Sergey Kislyak, Washington’s most famous – or infamous -ambassador, is heading back to Russia

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 9:12am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 June, 2017, 5:17pm

Remarkably fresh despite the tropical heat, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak was doing what he does best: hobnobbing in a room full of diplomats and dignitaries.

Only the setting was unusual for the most famous – or infamous – foreign envoy assigned to Washington in decades. He was in Cancun, Mexico, last week on the sidelines of a meeting of the Organisation of American States, a regional body.

What in the world was Kislyak doing there?

“I am representing Russia,” Kislyak said.

But he will not be doing that much longer, at least not in the United States.

The veteran Russian diplomat at the centre of much of the FBI investigation into Moscow’s meddling in the US presidential election and its aftermath is stepping down after nearly a decade as ambassador.

It is unclear whether he is retiring. The Kremlin says it is a routine rotation. But Kislyak had been widely reported to be destined for a senior post at the United Nations.

Instead, he told The Times, he thinks he will just go back to Russia.

“It is been 17 years,” Kislyak said, referring to his current stint and an earlier, eight-year assignment to the Russian mission at the UN and the Russian Embassy in Washington at a more junior level. “My wife wants to go home.”

Including a posting in Brussels, his career as a diplomat spanned the turbulence of the cold war, the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, followed by the ruthless rise of President Vladimir Putin and growing tension with the Obama administration.

Then came the US election last year.

Kislyak’s meetings with several of President Donald Trump’s top campaign aides or surrogates have come under intense scrutiny as a special counsel investigates whether they improperly cooperated with Russian hacking of emails or other efforts to interfere with the US election.

Trump’s national security adviser, Michael Flynn, was forced to resign in February for misleading the White House about his conversations with Kislyak. Attorney General Jeff Sessions recused himself from supervising the Russia inquiry after it came to light that he had failed to disclose his own meetings with Kislyak last year.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, met with Kislyak in December at Trump Tower. The Russian ambassador then arranged for him to meet Sergey N. Gorkov, a Putin ally who heads a Russian state-owned bank that is subject to US sanctions.

The FBI reportedly is reviewing those meetings. Kushner has offered through his lawyer to testify to Congress and answer questions.

Kislyak’s defenders, including some US backers, said his contacts with Trump’s team were part of the routine duties of any diplomat. Incensed Russian lawmakers in Moscow fumed that Washington was engaging in McCarthy-like tactics against their ambassador.

Perhaps the ambassador’s most jarring meeting was in the Oval Office.

On May 10, a day after firing FBI Director James Comey, who was heading the Russia investigation, Trump welcomed Kisylak and his boss, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, who was visiting, in for a chat.

The White House had barred U.S media from the meeting. But Lavrov brought a Tass news agency photographer, who was quick to post photos showing Trump beaming and the two Russians laughing.

Leaked accounts later indicated that Trump revealed classified intelligence to the pair about a threat to aviation. Trump also described Comey, who was heading the FBI’s inquiry into Russian interference in the election, as “crazy, a real nut job”, according to the leaks.

Kislyak, 66, known for his portly presence and jowly visage, found himself under an increasingly uncomfortable spotlight. CNN quoted unnamed US officials calling him a spymaster.

His tenure has seen US relations with Russia drop to a post-cold war low. In December, in a delayed response to the Russian hacking, President Barack Obama expelled 35 Russian diplomats – said to be spies – from Washington and New York.

Whether he is a spy or just a career diplomat, Kislyak’s position in Washington seemed to be getting untenable.

It was widely reported he would be named UN undersecretary for counterterrorism. But the post went to another Russian diplomat, Vladimir Voronkov, the UN announced last week.

The state-run Sputnik news service has reported that Kislyak’s successor in Washington would probably be Anatoly Antonov. A 30-year veteran of the Russian Foreign Ministry, Antonov specialised in security and disarmament and has served as deputy foreign minister since late last year. Before that, he was deputy defence minister.

Sputnik speculated that Antonov might assume the post after Putin and Trump hold their first official meeting during the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg, Germany, early next month.

Officially, the Russian government wasn’t saying. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted Monday in Moscow indicating that naming a replacement for Kislyak could take months.

“Then Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak,” she wrote on Facebook, “ … will go down in the history of bilateral relations as a man who did everything possible for their development even in the most complicated moments.”

He, at least, remained a diplomat to the end.

Asked if he felt, after so many years in the bosom of the diplomatic elite, he was being treated shabbily in Washington, he replied with a smile, “But what do you mean?”