putin.

Go deeper

U.S. ambassador to Russia will return home briefly: State Department

John Sullivan, U.S. Ambassador to Russia, during a briefing in Moscow in 2015. Photo: Anton Novoderezhkin/TASS via Getty Images

The State Department said Monday that the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Sullivan, will now be returning to the United States this week before returning to Moscow "in the coming weeks."

Why this matters: The statement, from a State Department spokesperson, comes just hours after Axios reported that Sullivan had indicated he intended to stand his ground and stay in Russia after the Kremlin “advised” him to return home to talk with his team.

Apr 19, 2021 - World

Russia expels Czech diplomats after explosion linked to Skripal suspects

Czech police officers detain a pro-Russia demonstrator outside the Russian Embassy in Prague on Saturday. Photo: Michal Cizek/AFP via Getty Images

Officials in Moscow announced Sunday that 20 Czech diplomats had 72 hours to leave Russia, after the EU nation accused Russian operatives of being behind a deadly ammunition depot explosion in 2014.

Why it matters: The action, which came a day after the Czech government expelled 18 Russian diplomats over the blast, marks the latest escalation in what's become the worst tension between Russia and Western nations since the Cold War.

Apr 19, 2021 - World

Russian authorities say Navalny has been transferred to prison hospital

Photo: Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has been transferred to a hospital in another penal colony, one day after his doctor warned that the jailed Putin critic "could die at any moment," Russia's prison service said Monday.

Why it matters: News that Navalny's condition had severely deteriorated on the third week of a hunger strike prompted outrage from his supporters and international demands for Russia to provide him with immediate medical treatment.

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