Sergey Kislyak has served as Russia’s ambassador to the United States since 2008. He got his start working on arms control issues at the Soviet embassy in Washington during the Reagan administration. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, Kislyak has held the posts of Russia’s ambassador to Belgium and, simultaneously, Russia’s first permanent ambassador to NATO and deputy minister to foreign affairs. Although Kislyak prefers to work in intimate settings and avoid the limelight, Russia’s annexation of Crimea last year and the current crisis in eastern Ukraine have thrust Kislyak into the public eye. As the U.S. continues to levy far-reaching sanctions against Russia and considers arming the Ukrainian forces, Kislyak represents one of Russia’s few remaining links to the Obama administration. He sat down with WKND to discuss the current crisis in eastern Ukraine, the downfall of the Russian ruble, and Russian and American cultural misconceptions.
Q: Earlier today, you mentioned that both your father and mother were born in Ukraine. How does your connection to Ukraine inform how you talk about this situation, and how you understand these foreign policy issues?
A: Well, first and foremost I am a Russian citizen. Secondly, I am a Russian ambassador, so what is important to me are the views of my people and of my country on this issue, which I fully share. Being Ukrainian — ethnic Ukrainian — just makes it even more painful to watch what is happening [in the Crimea]. It doesn’t change my view as to what is happening. But certainly when I see kids marching with SS division insignia on their sleeves in the streets, I cannot watch it without emotions.
Q: We’re seeing this rising tide of anti-Semitism in Russia, and now you say you’re seeing SS insignia on kids. Do you think that these issues — the rise of neo-Fascism and anti-Semitism in Europe, and what you’re seeing in Ukraine — are connected?
A: I’m not the best specialist on these issues, but I would say it’s certainly a sentiment that is so unacceptable, whether it’s from nationalists or not. It’s unacceptable under any circumstances, and I hope that Ukraine will try to avoid that kind of spread. I have seen some concern expressed by the Israeli government about those things. But my sincere hope is that [the Ukrainians] wouldn’t fall in the trap of being anti-Semitic.
Q: There’s been much talk, at least among the Western news sources, about a fear that this could turn into a frozen conflict.
A: I hope not! Our view is that there has to be a negotiated solution. People in Donetsk and Lugansk Republics [the self-proclaimed rebel republics in southeast Ukraine] seem to have said so many times that they want to start building common spaces with Ukraine. It’s a difficult dialogue that they were willing to undertake. Certainly when people start talking, they start with small things, but I think there are all the chances that if both Kiev and people in the east started working on how they could live together in this part of the world, they do have a chance to succeed. However, with each and every day, the Ukrainian government makes it more and more difficult to start that dialogue. They need to stop shelling and start talking, something I repeat in each and every conversation with Ukraine.
Q: Yet, there’s a belief in the U.S. that the Russian government is funding and giving heavy arms to these rebels, particularly through these so-called humanitarian convoys.
A: You know, our Ukrainian colleagues tend to explain their own failures on the military field by referring to an alleged military campaign by Russia in the region. It’s nonsense. They are facing people who live there, protecting their lives and their families, and they call them “terrorists,” but these people do not go to Kiev and do not bomb Kiev. They live in the eastern part, and I know it. They want to have a right to speak the language they have spoken and their fathers and their grandfathers have spoken, to teach Russian kids in these schools tradition in the same way that generations of the people that were living there were doing, which is not contradictory to being a Ukrainian citizen, it is not. But one has to start working together as to how they would live, and with each and every day of additional war, it’s getting more and more difficult. We still believe it’s possible, however difficult it’s going to be.
Q: With regard to misconceptions, you spoke earlier about how you strongly disagree with the notion that Russia and the U.S. are now in some kind of “new Cold War” Is there the misconception, in your eyes, among ordinary Russians that we might be engaged in some kind of “new Cold War”?
A: No, I haven’t seen the use of the term “Cold War” in public debates in Russia. People are more discussing how unfriendly the policy the United States is today towards Russia, but I’m not sure that anybody of importance would suggest that we are back in the Cold War. Because the Cold War was a state of affairs that was based on a very deep ideological divide. At that time it was considered to be almost existential. I don’t believe anything of this sort is happening. We have very difficult differences between us and the United States. They’re difficult, and they are deep. But I’m still hopeful that we will bit by bit find a solution to the crisis in the region, and that would be a building block for a return to what I would call normalcy in our relations.
Q: Is there a current fear that, with the ongoing downfall of the ruble, many migrants may not come to Russia anymore, because they want to seek opportunities elsewhere?
A: Well, most probably it’s going to be the case. However, still the purchasing power of the ruble in Russia is pretty high. [The declining value of remittances] is something they’re going to have to deal with, but still there are so many people who want to come to Russia because the standard of living in Russia is significantly higher. And though the dollar equivalent fell, what is important to us – those who live in Russia — is not how [the ruble] is rated against the dollar but whether we have inflation in Russia. You earn Russian rubles: you spend Russian rubles. There is some inflation, and for the government, for the banking system, for the national bank of Russia, the main target of the efforts is not necessarily the exchange rate but to fight unlimited inflation.
Q: How might the recent decline of the ruble, particularly due to the global drop in oil prices, impact Russia’s ability to withstand the current sanctions regime?
A: Well first of all, we have certainly been victimized by the fall of the oil prices, because, as I told you, one of the handicaps of our economy is our richness in oil and gas. And we are over-relying on exports as a source of the income for the country. We understood it even before the crisis. We started a number of programs that we called diversification of the economy. I’m absolutely sure that all of these efforts to diversify the economy are going to be intensified, and we will not only survive it, but we will come out of it a little bit stronger.
Q: You’ve worked in the United States for quite some time. What do you think are the some of the most common misconceptions that Americans have about Russians?
A: It depends very much on which Americans you are talking about. There are many people who have been to Russia, who know us, and they have views, but the absolute majority doesn’t know much about Russia. In general, Americans are not concentrated on foreign relations with other countries. They are more focused on immediate events around their families, their income, and politics on the ground. I would say that not many know for a fact what Russia is, and I always underline what Russia is not. They have to rely on the press reports, which, as I said during my presentation, [are] very disappointing.
Q: In contrast, do you notice that Russians have a specific view of the United States? And do you think that Russians think more about foreign policy on the whole than Americans do?
A: Yes, we do. You do not live in isolation, but you live [surrounded by] oceans, [separated] from Europe. We were a part of Europe, and we have lived through so many wars. The political life [in Russia] is so intertwined with Europe, and we are part of Europe. [Foreign policy] more immediately affects our lives than here in the United States, so people tend to watch and monitor what is happening around our country a little bit more. And I would submit that if you took normal Russians — especially your generation — and asked questions about the United States, most probably, in the majority of cases, they [would] know about the United States a little bit more than people of your generation [would] know about Russia. And it’s sad, because I think what is important for building relations is to fully understand the other partner.
Q: If youth are growing up with these misconceptions, how might that impact the U.S.-Russia relationship in the years to come?
A: I think one of the most important things for the future is how the youth in both countries see each other. As an ambassador here, I’m trying to work with the younger generation of Americans, trying to help them to understand what we are, and, once again, what we are not. We do run a number of programs, whereby we try to help [American students] form their own view about Russian culture, Russian history. It’s very helpful because they are very clever people. They’re young but willing to learn, to form their own views, and I think it’s exactly what we all need. We have a very smart young generation, very advanced, very well educated — the level of education in Russia is pretty outstanding, and especially in math, physics, chemistry. As far as I’m concerned, the more they get together, the more they exchange views, the better it would be for the future of our relations. I deeply believe in it, and as an ambassador, I’m trying to help this process.
Q: Do you have any favorite American books or films?
A: Well, to be honest, I haven’t had the chance to read modern American literature. My time is so limited. I read mostly reports, articles, statements — that’s a drawback of my position — but I’m collecting things to read when I have a chance. I think of the young generation of writers, the best one, as far as I’m concerned, is Hemingway — I still love him. I went to places where he lived, trying to understand him better. He was pretty unique. I’m not reading too much of the James Bond-type books, but I think it is important that America is certainly a very rich country and culture. However, we [Russians] have a deeper history and most probably we have all the reasons to be proud of the level of Russian intellectual development. And I’m so glad to see that many Americans know Russian literature pretty well. Though they sometimes do not know modern literature very well, they know Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, which is good, because it gives at least a glimpse of the Russian soul.
Q: Are there any Russian writers that you would recommend Americans read in order to learn more about Russia?
A: There are so many. We have a very strong musical culture, literature. We see a resurrection of the Russian cinema industry, which is pretty good. So that’s hopeful. But returning to the question about American arts, what I see happening is that we have the best of Russian culture represented here, but not the best of American culture represented in Russia. That’s disappointing. We can use more of that. The only good musical performance recently that I remember is the Chicago Symphony touring in Russia, and it’s the only one in so many years. However, we have the Bolshoi performing in the U.S., the Mariinsky Theater currently [in America, too.]. Yesterday I went to the Metropolitan [Opera]. There was an absolutely amazing performance of Iolanta conducted by Mr. Gergiev, who is the artistic director of the Mariinsky, Anna Netrebko singing, Russian singers. It was [such a] beautiful Russian-American performance — and staged by a Pole. I love the idea of people collaborating together to create something fantastically interesting. That’s something that needs to be expanded.
Editor’s Note: On Feb. 27th, WKND published an interview with Yuriy Sergeyev, the Permanent Representative of Ukraine to the United Nations. In this interview, Sergeyev responds to Ambassador Kislyak’s comments on the Crimean Crisis.