Sergey Kislyak, the Russian Ambassador to the United States, has recently become the angel of death for high-ranking government officials in President Trump’s beleaguered administration.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions met with Kislyak twice before the November 8th election while Sessions was still a senator. While the meetings themselves were not illegal, Sessions’ failure to disclose them in January under oath during his confirmation hearings is problematic to say the least.
The July and September meetings raised questions about the truthfulness of Sessions’ responses in general and have led to the Attorney General recusing himself from the federal investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. There are still calls for his resignation from office entirely, but as things currently stand, this is unlikely to happen.
Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was the first to fall prey to Kislyak’s web after he was forced to resign for discussing sanctions with the Russian before the election. This latest storm has reignited the controversial Trump-Russia ties discussion.
Who is this headache-inducing diplomat?
The 66-year-old Kislyak has had a long history in the US. He has been Russia’s ambassador in Washington since 2008 – three times as long as an average ambassador’s post and has had a diplomatic background stretching back decades.
According to his official biography, he’s a trained engineer who joined Russia’s Foreign Ministry in 1977, and he’s known for his specialization in disarmament. He has served numerous postings on U.S. soil, first as part of the Soviet Union’s mission to the United Nations from 1981 to 1985, then in the embassy in Washington until 1989. He also served as ambassador to Belgium, as Russia’s permanent representative to NATO, and as deputy head of Russia’s Foreign Ministry before taking on Russia’s top job in Washington months before Barack Obama took office.
Many in the US intelligence community raise questions over Kislyak’s true work in Washington. They consider him to be “one of Russia’s top spies and spy recruiters in Washington,” CNN reported, citing current and former senior U.S. government officials.
Important info from CNN: Sergey Kislyak, the Russian amb, is considered by US intel to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in DC
— Michael S. Schmidt (@nytmike) March 2, 2017
Russian officials are not happy with such a characterisation, and some diplomats who know him would agree.
“I think that’s very much an overstatement,” said William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador to Georgia and Kazakhstan and adjunct senior fellow at the RAND Corporation. “Kislyak is well known to be a Ministry of Foreign Affairs diplomat, an arms control specialist. He’s not seen as coming out of the KGB world as his primary function…. I’ve never heard anyone argue that Kislyak comes from that background.” Courtney said he found nothing unusual about Kislyak speaking with Sessions. “What is surprising in this case is that Senator Sessions denied that he had had such a meeting.”
Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and current senior fellow at the Brookings Institution has also said that Sessions talking to Kislyak was just him “doing his job”.
And James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at London’s Chatham House think tank, said, “all embassies have twin functions” – essentially that all embassies engage in espionage.
In an attempt to calm the escalating fears that Russia interfered with the US election, Kislyak’s press secretary said that Russia was trying to avoid any perceptions of interference, “We’re trying to stay as far away as possible from this election, since any move that we do has a chance to be used in political discussion and interpreted in a wrong way”.
The previous April, Kislyak sat in the front row of an elite audience listening to Trump give a widely unimpressive foreign policy speech. In that speech, Trump said, “I believe an easing of tensions and improved relations with Russia, from a position of strength, is possible. Common sense says this cycle of hostility must end.”
Kislyak said frankly, “We are living through the worst time in our relationship.”
No more warming US-Russia relations?
During the campaign, Trump regularly praised Putin and often exclaimed his desire to see the two countries mend their broken relationship.“Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he tweeted in January.
However, since Trump has taken office, the chances for this to happen have seemingly evaporated overnight, beginning with Trump’s national security advisor being fired over discussing sanctions with Kislyak.
According to Foreign Policy magazine, the Trump administration has tapped widely respected Brookings scholar and noted Putin critic Fiona Hill to become White House senior director for Europe and Russia.
That Fiona Hill is joining the White House genuinely amazes me. Real Russia expert and really tough on Putin. https://t.co/nYqRMmPPlp
— Adam Taylor (@mradamtaylor) March 2, 2017