Russian Ambassador to the US, Sergey Ivanovich Kislyak, is about to wrap up his diplomatic tenure in Washington. He had arrived in the US capital in September 2008, right after the armed conflict in South Ossetia broke out in August, plunging Russian-American relations to new lows during the last months of George W. Bush’s presidency.
Then came eight years of Democratic President Barack Obama’s reign in the White House. This period kicked off with an attempt to reset the US-Russian relations and finished with a still deeper chasm when charges of direct interference in the US electoral process were hurled at Russia. The opposition Democratic Party and the media allied with it continue whipping up these accusations today as part of their ongoing assault against Republican President Donald Trump.
Media leaks on contacts between Trump’s inner circle and Ambassador Kislyak often serve as pretexts for this kind of carping and although no one has proved yet that Kislyak is doing anything beyond the scope of his professional ambassadorial duties, phone talks with him led to the resignation of Trump’s previous National Security Adviser Michael Flynn. Later, the president himself came under fire for giving Russian Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Ambassador Kislyak a warm reception at the White House in May. Trump was allegedly too frank with the visitors.
Sergey Kislyak revealed his views on all this to TASS in an exclusive interview on the eve of the much-awaited meeting between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Hamburg. He answered about 20 questions and declined to answer just one question, namely, whether or not he is going to write a book about what he has lived through.
- How long have you been dealing with America?
- I took up a position at our UN mission in 1981. Then in 1985 I transferred to the embassy.
- Was anything like what’s going on now seen in the past?
- I have to address various audiences in the US quite frequently, you know. And they often ask me if we’ve reversed back into the Cold War days. Most typically, I tell them we haven’t, yet on the surface the signs look quite similar. Back then, a standoff between different social and political systems had existed. Presently, an anti-Russian frenzy that defies belief has been sweeping across America. It is spreading against the background of an unhinged political climate in the US with its profound divide, its worked-up feverish mood, bogged down by a cycle of reciprocal accusations, and mired in suspicion.
Along with it, the amount of problems that threaten US national security inside and outside the country doesn’t show any signs of abating. Yet, the chill in relations from Washington deprives us of many chances to take parallel action or to work together so that we could eliminate these problems.
- Can you explain why this is happening?
- I simply think the world is changing. A sufficiently large enough number of countries are becoming more capable of influencing it and garnering more resolve in defending their interests.
The opportunities for ensuring ‘American leadership’ – and the Americans surely would like to see their leadership remain unchallenged as in the past - are not what they used to be. However, Washington finds it very difficult to become willing to adjust to the changing reality. And that is why those who don’t go along with the norms laid out by the Americans are perceived as challenges to US interests and contenders, not as partners in finding a solution to common problems.
When it comes to Russia, the fears and prejudices of the Cold War era that seemed to have long-ago turned into fossils have gotten a new lease on life, and this is seriously blurring reality. As a result, a heap of lies about Russia’s aspirations and specific steps are piling up and Russia is painted as the enemy. In this case, politicians often compete with each other on putting forward ideas on how to contain or penalize Russia.
I think history will dispel these untruths in due time and America will begin to turn towards greater normalcy in relations with Russia, especially because it would serve their (the Americans’) interests.
Incidentally, the Americans have already had to give up their own lies many times in modern history. However, as a rule, they do it ex post facto, once they’ve made a huge mess of things. This was the case with the aggression against Iraq in 2003 and now they’ve started wondering about the ‘justifiability’ of the operation in Libya.
- A total of six US presidents have occupied the Oval Office during the span of your professional career. This means about ten presidential races alone. Was there anything inherently unusual about the latest campaign?
- The latest presidential race was not unusual by and large, but it did bring out some of America’s peculiar traits in full. In the first place, the wide polarization of society in the run-up to the election and the extreme ferocity of the struggle that ensued. Secondly, there was an unprecedented injection of ‘political’ money into the electoral process and that fact stoked passions in the election even further.
- And was there anything unusual in preparations for this election on the Russian side?
- There were no preparations for this election on our side. This wasn’t our election. But quite naturally we watched it with much attention and our counterparts from other countries did the same.
- OK, let me put it this way. Did we forecast Trump’s victory as something realistic, as something we were to prepare for? When did you believe in it?
- We prepared for doing business with the Americans with whoever won, remaining unbiased as to who would get into the White House in the final run. Regarding the chances for victory, we had to rely much more on the assessments and opinions of US experts and sociologists who know their country better. When did I believe in Trump’s victory? When CNN said he had won.
- Everyone was confident from the very start that Hillary Clinton would win. Did we prepare for it? And in what way?
- As I’ve said, we were bracing for any possible outcome. And we presumed that whoever might win, the cornerstone elements of US policies would change only at a slow pace. No doubt, nuances and adjustments in the patterns of converting policies into the scheme of things are possible but American political mentality is highly inert. We prepared for a possible victory by Secretary Clinton in the same way as for a Donald Trump victory. And the main thing was our willingness to work together on common challenges, as well to defend our own interests regardless of which party would govern.
- I think all countries from as far as Canada and Mexico, to Mongolia and Burkina Faso would like to keep themselves up-to-date on the course of events in the US and to have an opportunity to wield influence on them. I’m absolutely sure conferences are held ahead of US elections in places like Paris or London and there’s a lot of head scratching there as to what outcome is more preferable and how could it be possibly attained. What about ourselves? Why do we keep saying all the time we don’t care, that we are prepared for just anything, that we don’t want anything and don’t interfere in anything?
- We say we haven’t interfered because we haven’t interfered. As for the absence of wishes on our part, this isn’t true to fact. We have always wanted a return to normalcy in Russian-American relations. We have always wanted a return to normalcy in Russian-American relations. This is the essential wish, the groundwork one can rely on in building a partnership. And partnership would objectively serve both countries’ interests. I do believe in it.
As for other countries, I would recommend looking into the statements of numerous European leaders ahead of the U.S. election. They were very often not neutral. Their support for Hillary Clinton, who eventually lost, was greater than that for the current President.
- Russia itself is heading for an election in 2018. We’re saying all the time the Americans meddle everywhere. Is there any US meddling in our case? Do you have any such information?
- They’ve tried to meddle and it is highly unlikely that they will abandon it. Take the US legislation, for instance. It directly stipulates for the Secretary of State to ‘develop’ a democratic administration, clarity, and so on in the Russian Federation. The list is long and, by the way, it includes a provision on ‘disseminating broadcasts with the support of the United States and it has already been bankrolled.
- I see. And what exactly was it that went wrong during Obama’s presidency? He seemed to be quite harmless and gentle. Just recall his slogans like ‘Don’t do stupid sh*t’ or ‘Lead from behind’. But he obviously was sore at us. Why?
- I’d rather refrain from categorical assessments, especially the ones with regard to the leader of a country we’re working in. The problem is generally far more serious. The US finds it difficult to reconcile itself to the situation where someone else can have viewpoints and interests and is ready to fight for them. Yet Russia is exactly one of these countries.
In spite of this, we don’t set a goal for ourselves like “to cut the US down to size”. We simply are ready to act on our own behalf in areas where our country’s fundamental interests and our people are concerned. We are ready to take resolute steps, like we did in the situation of Crimea’s return to Russia after the Crimean people had determined their destiny – to be part of Russia – at the polls.
Naturally, some people didn’t like it – here in the US as well. A different option had obviously been drafted for Ukraine and we, too, realized the fact.
- How do you like the beginning of Trump’s work? He promised to harmonize relations with us but they’ve tied him hand and foot. Now we’ve gotten new sanctions during his term of office. Did he fizzle out? Or is there still some hope?
- Work with Donald Trump’s administration is unfolding uneasily. The internal political struggle in the United States has dealt a heavy blow to Russian-US relations. Sometimes, you are surprised at the ease with which the American establishment is ready to sacrifice normalcy in our relations. This is largely due to the strong inertia of both political thinking and Washington's realpolitik.
President Trump has said more than once he is interested in establishing dialogue with Russia but we can see how strong the political inertness in the U.S. is in real life. In many practical things, we can still see the continuation of the line inherited from the previous administration. Is there still some hope? It's hard to count on a quick and easy way to normalization: there are too many people who want to hinder its advance. The sanctioning frenzy against our country in the US Congress only confirms that. The new sanctions are another headache.
Nevertheless, the impending meeting between the Russian and US leaders will take place soon. I hope it will determine in which direction interaction between our countries will further develop. There are always opportunities for positive turnarounds. What is needed is the resolve not to miss such opportunities. Let's see what the US will do for the meeting.
- Given your depth of experience, what would be your advice to our politicians – and to foreign ones, too – so that we could put our relations on an acceptable track?
- I think, first of all everyone should be calm. We have every ground to have confidence in our course, to trust our own strengths and refrain from succumbing to retaliatory frenzies under any circumstances.
It’s important to remain firm and principled and to keep the doors open just in case our American counterparts develop the understanding that normalcy meets their own interests much more than confrontation.
- How many years have you spent working in New York and Washington? Do you feel bored now? Or, on the contrary, have you gotten used to it?
- I’ve worked in the US for about 17 years. Do I feel bored? No. I never have had time for any boredom. There’s plenty of work here plus there’s daily responsibilities. That’s why one has neither the time nor the energy for sentiments.
- Predictions suggested you would move to New York, to the UN, from Washington. Did the Americans put the gate down quietly? Your current fame might be annoying them.
- I believe the UN Secretary General made a good choice by appointing an experienced Russian diplomat as his deputy. Vladimir Ivanovich Voronkov is a great professional, and the UN will benefit from an appointment of this kind. As for my private life, my family and I myself are happy that we’ll return home to Russia soon. I am sure there were no behind-the-scenes moves during the nomination of the Russian Under-Secretary-General, including by the US administration.
- And how do you treat this very same fame? You are portrayed here as an arbiter of people’s destinies – something no one before you could even dream of. Does it thrill you at least a little bit? Or is it sickening?
- This rather saddens me. This popularity is based on false narratives and lies with respect to what we do here at the embassy. I sometimes feel sorry for those the Americans who endlessly dig up some fake news about Russia instead of tackling serous issues facing their own country.
- The situation goes even as far as cartoons or jokes. Are you aware of this? Have you seen something of this sort that has made you smile?
- I’ve seen some of this stuff. My aides are keeping track of it. Some are even funny. I won’t cite any examples because the humor is mostly unkind with regard to our American partners.
- Is this kind of recognition an asset, or an impediment for an ambassador? Doesn’t it so happen that the more efficiently you work and the bigger the benefits you bring to your homeland, the more you come under fire in a foreign country?
- Strange as it may seem, in real life popularity neither helps nor hinders (the ambassador’s) daily routine. What impedes it is something entirely different, namely, the poisoned atmosphere, in which we have to work.
- What in your opinion is the main thing in an ambassador’s work? Whom of the acclaimed diplomats, either Russian or American ones, do you feel the biggest respect for?
- I think the most important thing in the work of a diplomat is love for his or her homeland and the realization of responsibility vested in a person working far away from home. We have had many great diplomats in the history of our diplomatic service. I had real luck as a young diplomat. The first ambassador I reported to was Oleg A. Trayanovsky, the USSR’s permanent representative at the UN in the 1980’s. Then I was invited to take up a position at the embassy in the US by Anatoly F. Dobrynin.
These were great ambassadors. They were cultured, educated, strategically thinking, demanding but friendly. Both had a very subtle sense of humor. Such people embody our country’s best diplomatic traditions.
- Given the experience you’ve had to go through in Washington, one year of your service here should be counted as three years. I’d rather congratulate you as if it were a release from hard labor but people from the outside won’t understand it. You’ll miss the embassy later all the same. What do you think you will recall most of all?
- I’ll surely be missing the embassy. We have extraordinary staff here. Incidentally, many staff members are quite young. We have many talented and ambitous diplomats. It’s working together with them that I will recall most of all from my life in Washington.
- Beyond any doubt, there are many interesting and talented people here, like in Russia.
- And I must admit that, despite all ‘highly-charged’ relations between our countries, I’ve formed good relations with quite a few Americans over the years. They are people from different spheres of life – the diplomatic service, arts, and even business. Beyond any doubt, there are many interesting and talented people here, like in Russia. And they have the ability to maintain normalcy in professional contacts and in personal relations as well, even at a time when international relations are not blossoming.
- Will you write a book about it?
- Well, time will tell.
Interviewed by Andrei Sitov