U.S. Embassy Moscow just held another chat with Ambassador John Tefft on VKontakte (VK), whose 68 million daily users make it Russia’s most visited social media site. It’s also the most popular social media network among Russian speakers.

The question-and-answer session, conducted in Russian, touched on issues critically important to Russians, including Ukraine-related sanctions, the U.S.-Russia relationship and visa issues.

U.S. Ambassador John Tefft answers questions on VKontakte. (U.S. Embassy Moscow)

Among the comments:

• “A big request to the ambassador and administrators: Don’t pay any attention to the ‘patriots’ who wave Novorossiya flags and discredit the United States. They are not real people.”

• “Where can I read the full text of Minsk agreement? I’d like to read and understand for myself without prompting by others.”

• [In response to the answer about U.S. visa opportunities for Russian entrepreneurs:] “The answer is about how investors can get a visa. It shows how investors can go to the U.S. But there is no answer on how an entrepreneur can go to America to create new technologies.” But a second commenter corrected: “We’re talking about different things. Businessmen are in fact the investors. … Learn the basics of building the US economy — everything is based on small and medium businesses with self-investment.”

Read the transcript:

Ambassador Tefft’s second VKontakte Q&A, January 28, 2015

Good evening!  This is Ambassador John Tefft. Thank you for your interest in this Q&A session. I’ll try to respond to some of the questions.

1) What ways do you see out of the current situation between Moscow and Washington?  What are realistic ways to re-establish normal relations? Do you think it is possible?

These are tough times for the relationship, no doubt.  Our main goal for 2015 in this regard would be for Russia to implement the commitments it already agreed to in the Minsk Protocol.  This includes stopping the fighting, removing all weapons and fighters from Ukraine, releasing all hostages, and returning control of Ukraine’s international border to Kyiv.  Russian progress on fulfilling its Minsk commitments is the key to rolling back sanctions.

The United States would prefer to collaborate with Russia to address international challenges.  For example, we worked long and hard to bring Russia into the World Trade Organization because we believed then — and we still believe — that an economically successful Russia is better for the world, as well as for its citizens.  However, we can only collaborate in a manner which upholds core international principles — principles which Russia already has agreed to uphold.

2) Has the percentage of B1/B2 visas denials increased in today’s unstable political situation between Russia and the U.S.? If not, would you expect it to increase? Are there any plans to prohibit the issuance of visas to citizens of Russia in the future?

We approve the vast majority of applicants for non-immigrant visas in Russia. Most of them receive visas valid for 3 years and for multiple entries. Our decisions are based on the same objective criteria for all applicants and are not influenced by politics. We have no plans whatsoever to stop issuing visas to Russian citizens. In fact, we would love to have more Russians apply for visas and travel to the United States. I firmly believe that there is no substitute for a personal experience to foster greater international understanding.

3) Why does the U.S. blame the Militia for the shelling of Mariupol? And why is there talk of further sanctions against Russia?

As Secretary of State Kerry said this weekend, we believe the evidence clearly implicates the militant separatists in the shelling of Mariupol, which killed at least 30 innocent people and injured more than 100 others. A spot report by the OSCE special monitoring mission indicated that the craters analyzed in Mariupol were caused by Grad and Uragan rockets fired from areas controlled by separatists. We feel it is reprehensible for separatist leaders to publicly glorify such offensives, and later modify their statements when the extent of civilian casualties becomes known.

As Secretary Kerry said, the separatists’ new offensive — not just in Mariupol and Debaltseve, but also along the ceasefire line — has been aided and abetted by Russia’s irresponsible and dangerous decision to resupply them in recent weeks with hundreds of new pieces of advanced weaponry, including rocket systems, heavy artillery, tanks, armored vehicles, in addition to continuing operational command and control. Russia’s commitment to the Minsk agreements it signed will be assessed by its actions not its words. We call on Russia to end its support for separatists, close the international border with Ukraine, and withdraw all weapons, fighters and financial backing.

4) When will there be visas for young people involved in start-ups and innovation? I am 24, and I want to go to the US to create new technologies and jobs!

Russian nationals who wish to found start-ups may participate in the E5 immigrant visa program, the so-called “Immigrant Investor” visa. Investors are required to prove that they will create jobs and that they are investing a certain level of capital.  For more details, please see: http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/immigrate/types/Immigrant-Investor-Visas.html

5) Do you think President Obama’s State of the Union speech can be interpreted in two ways? He said “Russia is isolated” and its economy is “in tatters.” In my opinion, these words play into the bands of anti-American propaganda in Russia. As stated by Mr. Peskov, the U.S. seems willing to “strangle” Russia. President Obama apparently confirmed this thesis. In light of such statements, what opportunity do you see for a “reset” of relations between Russia and the U.S.?

As President Obama said at the G20 summit in Brisbane, our long-term interest is in “a Russia that is fully integrated with the global economy, that is thriving on behalf of its people, [and] can once again engage with us in cooperative efforts around global challenges. But we’re also very firm on the need to uphold core international principles.”

Many distinguished analysts have noted that the economic slowdown in Russia started well before Russia’s occupation of Crimea. But the consequences of Russia’s actions in Ukraine have led to greater uncertainty and greater obstacles which have intensified the Russian economy’s downward trajectory. The self-inflicted counter-sanctions which Russia announced in August on imported food seem to have resulted in increased inflation and a more direct impact on the Russian people than anything caused by Western sanctions.

We are not seeking to change Russia’s government but to change its policies. We are working hard with our allies to allow Russia the opportunity to change its policies, to respect the sovereignty of its neighbors, and to once again become a full partner in securing peace and prosperity — not only in Europe but around the world.

6) How can I immigrate to the U.S.?

There are several legal ways to immigrate to the United States. The most common way for a Russian citizen to immigrate is through a family-based visa. If you have a close relative such as a parent who is living legally in the U.S., that person can sponsor you (known as filing a petition) for immigration. Russian citizens may also participate in our yearly Diversity Visa Program (“Green Card Lottery”), which is a random drawing of potential immigrants. If your name is selected and then you meet certain education and work criteria you can immigrate. There are also a small number of immigrant visas available for investors, skilled workers, people of extraordinary ability, and others.  You can find information on all of these types of immigrant visas at http://travel.state.gov/content/visas/english/immigrate.html.

7) Recently, the FBI announced the arrest of alleged Russian spies. As an ordinary citizen who reads the media, I wonder what guided the special service, if the words “ticket,” “book” and “purchase” were presented as evidence of their guilt?

I can’t comment on an ongoing investigation. But I would point you to the full U.S. Department of Justice press release, which details many of the allegations:  http://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/attorney-general-holder-announces-charges-against-russian-spy-ring-new-york-city

8) I was honored to spend some time in the USA as a Fulbright Fellow. … I was very surprised to see that most of people who teach Russian language, culture, literature, etc. base their beliefs on stereotypes rather than real facts. I would expect that from general public but not from people who name themselves as experts. It seems that after 1989 American researchers lost interest in Slavic world and switched to more exciting Middle Eastern one. It leaded to extremely low qualification of experts on Russia and we cannot see any bright young-ish researchers on that topic that are even on the same scale as Mr. Kissinger.

It is true that the study of Russian language, history and policy has waxed and waned over the years — just as interest in other parts of the world has fluctuated in line with international events. But I believe that current events are leading to a resurgence of interest. Overall, though, I would respectfully disagree with your impression that there are not enough Russian experts in U.S academia and in the diplomatic corps. For most of my 40-plus year career at the State Department, I have worked on issues related to Russia and the former Soviet states. My predecessor, former U.S. Ambassador Michael McFaul, who is now a professor at Stanford University, is an academic expert on Russian and post-Soviet state issues. And we have no shortage of brilliant young interns in undergraduate and graduate programs competing every year for the internship slots available at our embassy for U.S. students.

9) When will the results of the DV-lottery be available?

For Diversity Visa Program year 2016 (DV-2016), entrants can check their status online at www.dvlottery.state.gov starting May 5, 2015, through at least June 30, 2016.  The Embassy is currently interviewing winners for DV-2015 and we will begin interviewing the DV-2016 winners in October 2015.

10) How often do you communicate with Russia’s presidential administration? Which of the presidential administration officials do you normally deal with?

When President Obama nominated me to be ambassador, he asked me to open channels of communication in Russia to ensure that Russians are made aware of the U.S. Government’s perspective and — just as importantly — to keep our government in Washington informed of the Russian perspective.  As many of you already know from previous conversations I have had with you, I might not always have good news but I will always be straightforward and share our position. As a rule I don’t get into the details of diplomatic conversations and with whom specifically I’m meeting, but I can say that I have been striving diligently to fulfill the communication mandate the President gave me.

11) What are the chances of an immigrant who received a Master’s Degree in the U.S. to find a job there?  Are there many such people?

Foreign citizens who have a student visa and receive a Master’s degree in the U.S. require a work visa if they wish to work in the United States. They compete with U.S. citizens and legal residents with similar education for a limited number of jobs. Therefore they must convince potential employers to hire them and to sponsor them for a work visa.  A common work visa is the H1B, which is limited to 85,000 recipients from around the world each year.

12) Why does the U.S. government talk about the ‘exclusivity’ of America and by all means is trying to bend the world to their influence, but at the same time flagrantly violating the rights and interests of other states and nations. Maybe it’s time to abandon the imperialist policy and start cooperating with all and, hand in hand — with the Russian, Chinese, etc., to build a happy future for all.

As President Obama said in his State of the Union speech, the United States respects human dignity and is committed to justice. We support democratic institutions and we support the aspirations of people in many nations for freedom and democracy. We also uphold the principle that bigger nations should not bully smaller ones. Despite our serious disagreements with the Russian government about its unlawful actions in Ukraine, we do cooperate with Russia on many important issues, such as the International Space Station, the Middle East, and the efforts to contain Ebola in Africa.

13) I am a representative of the indigenous people of Russia — the Udege. My people live in the Far East in the Ussuri taiga, involved in traditional activities like hunting, fishing and gathering. Is it possible to organize the interaction between the indigenous peoples of Russia and the United States on the development of culture, economics, traditional knowledge, conduct exchanges between indigenous peoples?

Through our Professional Exchanges division, we have brought groups of indigenous peoples from Russia to the U.S. to meet with their professional counterparts and explore issues such as cultural preservation and sustainable development of natural resources. Participants have visited with Native American groups to share experiences and best practices in such areas as developing resources.

The United States and Russia have a long tradition of cooperation on indigenous issues and cultural exchange. The State Department regularly brings indigenous Americans to speak and share cultural traditions with indigenous peoples and others in Russia. For example, in the Russian Far East, we recently brought a Navajo flautist to perform in Primorye and Sakhalin, and we are now working with our Russian partners in Yakutia to bring traditional bone carvers from Alaska to participate in the upcoming Day of Folk Artists festival.

Also in the Far East, the U.S. National Park Service has enjoyed excellent cooperation with Russian partners with numerous projects under the Shared Beringian Heritage Program. These programs range from reuniting relatives in Chukotka with peoples of the Native Village of Diomede separated after World War II to assisting indigenous peoples from Chukotka travel to participate in a traditional trade fair in Alaska.  The Heritage Program has an excellent Facebook page detailing their projects. Please contact our Consulate in Vladivostok for more information about indigenous programs in the Far East.

14) How many exchange programs are planned in this year for the citizens of Russia? In particular, I’m interested in the business community in the U.S., as I am the head of the executive directorate of similar institution in Russia.

The U.S. Embassy offers numerous opportunities for Russians interested in studying in the United States, either for a short period or for full degree program. The Fulbright program is the flagship U.S. government exchange program, offering graduate students the opportunity to earn a Master’s degree in a number of fields, and offering scholars and researchers the opportunity to pursue their interests at American universities. Fulbright offers a number of other programs for university faculty and administrators. The Humphrey program offers opportunities to mid-career professionals to spend up to a year in a non-degree program to develop their leadership skills, while Global UGrad gives undergraduate students the opportunity to spend a semester at an American university.

Russian teenagers also have the opportunity to spend a summer in the United States as part of the Benjamin Franklin Transatlantic Fellows program and the “Between the Lines” program at the University of Iowa’s famous International Writing Program. In addition, the Embassy operates a network of EducationUSA advising centers for students interested in studying in the United States and for universities interested in seeking partnerships with American institutions. EducationUSA offers free and unbiased information about American universities and helps students prepare for the university admissions process. The Embassy website has up to date information on all educational exchange programs.

Through our Professional Exchanges unit, we also operate an exchange program which affords promising young professionals from Russia the opportunity to gain practical experience in, and exposure to, U.S. policies and offices related to innovation and entrepreneurship. The Russian Innovation Fellows are placed in non-profit organizations, private sector businesses, and government offices across the country to learn first-hand how issues in their fields are addressed in the United States. While deepening their understanding of American society, the visiting Russians also build a broad network made up of both their new American colleagues and the other visiting Fellows. The program is designed to develop enduring professional ties and lasting partnerships.  Please check our embassy website and our social media pages for information on how to apply for this program.


Once again, thank you for all of your questions. Unfortunately, it is difficult to respond to all of them. But I’m going to hold similar sessions in the future. Read our posts and ask your questions at any time. Goodbye!