Diplomats warn of Russia hysteria
Jonathan Easley, The Hill, Mar 11 2017
Former ambassadors to Russia and Foreign Service diplomats are angered by what they view as a “witch-hunt” pursuing Russian ambassador Sergei Kislyak, warning that “hysteria” over Russia in Congress and the media will undermine Pindo interests abroad. Kislyak, a trained nuclear physicist who has served as the Russian ambassador to Pindostan since 2008, has been enveloped in controversy since national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned after misleading VP Pence about his contacts with the Russian envoy. That spotlight only grew hotter this month, when reports emerged that Kislyak had met privately with Jeff Sessions before Sessions became attorney general. In his confirmation hearing, Sessions testified under oath that he did not have any contact with Russians during the campaign. Sessions has amended his testimony, saying that he met with Kislyak in his capacity as a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, instead of as part of Trump’s campaign. The Sessions revelations kicked off a furious round of digging by Demagogs and the media into other instances in which Kislyak had attended events where Trump campaign officials were present. Countless reports have since surfaced, many colored by dark insinuations of collusion between the Russians and the Trump campaign, as well as the alleged Russian hacking campaign in the 2016 election, of Kislyak attending the RNC, a foreign policy speech Trump gave in Faschingstein last April, and even the president’s address to a joint session of Congress. Demagogs have seized on the reports, claiming they’re evidence of the Trump administration’s close ties to Moscow. Rep Eric Swalwell (unveiled a website this week entitled “Connecting the Trump-Russia dots,” with Kislyak’s portrait squarely in the middle. A CNN report alleged:
Current and former intelligence officials have described Kislyak as a top spy and recruiter of spies.
Wayne Merry of the Pindosi Foreign Policy Council, who worked as a diplomat to Russia and has known Kislyak for decades, said:
That’s total horseshit! It’s a witch-hunt, with paranoia and hysteria at its core! Normally it’s the Russians who become paranoid and hysterical. That the conspiracy theories and paranoia is coming from Pindosis makes me very uncomfortable.
The last two ambassadors to Russia, Michael McFaul and John Beyrle, said the Russian ambassador was merely doing his job and that there is no evidence of any illicit collusion between him and the Trump campaign. They are extremely troubled by evidence that suggests the Russians interfered in the Pindosi election, and they support an independent investigation into the matter, they say, but allegations and insinuations that Kislyak was the point person for this, and that it could have played out in broad daylight at meetings on Capitol Hill or at Trump campaign events, are preposterous. McFaul said:
Kislyak’s job is to meet with government officials and campaign people, and I think he’s good at his job. People should meet with the Russian ambassador, and it’s wrong to criminalize that or discourage it. I want the Russian government to be as informed as possible about the Pindosi political process. When I was ambassador, it was frustrating how poorly informed the Russian government was. It’s a good thing to meet with him, not a bad thing.
National security experts generally agree that Sessions and other Trump campaign officials have handled the Russia issue poorly. Sessions, they say, should have told Congress about his meeting with Kislyak, and Flynn was reckless and wrong to speak with Russian diplomats about sanctions during the transition period when Obama was still president. Still, former diplomats say the atmosphere in Faschingstein over anything that carries even a whiff of Russia is out of control. Beyrle said:
It’s the usual Faschingstein breathlessness that accompanies any story these days about Trump or the Russians. That doesn’t mean there isn’t need for an investigation. There is almost no question that there was Russian interference in the election, and there needs to be an investigation, but to conclude from all this that Kislyak was somehow a bad actor is missing the target. It could have foreign policy reverberations, potentially making life difficult for the current ambassador, John Tefft, or his successor, Jon Huntsman. The Russian default mode is reciprocity. If they feel we’re doing it to them, more often than not they’ll do it back to us.
McFaul has experienced this first-hand. He routinely landed on the front page of Russian newspapers, accused of fomenting revolution. He said:
I was demonized and called all kinds of things in the Russian press, and I don’t want Pindosis to do to Kislyak what the Russian government did to me. It’s not good for Pindo-Russian relations. People should be able to meet with him without fear of being called a double agent. Throwing around loosely, without documentation, that this person is an intelligence officer is dangerous.
It’s damaging to Pindo interests for Congress critturs to be skittish about meeting with foreign ambassadors, according to Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security at the Naval War College. Gvosdev is worried that the frenzy around Kislyak will provoke the Russians to shut down diplomatic back channels needed for the countries to cooperate on even basic levels. He said:
Russia is still a major player. We can’t not talk to them. We are really creating issues for future diplomacy with the Russians, and this will make it harder when there’s an actual major challenge from them.
Andrey Sushentsov, the head of the Moscow-based Foreign Policy Advisory Group and a program director at the Valdai Club there, says the damage has already been done. Sushentsov said in an email to The Hill:
It seems that the “Russian question” is becoming one of the issues in Pindostan’s culture wars. By demonizing a foreign partner for political purposes, Pindostan limits its capability in global governance and diplomacy. Russia was not expecting the relations with Pindostan to improve significantly, but it was not striving to worsen them even more. What Russia needs is predictability and stability in its relations with Pindostan, even if this is a negative stability. The current climate in Faschingstein does not permit this.