WASHINGTON — In schmoozy Washington, DC, Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is known more for being a regular at the opera than on Capitol Hill.
The longtime statesman, on his third posting to the US, has a reputation for subtlety in Washington, seldom surfacing for public talks or visits to lawmakers. Unlike diplomats from China or the United Arab Emirates, who are known for aggressively canvassing the Congress, Kislyak’s visits are few and far between. One official said they doubted they could “pick him out of a lineup.”
That Russian intelligence and political operatives use Capitol Hill as a staging ground is no secret — several sources told BuzzFeed News it’s common knowledge that Congress and its various public office buildings are easy targets for Russian actors looking to rub elbows with potential sources.
Kislyak was thrust into the spotlight for the second time this year on Wednesday after the Washington Post revealed he had met with Attorney General Jeff Sessions in the throes of the 2016 presidential campaign. Sessions, then a senator, had testified in Congress that he had not met with any Russian officials while campaigning for Donald Trump. Sessions said Thursday that he had met with Kislyak in his official capacity as a US senator, not as a Trump campaign surrogate.
Later in the afternoon, Sessions officially recused himself from investigations into the Trump campaign's ties with Russia. Asked about the conversations he'd had with with Kislyak, Sessions noted that after he'd brought up Ukraine during the meeting in his Senate office, the conversation had turned "testy." The attorney general also said that "most of these ambassadors are pretty gossipy and it was in the middle of a campaign season," but nothing he'd discussed with Kislyak had involved the campaign.
Earlier this month, Kislyak first made headlines when the Post reported that then–national security adviser Michael Flynn had called the ambassador to discuss sanctions against Moscow, while Flynn was still a private citizen. Reports of that call — and the revelation that he had deceived Vice President Mike Pence about the contents of his conversations — led to Flynn’s ouster from the White House.
Kislyak served two previous terms in the US in the 1980s, first in the then–Soviet Union’s mission to the UN, and then again as a secretary for the Soviet embassy. News reports in the wake of the Sessions revelation positioned him as a top Russian intelligence operative, known for his knack for recruiting spies. Several US intelligence officials laughed at that notion on Thursday. In any case, the lines between regular governance and espionage are blurred in Russia, where the security services have infiltrated nearly every aspect of government.
US intelligence officials said they were more confused as to why Sessions hadn’t just told the truth about his meeting with Kisylak.
Citing the sensitiveness of ongoing investigations — and wary amid throngs of reporters — none of the sources BuzzFeed News spoke with wanted to be quoted.
The Russian embassy has also been under scrutiny since before Kislyak’s watch began. A 35-page dossier circulating in US intelligence circles alleges that the former head of the economic section at the embassy, Mikhail Kalugin, was a Russian intelligence operative who helped funnel money to the Russian election operation.
Two US intelligence officials BuzzFeed News spoke with said they were not aware of any evidence yet that linked Kalugin to the Russian intelligence operation. Kalugin denied the allegations in an interview published by McClatchy Newspapers this month.
But that has been a long-running game, and the intelligence sources BuzzFeed News spoke with said there hasn’t necessarily been any huge change in security measures, despite the well-documented efforts by Russian intelligence operatives to manipulate the US election.
Kislyak, 66, has served as Moscow’s ambassador to the US since 2008. A 40-year veteran of Russia’s foreign ministry, Kislyak makes occasional appearances in Washington Life magazine, nearly always attending or sponsoring an event associated with the city’s opera with his wife, Nataly. He has one adult daughter.
In retaliation for that sweeping Russian intelligence operation, the Obama administration declared 35 Russian diplomats persona non grata and kicked them out of the country in December. Kislyak was not on that list and remained in DC.