By Jack Matlock, the 4-year U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union from 1987-1991, at the time that the USSR fell. Before that, Matlock served as the Director of Soviet Affairs in the State Department, the U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakia, and the Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Senior Director for European and Soviet Affairs on the National Security Council Staff. Originally posted at JackMatlock.com. Posted with permission of the author.
Our press seems to be in a feeding frenzy regarding contacts that President Trump’s supporters had with Russian Ambassador Sergei Kislyak and with other Russian diplomats. The assumption seems to be that there was something sinister about these contacts, just because they were with Russian diplomats. As one who spent a 35-year diplomatic career working to open up the Soviet Union and to make communication between our diplomats and ordinary citizens a normal practice, I find the attitude of much of our political establishment and of some of our once respected media outlets quite incomprehensible. What in the world is wrong with consulting a foreign embassy about ways to improve relations? Anyone who aspires to advise an American president should do just that.
Yesterday I received four rather curious questions from Mariana Rambaldi of Univision Digital. I reproduce below the questions and the answers I have given.
Question 1: Seeing the case of Michael Flynn, that has to resign after it emerged that he spoke with the Russian ambassador about sanctions against Russia before Trump took office, and now Jeff Sessions is in a similar situation. Why is so toxic to talk with Sergey Kislyak?
Answer: Ambassador Kislyak is a distinguished and very able diplomat. Anyone interested in improving relations with Russia and avoiding another nuclear arms race—which is a vital interest of the United States—should discuss current issues with him and members of his staff. To consider him “toxic” is ridiculous. I understand that Michael Flynn resigned because he failed to inform the vice president of the full content of his conversation. I have no idea why that happened, but see nothing wrong with his contact with Ambassador Kislyak so long as it was authorized by the president-elect. Certainly, Ambassador Kislyak did nothing wrong.
Question 2: According to your experience, are Russians ambassadors under the sight of the Russian intelligence or they work together?
Answer: This is a strange question. Intelligence operations are normal at most embassies in the world. In the case of the United States, ambassadors must be informed of intelligence operations within the countries to which they are accredited and can veto operations that they consider unwise or too risky, or contrary to policy. In the Soviet Union, during the Cold War, Soviet ambassadors did not have direct control over intelligence operations. Those operations were controlled directly from Moscow. I do not know what Russian Federation procedures are today. Nevertheless, whether controlled by the ambassador or not, all members of an embassy or consulate work for their host government. During the Cold War, at least, we sometimes used Soviet intelligence officers to get messages direct to the Soviet leadership. For example, during the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy used a “channel” through the KGB resident in Washington to work out the understanding under which Soviet nuclear missiles were withdrawn from Cuba.