Three and a half years ago, as Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi was getting ready to open the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sergey Kislyak happily agreed to an interview.
For an entire hour, Moscow’s man in Washington regaled us with his thoughts about bilateral relations, Hillary Clinton’s famous “reset” button, the ongoing war in Syria, Russia’s struggle against terrorism as well as its decision to offer NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden asylum, and, of course, the upcoming Olympics (see “Russia Puts Its Olympic Dreams, Reputation on the Line at Sochi” in the February 2014 issue of The Washington Diplomat).
“I arrived here in early September 2008. It was a very difficult period, the lowest point in our relations since the end of the Cold War,” he explained over tea and chocolates at his official residence on 16th Street, NW. “It was the time of the Georgian invasion and we had big differences with the United States. It wasn’t easy. I remember I started my first working day after presenting my credentials at the White House by making two speeches, explaining the Russian position [on Georgia].”
Things started improving after the elections, when President Obama proposed the “reset” — a policy Kislyak said his government took very seriously.
“Russian-American relations are important under all circumstances. Is everything so rosy and positive? Of course not, but our relations have never been simple. They have always been complex, and we certainly have irritants in our relationship,” he said. “As far as I’m concerned, relations are much more productive than we are given credit for.”
Kislyak added: “As is the goal of any ambassador, my job is to build productive ties and overcome the stereotypes that are still haunting us. Our differences will always remain, but we must also be mindful of things we can do together, to have more interactions between people, especially among the younger generation. They need to understand what Russia is, and what it is not.”
But all that was before Kislyak become a household name — and the well-connected, low-key envoy found himself thrust into the center of what is rapidly becoming Washington’s worst political scandal since Watergate.
Now, as special counsel Robert Mueller and his legal team investigate Russia’s meddling in the 2016 presidential elections and the Trump administration’s contacts with Kislyak and other Russian officials, the Kremlin’s envoy here has suddenly clammed up.
Two top Trump confidants had conversations with Kislyak that were intercepted by U.S. intelligence officials, but were less than straightforward about those contacts: Michael Flynn, who lasted only 24 days as Trump’s national security adviser before being forced to resign after having misled Vice President Mike Pence about his phone calls with Kislyak, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who conceded that he had had two previously undisclosed conversations with the ambassador and has since recused himself from supervising the investigation, reportedly infuriating Trump.
Also under scrutiny: Kislyak’s early December 2016 encounters at Trump Tower with New York businessman Jared Kushner, who is Trump’s son-in-law and now a top White House advisor.
The scandal grew more intense when The Washington Post, quoting unnamed U.S. officials, revealed on May 26 that Kislyak and Kushner discussed the possibility of setting up a secret, secure communications channel between Trump’s transition team and the Kremlin, “using Russian diplomatic facilities in an apparent move to shield their pre-inauguration discussions from monitoring.”
“Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate — a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team,” wrote Ellen Nakashima, Adam Entous and Greg Miller.
Meanwhile, despite Trump’s repeated pronouncements on the campaign trail that the U.S. could work with Moscow to defeat the Islamic State, the cloud of suspicion over his administration and steady drip of leaks have dampened any prospects for a rapprochement with Russia. In mid-June, Bloomberg reported that “Russian hackers hit election systems in at least 39 states before Donald Trump’s election as president … an attack on almost twice as many states as previously reported.” And last month, the Senate overwhelmingly voted to slap additional sanctions on Russia in a bid to limit Trump’s maneuvering room to improve relations with Moscow.
At the same time, The Washington Post reported that Mueller’s probe has expanded to include possible obstruction of justice charges against the president for, among other things, allegedly pushing FBI Director James Comey — whom Trump fired — to drop the investigation into the president’s embattled national security advisor.
Trump sparked an uproar by sacking Comey, but he raised even more eyebrows when, the very next day, he hosted Kislyak and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the White House for a jovial get-together that was captured by a Russian photographer — while American media were barred from the meeting. The optics of the encounter were strange enough, but then The Washington Post reported that Trump spilled highly classified information to Lavrov and Kislyak about a possible Islamic State plot — intelligence purportedly received from Israel.
Caught in the middle of this furor is Kislyak, an otherwise unassuming but seasoned diplomat whose expertise includes arms control and forcibly defending the Kremlin line while winning the grudging respect of his adversaries, according to multiple reports.
“He has interacted with American officials for decades and been a fixture on the Washington scene for the past nine years, jowly and cordial with an easy smile and fluent if accented English, yet a pugnacity in advocating Russia’s assertive policies,” wrote Neil MacFarquhar and Peter Baker in a March 2 New York Times article. “Invited to think tanks to discuss arms control, he would invariably offer an unapologetic defense of Russia’s intervention in Ukraine and assail Americans for what he portrayed as their hypocrisy — then afterward approach a debating partner to suggest dinner.”
We couldn’t reach Kislyak to comment for this article, though Donald Jensen, a former U.S. diplomat who served in Moscow in the 1990s, compared the 66-year-old Kislyak to Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s longtime permanent representative to the United Nations, who died in February.
“Both were highly professional in advocating the Kremlin’s policies,” Jensen told us. “Kislyak is a very experienced, well-trained, very adept Russian diplomat, but was relatively low-profile until this scandal broke. He throws a lot of money around Washington, and I’ve seen him in action. I wasn’t impressed by his style, but I was impressed by his effectiveness.”
Jensen called him “a very good mouthpiece for the Russian point of view, even though he’s not ethnically Russian,” but rather Ukrainian. “In the early ’90s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Ukrainian diplomats went with the new Ukrainian government. Kislyak stayed loyal to Moscow — and many Ukrainians have criticized him for staying in the Russian Foreign Service.”
As much as Jensen disagrees with the official Moscow line, he acknowledged that it’s “perfectly understandable” that many top people in Washington have met Kislyak.
“The Russian Embassy here keeps tabs on officials and think tank discussions, and Russia has an active soft power outreach program in the U.S. and Europe,” he told us. “Kislyak is just a very well-oiled, well-funded diplomatic machine. I find nothing unusual about an ambassador trying to schmooze and glad-hand people all over town. Many ambassadors do that, even if he advocates, as with Kislyak, policies that are hostile to the interests of the United States.”
Kislyak himself has said it is perfectly “normal diplomatic work” for ambassadors in Washington to cultivate ties with both Republicans and Democrats. A graduate of Moscow’s Engineering Physics Institute, Kislyak was posted to the U.N. in New York at the height of Cold War tensions and later came to D.C. in the mid-1980s under Mikhail Gorbachev’s efforts to open up the communist government. After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kislyak went on to serve as ambassador to NATO and deputy foreign affairs minister before coming to Washington in 2008.
In July, Kislyak is set to be replaced as ambassador to the U.S. by Anatoly Antonov, Russia’s current deputy minister of foreign affairs. Rumors have circulated that Kislyak may be in line for a newly created senior position at the U.N. focusing on counterterrorism, a job that Russia, as one of the five permanent Security Council members, wants to fill with one of its own. (Reports have speculated that he may also replace Churkin as Russia’s ambassador to the U.N.)
Yet in addition to the lengthy diplomatic credentials on his resume, some media outlets have suggested that Kislyak doubles as an intelligence agent.
John Herbst, director of the Atlantic Council’s Dinu Patriciu Eurasia Center, doesn’t buy into the spy speculation.
“He’s a career Russian diplomat whose expertise is on arms control, and who worked his way up through the ranks and was the Russian ambassador to NATO before coming to Washington,” said Herbst. “There’s no reason to assume he’s a spy, although it’s true that ambassadors do have some relationship with the [intelligence] chief of station at their embassies.”
Herbst, who was a U.S. ambassador to two former Soviet republics, Uzbekistan (from 2000 to 2003) and Ukraine (2003 to 2006), isn’t alone in that assessment.
“A lot of people think he’s a spook, or that he’s running agents in America,” said a Western diplomatic source who asked not to be named. “Despite the fact that a large proportion of Russian diplomats in the U.S. may work for the intelligence service, it’s my understanding that Kislyak does not. I don’t think he’s a spy, even though it’s sexier to say that he is.”
Herbst, whose Atlantic Council hosted Kislyak once for a lunch roundtable, did call him “a very smart and cautious guy who pays close attention to the policies of his government” as ties between Moscow and Washington have worsened in recent years.
“Whatever his Ukrainian blood lines, he clearly made a choice to be a part of the Russian Foreign Service after the Soviet Union fell apart, so that suggests a certain loyalty to Moscow,” said Herbst, who met Kislyak back in the mid-1990s when Herbst was a senior deputy to the U.S. ambassador to the Commonwealth of Independent States and Kislyak was an upper mid-level diplomat in the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Yet Herbst doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to who Kislyak speaks for.
“I believe that Russia is committing aggression in Ukraine,” he said. “They stole Crimea by force and they’re trying to subvert the country. Kislyak has to represent Russian interests, so he serves as an instrument of Russian policy and explains it away. That’s the purpose of diplomats. But these policies are dreadful and should be resisted.”
Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Dinu Patriciu Center, went further, calling Kislyak a “mouthpiece for the Kremlin.”
“For example, he meticulously articulated the party line on Ukraine on numerous occasions. In the larger scheme of things, the personalities of ambassadors reflect the personalities and policies of their masters,” said Cohen, adding that “he may have been appraised about the Russian hacking of the U.S. election campaigns, but I doubt this was a policy that originated with him.”
Even so, Cohen says Kislyak’s contacts with the Trump campaign, starting with his appearance at the candidate’s April 2016 foreign policy speech, “could be seen as rather benign, as Russia was seeking to get rid of the sanctions and the Trump campaign policy toward Russia talked about a massive improvement in the relationship.”
Professionally, Kislyak has been an unyielding advocate for Kremlin policy, but the affable diplomat has also tried to connect with Americans on a personal level. In 2010, he opened the Russian Embassy compound for a lavish, fantastical ball to benefit the Washington National Opera, attracting a slew of VIPs, including CEOs, senators and Supreme Court justices. The embassy regularly hosts cultural events such as jazz concerts, and Kislyak often traversed the U.S. to talk to students, business leaders and others about bilateral relations. He would also invite Americans to weekend events at Russia’s sprawling estate on Maryland’s Eastern Shore — which was shuttered by the Obama administration when the charges of election hacking surfaced.
While he has kept a low profile since the election imbroglio erupted, Kislyak still occasionally makes his presence known around town. In May, he co-hosted the first-ever #DiploChess Tournament alongside the Norwegian ambassador, welcoming chess players to compete at the Russian Embassy. And on June 12, Kislyak hosted Washington insiders and diplomats celebrating Russia Day at the embassy. “Attendees were encouraged to pose for photos with signs that said ‘I love Russia’ and post them on Facebook, Instagram and other social networks,” Politico reported. “The frayed U.S.-Russia relationship was clearly on the embassy’s mind as they handed out a pamphlet highlighting the two countries’ close relationship.”
Yet that close relationship is anything but at the moment. While Kislyak has stressed that the two former Cold War adversaries can work together on areas of mutual interest, such as tackling terrorism — echoing Trump’s position — the litany of issues that divides Moscow and Russia — from Syria to NATO to Ukraine to gay rights — remains long and seemingly insurmountable.
What happens next in the troubled bilateral relationship is anyone’s guess, though Garrett M. Graff, in a lengthy article for Esquire titled “The Inconvenient Comrade,” suggested that Kislyak has long coveted the post of Russian ambassador in Paris, but might be “too comprised now for such a plum job.”
“Wherever he ends up, the larger open question is how much blame he will face, here or back home, for the election-interference campaign,” Graff wrote. “The final twist is that Russia might now find itself in a more isolated, antagonistic position than it would have if Clinton had won. At the very least, it’s hard to imagine a member of Congress — or even a semi-ambitious Washington player — risking a meeting with Russia’s top diplomat. And the cloud of suspicion over Trump may compel him to prove himself less friendly to Russia than he anticipated last year.”
The immediate future may not bode well for Trump either. The Atlantic Council’s Cohen warns that Antonov — a hardline negotiator who is the departing ambassador’s replacement in Washington — “may be tougher and even more anti-American than Kislyak.”
About the Author
Larry Luxner is the Tel Aviv-based news editor of The Washington Diplomat.