What Was Russia’s Spy Chief Doing in Washington Last Week? Probably Playing the Trump Administration ... Again.
Russian Foreign Intelligence Service Chief Sergei Naryshkin came just before Trump punted new sanctions and issued a useless ‘oligarch’ list. What message did he bring from Moscow?
The Russians clearly wanted the world to know that the head of their Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR—which has been implicated directly in Moscow’s efforts to subvert American democratic processes—paid a not-so-secret visit to the Washington area last week for meetings with officials of the Trump administration.
That the man in question, Sergei Naryshkin, has been the specific object of U.S. sanctions did not seem to preclude his visit.
Nor did the Kremlin appear concerned that the Trump administration might be embarrassed by the revelation, given that Naryshkin’s Washington sojourn came just as Trump’s team was considering what to do about new sanctions demanded by 98 out of 100 members of the U.S. Senate. Indeed, the administration was supposed to be compiling a list of oligarchs and officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin who might face new or added sanctions: and Naryshkin turned up on that roster, too.
The focus of the conversations between Naryshkin and his counterparts ostensibly was the fight against terrorism. But if that were the only goal of the meetings, why announce that they’d happened at all?
There is a pattern familiar in the field of intelligence, where secret cooperation is asked and then purposely exposed, whether for retribution or to weaken a counterpart in what already was a manipulative relationship. We cannot say definitively that’s what was happening with the Naryshkin visit, but the chronicle of events and contacts that have come to light so far certainly suggest some such game is being played.
Thus, on Tuesday, Russian state television's main channel, Rossiya 1, cited Moscow’s ambassador to the United States, Anatoly Antonov, when it reported flatly that Naryshkin had paid a visit to his American counterparts to discuss the war on terrorism. Jon Huntsman, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, appeared to confirm the visit, albeit a little more discreetly, when he told the radio station Echo of Moscow that, “Just in the last week, he [CIA Director Mike Pompeo] has had probably the most important meetings on counterterrorism that we’ve had in a very, very long time, at the senior levels.”
Because Naryshkin has been sanctioned by the U.S. since March 2014, after Russia invaded Crimea, in theory his assets in America (if they exist) are frozen and he is barred from entry into the United States. So, with good reason, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer on Tuesday demanded an explanation for Naryshkin’s visit from the Trump administration.
The main job of the SVR is to spy against western democracies and spread disinformation. From the first inkling of Russian interference in the U.S. elections, it would have been regarded as a likely player. So, too, when it came to recruiting Americans like, say, former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page.
Sergei Naryshkin is a veteran of the Soviet security service, the KGB, and a longtime ally of another veteran, Russian President Vladimir Putin. Born in Leningrad in 1954, Naryshkin attended the Soviet Union’s KGB Higher School in Moscow and later received a doctorate in economics. His thesis, “Foreign Investment in Russia as a Factor in Economic Development,” was later shown to have been plagiarized, but this has not damaged his highly successful career. (Putin plagiarized his dissertation as well.)
In the early 1990s Naryshkin worked with Putin in the St. Petersburg mayor’s office, where he was involved in the city’s foreign trade. After Putin became Russia’s president, Naryshkin moved to the prime minister’s office and later served in the presidential administration. In 2011 he was elected a deputy to the State Duma, or parliament, as a member of the pro-Kremlin United Russia Party and in December that year he became speaker of the Duma. He remained in that post until Putin appointed him to head the SVR in October 2016.
Judging from his public statements, Naryshkin, who reportedly speaks fluent English, views the West, and the United States in particular, with deep distrust.
At a Moscow conference on security in April 2017, Naryshkin deplored Western claims about Russian hacking of elections in the United States and France, saying they were made “simply to unleash the hands of Western hackers, who have declared a total war against Russia.” Just last December he gave a rousing speech to the security chiefs of the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) in which he described the aggressive efforts of the U.S. “hybrid war” against the states of the former Soviet Union. He stressed that American sanctions against Russia were damaging all CIS members by slowing their economic development.
Naryshkin acknowledged not long ago that “due to the fact that I am on the notorious sanctions lists, there are certain restrictions for visiting NATO countries.” But he went on to say that “this rule is not without exception.”
Apparently, the Trump administration’s intelligence chiefs made just such an exception with the state goal of fighting terrorism (one of Trump’s oft-repeated reasons for warming to Putin). But Russia is far from an ideal partner on this crucial issue, given its abysmal record in dealing with its own terrorism problem and the well-founded claims that Russia is implicated in certain major terrorist incidents.
The evidence is overwhelming that the Russian FSB (the successor to the KGB) was responsible for the September 1999 apartment bombings in Russia that killed over 300 Russians. The FSB also sponsored the 2006 poisoning by polonium of former FSB officer Alexander Litvinenko in London. British authorities termed that murder “an act of terrorism,” not least because the perpetrators contaminated so many places in the city with the deadly radioactive toxin.
More recently, every credible official investigation has confirmed that Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 was shot down in July 2014 over Eastern Ukraine, killing 298 civilians, by a Russian BUK anti-aircraft missile—and that the missile was fired by either Russian-led separatists or Russian forces. Kremlin has done everything in its power to prevent the facts of this terrorist incident from emerging and continues to claim that the missile was fired by the Ukrainian military.
Russian President Putin appeared initially to be angry about the release of the Treasury list, calling it a hostile act that would do harm to Russia’s relations with the United States. Putin also claimed to have been nervous about the list beforehand: “I won’t hide it: we were waiting for this report. We were ready to take steps—serious ones that would have brought our relations to nothing.” But then he added that “we will refrain from these steps for now.”
Such uncharacteristic restraint on Putin’s part can be explained by the fact that the much-anticipated list of Russians does not even mention sanctions (although there’s a classified list that might) and it is so broad that it seems more a meaningless gesture than an attempt to warn Russia against hostile acts. Also, the White House declared Monday that it does not intend to impose further sanctions against Russia because the ones in place now are a sufficient deterrent. And of course, as shown in Naryshkin’s case, even those sanctions are not being observed by the Trump administration.
Despite Putin’s claims of apprehension about the list, he and his Kremlin colleagues have long known through their contacts with the Trump camp and from Trump’s own public and private communications that he opposes sanctions against Russia.
Donald Junior promised the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya after their infamous June 2016 meeting in Trump tower that if his father were elected president he would re-examine the sanctions under the 2012 Magnitsky Act. And Trump himself even had a private talk about sanctions with Putin at a G-20 dinner in Hamburg last summer. (Trump said later that the two only discussed Russian adoptions by Americans, but these adoptions were banned by the Kremlin because of sanctions imposed against Russia under the Magnitsky Act.)
Trump expressed reservations about sanctions against Russia publicly at a news conference in Hanoi last November, just after he had talks with Putin during the APEC summit: "People don't realize Russia has been very, very heavily sanctioned. ... It's now time to get back to healing a world that is shattered and broken."
Apparently, Putin is grateful. In Tuesday’s comments about the Treasury list, he even went so far as to defend Trump, claiming that Trump was the victim of a power struggle and that the authors of the roster were “attacking the elected president.” As if to prove his point, Putin added, falsely, that because of the recent government shut-down, “Trump could not even use his official plane to fly to Switzerland for international events.”
Writing in Novaya Gazeta, exiled Russian journalist Iulia Latynina called the list a “rewritten telephone book,” and pointed out its inconsistencies: “Igor Sechin (Rosneft), Alexey Miller (Gazprom) are on the list. This is logical. These people are the true supporters of the regime… But German Gref (Sberbank) and Vitaly Saveliev (Aeroflot) are also included. This, to put it mildly, is unfair. Gref and Saveliev are among the number of managers who, despite the terrible economic and political conditions, have tried to make more or less Western companies out of the state-owned enterprises entrusted to them.” In her words: “No one—either in the US Treasury, the State Department, or the National Intelligence Director’s Office—even attempted [in drawing up the list] to distinguish sheep from goats.”
To be sure, making such a distinction would be a challenge, because so many of those on the Kremlin’s payroll or on the Forbes roster of the richest Russians used as sources for the list are complicit in the longevity of the corrupt, authoritarian Putin regime. But it seems clear that the White House never intended for its list to be anything more than a rote response to the law’s directive.
When more evidence emerges from FBI and congressional investigations of possible collusion between the Trump camp and the Russians, we may learn why President Trump has so persistently resisted sanctions against Russia. But for now we can only wonder what the Kremlin might have offered him in return for his favors to the Putin regime—and what message Sergei Naryshkin brought, if any, from Moscow.