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Meet the Russian diplomat at the center of the Sessions controversy

Russia’s ambassador to the U.S. has found himself thrust into the spotlight this week after the revelation that he twice spoke with Attorney General Jeff SessionsJeff SessionsBush AG: Making Sessions resign would be ‘unfair’ Gay GOP group urges Trump to reinstate transgender protections Meet the Russian diplomat at the center of the Sessions controversy MORE during the 2016 presidential campaign — contacts Sessions didn’t mention when asked about them under oath during his confirmation hearing.

Sergey Kislyak, Moscow’s soft-spoken ambassador to the U.S. who assumed his post in 2008, has gained significant notoriety following his conversations with several of President Trump’s associates.

Kislyak began making headlines early last month after revelations that, despite denials, Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, spoke with him about sanctions before Trump took office. Flynn resigned after reports emerged that he misled Vice President Pence about his conversations with the diplomat.

Then the The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Sessions, then a Republican Alabama senator, spoke twice with the Russian envoy during the presidential campaign.

Sessions, who maintained Thursday that he didn’t speak to the Russian official in his capacity as a surrogate of Trump’s campaign but instead as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, announced that he would recuse himself from Department of Justice investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election.

Shortly after his press conference, The New York Times reported that Kislyak had met with Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, along with Flynn, in December. And USA Today reported that he had met with two other former Trump foreign policy campaign aides — J.D. Gordon and Carter Page — in Cleveland when that city hosted the Republican National Convention last summer.

In a Thursday press conference, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Maria Zakharova described Kislyak’s frequent meetings with Trump associates as just part of his job.

“I will reveal a military secret: Diplomats work, and their work consists of making contacts within their assigned country,” Zakharova said. “This is written everywhere. If they do not make contacts and do not participate in talks, then they are not diplomats.” 

Former U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Beyrle described Kislyak as a low-profile diplomat to ABC News.

“He likes to operate behind the scenes,” Beyrle said.

“He’s a professional diplomat, not a politician. I’m sure he’s surprised to have acquired such notoriety recently. I’m sure he’s probably not enjoying his time in the limelight.”

The Russian diplomat was born in 1950 and studied nuclear physics in Moscow before joining the Soviet foreign service in the 1970s.

From 1981 to 2008, Kislyak held numerous high-ranking positions within the Soviet and Russian Foreign Ministry, including his post as ambassador to Belgium and Russia’s representative to NATO. His term as the Russian ambassador reportedly ends this spring.

“You’re never confused about what country he’s representing here. … He does it fantastically well,” said former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul while introducing Kislyak at a lecture event in November.

McFaul described the Russian envoy as “effective and experienced,” while noting that Kislyak had held “all the most important jobs in the Foreign Ministry — except one.”

Trump allies’ contacts with the Russian official have drawn intense scrutiny following the intelligence community’s assessment earlier this year that Russia spearheaded a hacking and influence campaign intended to help Trump win the 2016 election.

Still, Beyrle said: “It’s frankly not odd in the least for him to have met Jeff Sessions, a senior senator on the Armed Services Committee, up on Capitol Hill. … To call him a spy is to misunderstand what a diplomat, even a Russian diplomat, does.”

Kislyak has attended a number of Trump events, most recently his address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday, where he was pictured on the House floor. An NBC News producer reported that there were nearly 100 seats reserved for the diplomatic corps. 

The Russian ambassador also attended one of Trump’s foreign policy speeches in April 2016 and was slated to attend his inauguration in January, with a Russian embassy spokesman describing his invitation as common, according to The Daily Beast.

Kislyak also frequently comments on the state of relations between U.S. and Russia, urging for improvement in bilateral ties.

“The quality of the relations today is very deplorable,” Kislyak said while delivering a speech at The Economic Club in January. “The quality of these relations today, in my view, is the worst after the end of the Cold War.”

When asked about his conversation with Flynn, Kislyak said he was “disappointed” that they were intercepted by the U.S. intelligence, but added that he would not comment on the conversation.

“We have a policy of not commenting on our daily conversations with our interlocutors, because if everything that we discuss is going to be discussed then publicly, who is then going to be interested in talking to me?” he said.

Some Russian officials hope Trump’s broader policy of friendship toward Moscow will withstand the current political storm in Washington.

A top Russian legislator lauded Trump on Wednesday for not mentioning “vicious nonsense” about Russia during his speech to Congress.

 

“Trump’s performance in Congress stood out due to self-restraint, balanced tone and absence of vicious nonsense toward Russia that was common for [former President] Obama,” Alexey Pushkov said.


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