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U.S. Senate panel backs confirmation of new ambassador to Russia

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Barack Obama's nominee to be the new U.S. ambassador to Russia could be on his way to Moscow in days, after U.S. senators put aside partisan differences to hold a quick vote backing his appointment on Tuesday.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held an unscheduled evening meeting to unanimously approve the nomination of John Tefft, a career diplomat and former ambassador to Ukraine, Georgia and Lithuania, to be the new envoy to Moscow.

After five months without an American in the position, both Republicans and Democrats said the dire state of U.S. relations with Russia made it imperative to confirm Tefft before Congress leaves on Aug. 1 for a five-week recess.

There was no immediate word on when the full Senate might hold that vote.

Tefft had painted a dire picture of relations with Moscow as he sailed through his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations panel earlier on Tuesday.

"Our relations with Russia today are in serious trouble and their future is uncertain," he testified to the committee.

"The United States cannot ignore the fundamental challenge to the international order posed by Russia’s actions in the Ukraine crisis."

While the hearing was going on, Obama announced wider sanctions on Russian industries over President Vladimir Putin's support for rebels in eastern Ukraine blamed for downing Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 this month. Washington also accused Moscow of violating a weapons treaty.

"In my view we cannot afford to wait to send an ambassador to Russia," said Democratic Senator Robert Menendez, the committee's chairman.

Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and frequent critic of Obama's foreign policy, called for unanimous approval of Tefft by the committee.

Tefft served as ambassador to Ukraine under Obama, a Democrat, and to Georgia and Lithuania under President George W. Bush, a Republican. He agreed to come out of retirement to take up the position in Moscow.

Dozens of Obama's other nominees to be ambassadors have been held up for months amid bitter partisan fighting in the U.S. Senate.

The previous U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, left the position in February.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Mohammad Zargham)

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