But only now has Sergey Kislyak, the low-key Russian ambassador to the United States, started making headlines as the person no one in the Trump administration seems to remember meeting.
It’s not a crime for a sitting US senator to meet with the ambassador of a country that sits on the UN security council, even one that’s sometimes , like Russia. It might not even, as a technical matter, be perjury, that US attorney general Jeff Sessions ‘forgot’ about the two conversations he is now reported to have had with Kislyak in 2016 at the height of the presidential election campaign.
So who is the old Russian hand at the center of a controversy that’s already claimed the resignation of Mike Flynn, the retired general who is no longer national security advisor, and might claim Sessions as well?
Kislyak is a longtime career diplomat who speaks fluent English and French. In contrast to Russia’s long-serving foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the burlier and less polished Kislyak mostly avoids the spotlight. If reports are true, Kislyak is already a lame-duck ambassador — Moscow is reportedly readying a more hard-line figure, deputy prime minister Anatoly Antonov, to replace Kislyak.
One of the mysteries of the current brouhaha over the Trump campaign’s ties to Kremlin officials is the disconnect in December between Kislyak’s initial anger over the outgoing Obama administration’s additional sanctions (related to increasing indications that Russia attempted to use cybertricks to interfere with the US election) and the Kremlin’s more relaxed response a day later — after nearly a half-dozen calls between Flynn and Kislyak:
The concerns about the contacts were cemented by a series of phone calls between Mr. Kislyak and Michael T. Flynn, who had been poised to become Mr. Trump’s national security adviser. The calls began on Dec. 29, shortly after Mr. Kislyak was summoned to the State Department and informed that, in retaliation for Russian election meddling, the United States was expelling 35 suspected Russian intelligence operatives and imposing other sanctions. Mr. Kislyak was irate and threatened a forceful Russia response, according to people familiar with the exchange.
But a day later, Mr. Putin said his government would not retaliate, prompting a Twitter post from Mr. Trump praising the Russian president — and puzzling Obama White House officials. On Jan. 2, administration officials learned that Mr. Kislyak — after leaving the State Department meeting — called Mr. Flynn, and that the two talked multiple times in the 36 hours that followed. American intelligence agencies routinely wiretap the phones of Russian diplomats, and transcripts of the calls showed that Mr. Flynn urged the Russians not to respond, saying relations would improve once Mr. Trump was in office, according to multiple current and former officials.
So who is Kislyak and how did he come to be the Kremlin’s envoy to Washington for a decade?
He’s 66 years old, and he has a wide-ranging background. In the 1980s, he served as a diplomat in both New York City and Washington, D.C., returning to Moscow right before the fall of the Soviet Union. He was simultaneously appointed ambassador to Belgium and permanent representative to NATO in 1998, and so he was in Brussels at a time when NATO expansion for the first wave of enlargement into eastern Europe and when the Bush administration was pushing to gather allies for its invasion of Iraq.
In 2003, Kislyak returned to Moscow as deputy foreign minister, where he increasingly became the Kremlin’s point man on negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. If you search Wikileaks, Kislyak shows up more often with respect to Iran in his years as deputy foreign minister than he does as ambassador to the United States. Presumably, Kislyak was a good fit for the rule because he doesn’t cut the same svelte look as Lavrov and wouldn’t upstage Lavrov. Moreover, Kislyak isn’t particularly close to Russian president Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, nor does he come from the siloviki, the internal security services from which Putin and many of his top aides emerged, though some US commentators have argued that Kislyak is a top spy recruiter in the United States.
In July 2008, then-president Dmitri Medvedev appointed Kislyak as ambassador to the United States, where the new envoy was immediately tested by tussles between Russia and Georgia, the subsequent Russian occupation of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and calls from leading American policymakers (including the Republican presidential nominee at the time, US senator John McCain) to support Georgia against Russian aggression. The Ukraine-born Kislyak, whose mother and father were also born in Ukraine, also played cleanup in the United States, taking a high-profile role defending (and sometimes dissembling over) Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and its subsequent low-grade interference in eastern Ukraine.
Kislyak has cautioned in several public appearances in past years that relations between the two countries are at a post-Cold War nadir. So it’s not surprising that Kislyak would attempt to build contacts with a major presidential campaign, especially the Trump campaign, which time and again signaled that it wanted to improve relations with Moscow. Notably, Kislyak was in attendance last April when Trump delivered his initial foreign policy address at an event sponsored by the Center for the National Interest in Washington, D.C.
No one believes that the conversations that Flynn or Sessions (or anyone else on the Trump campaign) had with Kislyak were illegal, notwithstanding the silly talk about the Logan Act. The question is why Flynn and Sessions have now both actively avoided disclosing those conversations when directly asked about the Trump-Russia connection, in Sessions’s case before a Congressional hearing.
A Washington Post profile from 2014 at the height of the Ukraine crisis described him as a serviceable ambassador:
Current and former U.S. officials who know Kislyak describe him as a smart, genial technocrat with moderate influence in Moscow. He is not part of Putin’s inner cadre and has spent much of his professional career abroad.
“He represents the interests and positions of his government very well,” said Michael McFaul, who was Kislyak’s counterpart as U.S. ambassador to Russia until a few weeks ago. McFaul dealt with Kislyak most closely, however, when McFaul was the top Russia expert on the White House National Security Council. “He’s a very active ambassador in the positive sense,” McFaul said. “He was constantly trying to meet with me” and with U.S. officials across many agencies, McFaul said.