Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak travels the country, engaging with Americans other officials of his stature would otherwise ignore.
This is the job of Moscow’s top diplomat in the United States, and those who know him say he performs it well.
“Kislyak has always done a good job making sure that he’s kind of talking to everyone, so when Democrats are in power he talks to Democrats but he also talks to Republicans,” said Matthew Rojansky, a Soviet and Russia scholar and the director of the Kennan Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center.
It is that job proficiency that in the last few weeks led to intense controversy in Washington, first for ex-National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and most recently Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Their conversations with Kislyak, and subsequent denial of them, led President Trump to request Flynn’s resignation and Sessions to recuse himself from inquiries into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
But while Kislyak’s name suddenly was thrust into the headlines, he is no stranger to the Washington establishment.
Rojansky said he is unaware of any Russian policy official in Washington who has yet to speak with the Russian diplomat, noting he has also interacted with Kislyak. “He travels a lot and gives lectures and he talks to students so he’s clearly getting the sort of zeitgeist of what’s going on in American society, which you know during the election – very, very important,” he said.
Kislyak has served as Russia’s ambassador to the United States since 2008 – a long tenure among ambassadors though relatively modest for top Russian diplomats. He was born in 1950 in Moscow; earned a degree in nuclear physics and negotiated nuclear arms control agreements as a result; began working at the Soviet Foreign Ministry in 1977; and was posted to represent the Soviet Union and Russia at the United Nations, Belgium and NATO, according to his Russian Embassy biography.
Days after the election his government is accused of interfering in, Kislyak spoke at Stanford University. In a nearly 90-minute session, he described the U.S.-Russia relationship as at its lowest point since the Cold War.
“I’m frequently asked ‘are we back in the Cold War?’ And in my view, no,” said Kislyak. “Because in the Cold War there were irreconcilable ideological differences and the military cultures of both sides that would threaten survival of the other. I hope we are not there.”
He said the relationship between the United States is improved from the Cold War days because he claimed Russia is now a market economy and developing democracy.
“There are no ideological divides, but difficulties still exist,” he said. “And they prove to be significantly more difficult than I would have expected when I came here after the events in 2008 with the conflict in Georgia.”
Kislyak said there is potential for the U.S. and Russia to improve relations because of their “commonality of challenges.” He cited religious intolerance, climate change and terrorism.
He denied Russia initiated this latest tension and provided a list of offenses his government accuses the U.S. of committing. It was an address typical of Kislyak, according to several who said they know him, as he defended his government throughout the event.