Trump mulling North Korea envoy to be next ambassador to Moscow

Steve Biegun could replace Jon Huntsman

(CNN) - The White House is discussing whether to replace Jon Huntsman, the outgoing US ambassador to Moscow, with Steve Biegun, the special representative for North Korea, two administration officials tell CNN.

Huntsman is set to step down in October after two years, the State Department announced last week, after reports that the former diplomat was moving back to Utah, perhaps to run for governor, a role he held from 2005 to 2009.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that President Donald Trump told President Vladimir Putin during a phone call last month that a new ambassador to Russia would be nominated "shortly."

The new ambassador will be taking up residence in Moscow at an especially challenging time, as US-Russia relations continue to be strained by Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, its annexation of Crimea and disruptive activities in eastern Ukraine. Concerns are also growing about a potential nuclear arms race, as both world powers have now abandoned nonproliferation treaties that kept their arsenals in check.

Biegun is seen as a fit for the challenging diplomatic post because of his extensive experience on Russia and in Washington. He served on the National Security Council as its executive secretary under President George W. Bush and spent 14 years working as a congressional aide in both the House and the Senate.

Russian experience

Biegun received a bachelor's degree in Russian language and political science from the University of Michigan and later served as in-country director for the International Republican Institute in Moscow from 1992 to 1994. He has also as served on the board of the nonprofit U.S.-Russia Foundation for Economic Development and the Rule of Law, and Freedom House.

Administration officials also say that Biegun's experience working on international government relations for Ford Motors would make him well suited to work on US-Russia trade relations, an area Trump wants to focus on.

Biegun did not reply to CNN queries asking if he would be interested in the job, but a source close to the Michigan native suspects he would be -- especially because of how slowly diplomacy has been moving with North Korea.

Another name under discussion to head the embassy in Moscow is the US ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who has been in the region for years now, has a close relationship with the White House and has expressed a willingness to shift to another role.

'The most difficult time'

But a source close to the ambassador says he is not interested in the post in Moscow, as he does not view it as a step up from his current role. Grenell did not reply to a request for comment.

At the Kremlin, Peskov had parting words of praise Wednesday for outgoing US Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman, saying the US diplomat worked to build "constructive" ties during an especially fraught period in US-Russian relations.

In a conference call with reporters, Peskov said Putin told Trump in a recent phone conversation that Huntsman's tenure coincided with "the most difficult time" in US-Russian relations.

"Despite that, the ambassador worked to build some constructive aspects" in otherwise chilly relations, Peskov said.

CNN's Nathan Hodge and Olga Pavlova in Moscow contributed to this report

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