The Trump administration’s back-to-back controversies over its Russian ties now have at least one thing in common: Ambassador Sergey Kislyak.
WASHINGTON — His diplomatic career has encompassed the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the inexorable-seeming rise of one Vladimir Putin. Now Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador to the United States, finds himself in a harsh and unwanted spotlight over contacts with Donald Trump’s campaign team.
After nearly a decade as Moscow’s man in Washington, the portly, bespectacled envoy is a well-known commodity in diplomatic circles. Though said to prefer behind-the-scenes parley, he plays an occasional role as Russia’s public face at events such as policy forums and academic symposia across the United States.
Kislyak, 66, is also the Russian president’s eyes and ears, a role that likely took him last April to a front-row seat in a ballroom at Washington’s ornate Mayflower Hotel, where an upstart presidential aspirant named Donald Trump took to the lectern to deliver his first major foreign-policy speech.
Trump’s speech gained him little traction with the invite-only crowd of foreign-policy experts, some of whom made dismissive note of what they called a somewhat incoherent worldview. In retrospect, the candidate’s address was perhaps most notable for what would become an increasingly prominent campaign theme in months to come: the need for better relations with Russia.
Kislyak, at least publicly, took a wait-and-see approach to Trump back then, telling Politico after the Mayflower speech that the candidate had made “some intriguing points,” but his positions needed to be more fully understood.
After decades of postings in diplomatic beehives such as the United Nations and Brussels, Kislyak has mastered the niceties of international relations as well as any envoy — but is also capable of strong pushback if he believes Moscow is being dealt with unfairly, former associates say.
“You’re never confused about what country he’s representing,” said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia who has known Kislyak for years. At a Stanford University conference last year, McFaul introduced his onetime counterpart by saying: “We had our differences in policy, but never in our interpersonal relationship.”
In Moscow, there was furious condemnation of the notion that Kislyak would have been doing anything untoward by meeting with U.S. officials such as then-U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions, who advised the Trump campaign on foreign affairs, or by talking with Michael Flynn, Trump’s incoming national-security adviser at the time.
Flynn was fired last month for misleading accounts of his conversations with Kislyak, and Sessions, now the attorney general, is under heavy fire for having told congressional colleagues under oath that he had not had contact with Russian officialdom during the Trump campaign, despite having reportedly held meetings with Kislyak.
Exasperated Russian officials — and some U.S. backers — said such contacts merely meant the envoy was doing his job, meeting Americans across the political spectrum to gauge their views and offer up Moscow’s own.
A Russian senator, Alexey Pushkov, said almost any senior politician in the United States would at some point be in touch with diplomatic representatives such as the Russian ambassador to Washington. “Hysteria in the USA has driven politicians into a trap,” he tweeted. “Met with the Russians? End of career. Hid it? To prison. The spirit of J. McCarthy has been just waiting in the wings.”
In Moscow, particular umbrage was taken at U.S. media accounts of Russia-Trump campaign connections, including a report on CNN that cited senior current and former intelligence officials asserting that Kislyak was not only a diplomat, but also a spymaster and intelligence recruiter.
“If things go on this way, U.S. officials and businessmen will have to forget the word ‘Russia’ and hide Russian souvenirs deep in their attics,” political analyst Ilya Kharlamov wrote in a sardonic commentary carried by the domestic Russian news agency RIA Novosti. “Otherwise they’ll be in trouble.”
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Kislyak, whose tenure as ambassador overlapped all eight years of the Obama administration, weathered the fallout over Russian hacking that U.S. intelligence officials said was meant to interfere in the U.S. electoral outcome. In his final weeks in office, Obama expelled nearly three dozen Russian diplomats and took other punitive steps. Moscow, via Kislyak and other channels, protested its innocence.
As a veteran envoy, Kislyak served successive administrations in Moscow that had differing political aims, but his personal traits have remained consistent through four decades of diplomacy, according to several people who have worked with him.
Kislyak is described as an intellectual whose training as an engineer helped hone a technocrat’s grasp of complex policy matters. Known for possessing an extremely good memory, he speaks excellent though accented English, with the tic common to native Russian speakers of sometimes neglecting the articles “a” and “the.”
He is not, however, described as an intimate of Putin, whose steely demeanor stands in contrast to Kislyak’s somewhat rumpled mien. Although he served as deputy Russian foreign minister, Kislyak has been away in Washington and elsewhere for a considerable chunk of Putin’s tenure.
Kislyak joined the Foreign Ministry in 1977, when Cold War-era relations between the United States and Russia were characterized by intense rivalry and labyrinthine intrigue.
In the early 1980s, he served as a second secretary in what was then the Soviet mission to the United Nations.
But by the time he took up other diplomatic posts in the United States, in the late 1980s, it was the era of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika and glasnost — reform, restructuring and openness, and diplomats were tasked with outreach to former foes.
Kislyak is well acquainted with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which has been derided as obsolete by Trump, serving as Russia’s envoy to the alliance between 1998 and 2003. After a stint back in Moscow, Kislyak took up ambassadorial duties in Washington in 2008, making him an unusually long-serving diplomat in the prestigious posting of the U.S. capital.
In public, Kislyak’s remarks generally conform to a traditional Kremlin view — that Russia seeks common ground with the West, but often faces provocation instead.
“You tried to contain Russia through pressure, economic sanctions, propaganda,” he said at last November’s forum at Stanford. “From the Russian point of view, it’s not something we initiated — we had to respond.”