A conversation with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, might as well be a death kiss for high-ranking officials in President Donald Trump’s embattled administration.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Attorney General Jeff Sessions twice met with Kislyak before the Nov. 8 election, when Sessions was still a U.S. senator. The meetings themselves were not illegal, but Sessions failed to disclose them when he said in January, while under oath during his Senate confirmation hearing, that he “did not have communications with the Russians” during the campaign.
The meetings, which took place in July and September, raised questions about the truthfulness of Sessions’ responses during his confirmation hearing and prompted calls for his recusal from federal investigations into Russia’s role in the 2016 election — or for his resignation from office entirely. On Thursday afternoon, Sessions, facing mounting pressure, announced he would recuse himself from any federal investigations of Russia’s role in the 2016 election.
The latest reports surrounding Kislyak’s meetings with Sessions are threatening to sink another high-ranking official in Trump’s fledgling administration and are reigniting controversy over its ties to Russia.
So who is the man causing so many headaches in the White House?
A long history in the U.S.
One of Russia’s highest-ranking diplomats, the 66-year-old Kislyak has been Russia’s ambassador in Washington since 2008 — a tenure three times as long as an average ambassador’s post — and he has diplomatic experience stretching back decades. Yet despite a long history, details about Kislyak are hard to come by.
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.
Spymaster or diplomat?
But there are questions about the true nature of Kislyak’s work in Washington. The U.S. intelligence community considers the ambassador to be “one of Russia’s top spies and spy recruiters in Washington,” CNN reported, citing current and former senior U.S. government officials. Russian officials have bristled at such allegations, and former U.S. ambassadors who have worked with Kislyak told VICE News that the characterization of him as a spy doesn’t sync up with what they know of him.
“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, echoed Courtney, saying he has known Kislyak for nearly 30 years and that by talking to Sessions, Kislyak was “doing his job.”
And James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at London’s Chatham House think tank, said that “all embassies have twin functions” — in other words, they all engage in espionage. But, he added, it tends to be the second-in-charge at an embassy who is involved in any espionage activities.
The Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to questions from VICE News.
“As far away as possible”
Aware of escalating fears about Russia during the U.S. election, Kislyak’s press secretary told USA Today in October 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,” Yury Melnik wrote in an email.
Kislyak hadn’t been very far from the election the previous April, when he sat in the front row of an elite audience listening to Trump deliver a widely derided 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.”
Last fall, Kislyak was seemingly very frank about the reality of where the U.S. and Russia stood: “We are living through the worst time in our relationship.”
So much for warming relations
Trump regularly praised Putin during the campaign and was not shy about his ambitions to thaw the two countries’ relationship upon taking office. “Having a good relationship with Russia is a good thing, not a bad thing,” he tweeted in January.
The chances for that to happen appeared to evaporate almost as soon as Trump took office, however. Trump’s former national security adviser, retired Gen. Michael Flynn, was fired after less than a month on the job when it was discovered he discussed sanctions with Kislyak and then misled both the public and Vice President Mike Pence about the nature of those discussions.
Hopes of thawing relations appeared even more distant on Thursday.
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. The move immediately received praise from foreign policy experts on social media, and is the latest indication the administration is trying to present a more muscular posture toward Moscow.