Sessions Revelations Put 'Quiet, Behind-The-Scenes' Russian Envoy In Spotlight | KUOW News and Information

Sessions Revelations Put 'Quiet, Behind-The-Scenes' Russian Envoy In Spotlight

Mar 2, 2017
Originally published on March 8, 2017 8:30 am

Russia's ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak, is not known to seek the limelight. He's a mild-mannered diplomat and an arms control expert who came to Washington as ambassador in 2008. But he has been in the news a lot of late, as Trump administration contacts with him come under scrutiny.

Michael Flynn, President Trump's original national security adviser, had to resign after misleading the administration about his phone calls with Kislyak. And now, Trump's attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has come under fire for meeting twice with the ambassador last year.

"I never had meetings with Russian operatives or Russian intermediaries about the Trump campaign," Sessions said Thursday. But he announced he would recuse himself "from any existing or future investigations of any matters related in any way to the campaigns for president of the United States."

Speaking at Stanford University last November, Kislyak defended his contacts with Trump surrogates.

"Our job is to talk to all the people, be it Republicans, be it Democrats, whether they work for a campaign, whether they don't work for a campaign," he said. "Our job is to understand."

He also lamented the souring of U.S.-Russia relations.

"We are living in the worst point in our relations after the end of the Cold War," he said.

But the ambassador complained that the U.S. is trying to contain Russia, through sanctions and political pressure.

Kislyak has built a reputation in Washington as a pragmatist. Alexander Vershbow, a former U.S. ambassador and NATO official, has known him since the 1990s and negotiated directly with him when both served as ambassadors to NATO.

Vershbow says when he left that job to become U.S. ambassador to Russia, Kislyak gave him a gift — an album by the Red Army Chorus called Our Answer to NATO. It was all in good humor, Vershbow says, and that's the kind of ambassador Kislyak is — patriotic but personable.

"He's much more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes type," Vershbow says, "a real experts' expert on arms control and security issues ... but also has a good reputation as a problem-solver, one of the relatively pragmatic and nonpolemical diplomats I've dealt with."

A former Obama administration official, Philip Gordon, found the same in his dealings with Kislyak. In the early days of the Obama administration's "reset" of relations with Russia, Kislyak played a key role.

"There was a real agenda," Gordon says, "and Kislyak was a part of that positive development in relations between the two countries."

Dmitry Medvedev was Russia's president at the time. But when Vladimir Putin returned to the job, the Kremlin set a different tone, says Gordon, now at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"We started to hear the differences," Gordon recalls, "and the Russian ambassador reflected those, just as he reflected his government's policies when we were in a more positive phase."

Gordon says it was not surprising to see Kislyak make contact with Trump surrogates during the campaign. But he says it is alarming that those advisers weren't upfront with Americans about those contacts.

Those who support more pragmatic dealings with Russia say that just got more difficult.

"Very few people probably would want to meet with Russia's ambassador," says Paul Saunders of the Center for the National Interest, a conservative think tank that has frequently hosted Kislyak. "That really doesn't really have anything to do with him personally. But I think it has become, in our political climate, increasingly damaging to admit to contacts like that."

The same is likely to be the case for the next ambassador. Russian news reports have said Kislyak will be replaced by Anatoly Antonov, who has a reputation as a hard-liner.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Now we're going to take a closer look now at a central figure in this story, the Russian ambassador to the United States. As we just heard, him met with Attorney General Sessions twice last year. He also spoke with other members of the Trump administration, including President Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Flynn stepped down after admitting that he had not been forthcoming with the vice president about those conversations. NPR's Michele Kelemen has this profile of the Russian ambassador.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Sergey Kislyak is not known to seek the limelight. He's a mild-mannered diplomat, an arms control expert who came to Washington as ambassador in 2008. Speaking at Stanford University last November, he lamented how relations have soured since then.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SERGEY KISLYAK: We are living in through the worst point in our relations after the end of the Cold War.

KELEMEN: The ambassador complained that the U.S. is trying to contain Russia through sanctions and pressure. He said it's too early to see how this might change in a new administration. And Kislyak defended his contacts with Trump surrogates.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KISLYAK: Our job is to talk to all the people, be it Republicans, be it Democrats. Whether they work for a campaign or they do not work for a campaign, our job is to understand.

KELEMEN: Kislyak built a reputation here as a pragmatists. A former U.S. ambassador and NATO official, Alexander Vershbow has known him since the 1990s.

ALEXANDER VERSHBOW: I negotiated with him directly on the NATO-Russia founding act. He was working under Foreign Minister Primakov at that time. Then we were together as ambassadors to NATO.

KELEMEN: Vershbow says when he left that job to become ambassador to Russia, Kislyak gave him a gift - an album by the Red Army Chorus called "Our Answer To NATO." It was all in good humor, he says, and that's the kind of ambassador Kislyak is - patriotic but also personable.

VERSHBOW: He's much more of a quiet, behind-the-scenes type, a real expert's expert on arms control and security issues but also has a good reputation as a problem solver, one of the relatively pragmatic and non-polemical diplomats that I've dealt with.

KELEMEN: A former Obama administration official, Philip Gordon, found that too in the early days of the Obama administration's so-called reset with Russia. Kislyak played a key role.

PHILIP GORDON: There was a real agenda, and Kislyak was a part of that positive development in relations between the two countries.

KELEMEN: That was when Dmitry Medvedev was Russia's president. When Vladimir Putin returned to the job, the Kremlin set a different tone, says Gordon, now with the Council on Foreign Relations.

GORDON: We started to hear the differences, and the Russian ambassador reflected those just as he reflected his government's policies when we were in a more positive phase.

KELEMEN: Gordon says it was not surprising to see Kislyak make contacts with Trump surrogates during the campaign, but he says it is alarming that those advisers weren't upfront with Americans about those contacts. Those who support more pragmatic dealings with Russia say that just got more difficult. Paul Saunders is the executive director of the Center for the National Interests, a think tank that frequently hosted the Russian ambassador.

PAUL SAUNDERS: Very few people probably would want to meet with Russia's ambassador. That doesn't really have anything to do with him personally, but I think it's become in our political climate increasingly damaging to admit to contacts like that.

KELEMEN: And that will likely be the same for the next ambassador. Russian news reports have said Kislyak could be replaced by Anatoly Antonov, who has a reputation as a hard-liner. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.