by Jonathan Easley · March 11, 2017
Former U.S. ambassadors to Russia and Foreign Service diplomats are angered by what they view as a “witch-hunt” pursuing Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak, warning that “hysteria” over Russia in Congress and the media will undermine U.S. interests abroad.
Kislyak, a trained nuclear physicist who has served as the Russian ambassador to the U.S. since 2008, has been enveloped in controversy since national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned after misleading Vice President Pence about his contacts with the Russian envoy.
That spotlight only grew hotter this month, when reports emerged that Kislyak had met privately with then-Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) before Sessions became attorney general.
In his hearing to become attorney general, Sessions testified under oath that he did not have any contact with Russians during the campaign. Sessions has amended his testimony, saying that he met with Kislyak in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, instead of as part of President Trump’s campaign.
The Sessions revelations kicked-off a furious round of digging by Democrats and the media into other instances in which Kislyak had attended events where Trump campaign officials were present.
Countless reports have since surfaced — many colored by dark insinuations of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, as well as the alleged Russian hacking campaign in the 2016 election — of Kislyak attending the Republican National Convention, a foreign policy speech Trump gave in Washington last April and even the president’s address to a joint-session of Congress.
Democrats have seized on the reports, claiming they’re evidence of the Trump administration’s close ties to Moscow. Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) unveiled a website this week entitled “Connecting the Trump-Russia dots,” with Kislyak’s portrait squarely in the middle.
A CNN report alleged that “current and former US intelligence officials have described Kislyak as a top spy and recruiter of spies.”
“That’s total horseshit,” said Wayne Merry, a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council who worked as a U.S. diplomat to Russia and has known Kislyak for decades. “It’s a witch-hunt with paranoia and hysteria at its core. Normally it’s the Russians who become paranoid and hysterical. That the conspiracy theories and paranoia is coming from Americans makes me very uncomfortable.”
The past two U.S. ambassadors to Russia defended Kislyak in interviews with The Hill: Michael McFaul a fierce Trump critic who was appointed by former President Obama, and John Beyrle, who was appointed by former President George W. Bush but served for three years under Obama.
Both former ambassadors tell The Hill that the Russian ambassador was merely doing his job and that there is no evidence of any illicit collusion between him and the Trump campaign.
McFaul and Beyrle say they are extremely troubled by evidence that suggests the Russians interfered in the U.S. election. They support an independent investigation into the matter.
But allegations and insinuations that Kislyak was the point person for this — and that it could have played out in broad daylight at meetings on Capitol Hill or at Trump campaign events — are preposterous, they say.
“Kislyak’s job is to meet with government officials and campaign people and I think he’s good at his job,” said McFaul. “People should meet with the Russian ambassador and it’s wrong to criminalize that or discourage it. I want the Russian government to be as informed as possible about the American political process. When I was ambassador, it was frustrating how poorly informed the Russian government was. It’s a good thing to meet with him, not a bad thing.”
National security experts generally agree that Sessions and other Trump campaign officials have handled the Russia issue poorly.
Sessions, they say, should have told Congress about his meeting with Kislyak.
And they say Flynn was reckless and wrong to speak with Russian diplomats about sanctions during the transition period when Obama was still president.
Still, former diplomats say the atmosphere in Washington over anything that carries even a whiff of Russia is out of control.
“It’s the usual Washington breathlessness that accompanies any story these days about Trump or the Russians,” said Beyrle. “That doesn’t mean there isn’t need for an investigation. There is almost no question that there was Russian interference in the election and there needs to be an investigation. But to conclude from all this that Kislyak was somehow a bad actor is missing the target.”
National security experts say the uproar around Kislyak could have foreign policy reverberations, potentially making life difficult for the current U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Tefft, or his successor, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman.
“The Russian default mode is reciprocity,” said Beyrle. “If they feel we’re doing it to them, more often than not they’ll do it back to us.”
McFaul has experienced this first-hand. He routinely landed on the front page of Russian newspapers, accused of fomenting revolution.
“I was demonized and called all kinds of things in the Russian press and I don’t want Americans to do to Kislyak what the Russian government did to me,” McFaul said. “It’s not good for U.S. Russian relations. People should be able to meet with him without fear of being called a double-agent. Throwing around loosely, without documentation, that this person is an intelligence officer is dangerous.”
It’s damaging to U.S. interests for lawmakers to be skittish about meeting with foreign ambassadors, according to Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security at the U.S. Naval War College.
From the Russian perspective, Gvosdev is worried that the frenzy around Kislyak will provoke the Russians to shut down diplomatic backchannels needed for the countries to cooperate on even basic levels.
“Russia is still a major player. We can’t not talk to them, “ Gvosdev said. “We are really creating issues for future diplomacy with the Russians and this will make it harder when there’s an actual major challenge from them.”
Andrey Sushentsov, the head of the Moscow-based Foreign Policy Advisory Group and a program director at the Valdai Club there, says the damage has already been done.
“It seems that the “Russian question” is becoming one of the issues in America’s culture wars,” Sushentsov said in an email to The Hill. “By demonizing a foreign partner for a political purposes the U.S. limits it’s capability in global governance and diplomacy.
“Russia was not expecting the relations with the U.S. to improve significantly, but was not striving to worsen them even more. What Russia needs is predictability and stability in its relations with the US — even if this is a negative stability. Current climate in Washington does not permit this.”