Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak is, by all accounts, genial, fiercely protective of Russian policy and international prestige, an avid and successful social networker, and a diplomat who prefers private meetings and dinner parties to public events. He is also, to his and President Trump's discomfort, a central figure in Washington right now, due to his several meetings during the presidential campaign with several top Trump advisers, including Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.
Kislyak is a veteran diplomat with a background in arms control, and he has been Russia's top diplomat in Washington since 2008. Given his new high profile and the mounting questions about Trump's connections to Russian officials — and the Trump team's evasiveness on the subject — there's a new question: Is Kislyak a spy? NBC's Katy Tur asked that question to Peter Baker, New York Times chief White House correspondent and a former Moscow bureau chief for The Washington Post, on Thursday. "Well, look, in the Russian system it's a distinction without a difference," he said.
Some other Russia experts and analysts agree. Spy or diplomat? "For them it's much grayer," Steven Hall, former head of Russia operations at the CIA, tells The Washington Post. "I would say [Kislyak] is most definitely both. In the Russian system, it's simply assumed that they're all collecting and doing whatever they can either covertly or overtly." That's not a view everyone shares. The idea that Russia's ambassador is a top recruiter for its SVR foreign intelligence agency "strikes me as pretty odd," Steven Pifer, a former State Department official, tells The Guardian. "Everything I've seen, he's been a Russian diplomat." Russia, unsurprisingly, is pushing back against the idea.
Either way, Kislyak has said he will leave Washington soon, likely replaced by a hard-line Russian general, though his replacement has not been announced. Moving on is probably all right for Kislyak, because Russia is so toxic now in Washington, The New York Times reports: "It has become lonely, and he has told associates that he is surprised how people who once sought his company were now trying to stay away."