Rus­sian en­voy’s post­ing nears end

Sergey Kislyak, a fo­cus of FBI in­quiry on elec­tion med­dling, is headed home.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Tracy Wilkin­son tracy.wilkin­son @la­

WASH­ING­TON — 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 Or­ga­ni­za­tion of Amer­i­can States, a re­gional body.

What in the world was Kislyak do­ing there?

“I am rep­re­sent­ing Rus­sia,” Kislyak told The Times.

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

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

It’s un­clear whether he is re­tir­ing. The Krem­lin says it’s 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’s been 17 years,” Kislyak said, re­fer­ring to his cur­rent stint and an ear­lier, eight-year as­sign­ment to the Rus­sian mis­sion at the U.N. 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 rule of Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and grow­ing ten­sion with the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Then came the U.S. elec­tion last year.

The am­bas­sador’s meet­ings with sev­eral of Pres­i­dent 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 U.S. elec­tion.

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

Jared Kush­ner, Trump’s son-in-law and se­nior ad­vi­sor, 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 U.S. sanc­tions.

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

Kislyak’s de­fend­ers, in­clud­ing some U.S. back­ers, said his con­tacts with Trump’s team were part of the rou­tine du­ties of any diplo­mat. In­censed Rus­sian law­mak­ers 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 B. Comey, who was head­ing the Rus­sia in­ves­ti­ga­tion, Trump wel­comed Ki­sy­lak and his boss, Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei 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 U.S. of­fi­cials call­ing him a spy­mas­ter.

His ten­ure has seen U.S. re­la­tions with Rus­sia plum­met to a post-Cold War low. In De­cem­ber, in a de­layed re­sponse to the Rus­sian hack­ing, Pres­i­dent Obama ex­pelled 35 Rus­sian diplo­mats — said to be spies — from Wash­ing­ton and New York.

Obama also or­dered closed two Rus­sian-owned com­pounds — one on New York’s Long Is­land Sound and the other on Mary­land’s Ch­e­sa­peake Bay — that Moscow said were used for week­end get­aways and that Wash­ing­ton said were used for es­pi­onage.

De­spite the con­tro­versy, Kislyak is fre­quently de­scribed as an af­fa­ble, even jovial, en­voy who has made friends from the halls of univer­sity think tanks to Wash­ing­ton’s wain­scoted sa­lons.

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 U.N. un­der­sec­re­tary for counter-ter­ror­ism. But the post went to an­other Rus­sian diplo­mat, Vladimir Voronkov, the U.N. an­nounced last week.

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

Sergey Kislyak ‘will go down in the his­tory of bi­lat­eral re­la­tions as a man who did ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble for their devel­op­ment.’ — Maria Zakharova, Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry spokes­woman

Brendan Smialowski AFP/Getty Im­ages

SERGEY KISLYAK, cen­ter, is step­ping down af­ter nearly a decade as Rus­sia’s U.S. am­bas­sador. His meet­ings with sev­eral of Pres­i­dent Trump’s top cam­paign aides or sur­ro­gates have come un­der in­tense scru­tiny.

Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry

TRUMP met with Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergei Lavrov, left, and Kislyak on May 10, caus­ing a stir.

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