Tillerson Kislyak
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson greets Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Credit: Department of State/Wikimedia Commons

My doppelganger at a posting early in my diplomatic career was a KGB spy. Same age, same build, similar facial features, even the same style mustache. People confused us all the time, much to my consternation. A likeable and socially engaging young man, Yevgeniy was the sole Soviet “diplomat” given free rein to mix it up with Westerners at our third world outpost. Why? Because his job was to spot, assess, cultivate and recruit what spies call agents, or assets—foreigners who do their bidding. Yevgeniy made a run at me, but gave up after it was clear to him that I had his number. He was forced to go into defensive mode after I alerted many naïve and unsuspecting expats what he was actually up to, doing my best to make my Russian doppelganger a local pariah. That testy chapter didn’t close upon completion of our respective assignments. Our paths crossed again twenty years later in another city.

Trump confidants are under investigation for possible collusion with Russia. A major bombshell in this developing story centers on reports that the president’s son-in-law and key advisor, Jared Kushner, sought to use Russian official communications for a direct back channel link to Russian President Putin.

The ongoing investigations and investigative reporting are shedding light on the murky world of Russian espionage and the tricks and subterfuges Putin’s increasingly assertive spy agencies use to bore into the American political arena to influence events. Russian ambassador to the U.S. Sergey Kislyak features prominently in headlines on this story, with some charging he is a spy. The general public, however, has little understanding of what diplomats do in contrast with spies. Same for many news reporters, which accounts for a lot of journalistic reporting conflating the two.

By all accounts, Kislyak is very active in reaching out to Americans at many levels, from sponsoring jazz fests to yucking it up with President Trump in the Oval Office. He frequently travels around the country to explain his government’s policies to civic, business and academic groups. He’s affable, yet a firm defender of Russia’s interests. Nine years into his third posting in the United States, Ambassador Kislyak is the consummate diplomat. He does his job well.

Maybe too well. Those who accuse him of being a spy offer no proof. A U.S. diplomat who has dealt with Kislyak said “he was always completely professional. Kislyak obviously knows lots of Russian spies, but it’s highly unlikely that he is one himself.” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told CNN, “I’ll reveal a top secret—diplomats do work, and their job is to establish contacts with people.” For once, the tart-tongued Putin propagandist was telling the truth

A good ambassador is always out there pressing the flesh with people from many sectors of society, explaining and defending their government’s policies, promoting business and trade and generally projecting a favorable image of their country. This is the full-time job of our ambassador in Moscow, just as it is of Russia’s chief envoy here. Frankly, when I read that a senior campaign official met or had phone chats with Kislyak eight times—or whatever—my reaction was, so what? Kislyak is doing what he’s paid to do. Should information turn up of nefarious dealings, that’s a different story.

Diplomats and intelligence officers both collect information and send reports back to their respective agencies. The difference of course is that diplomats operate openly, while spies do not. Spies will often pay an informant for intel, something diplomats never do. Spies operate in the shadows; diplomats in the bright light of day.

One of the things the FBI needs to sort out in the investigation is precisely what type of Russian officials were in contact with campaign staff. Were they regular diplomats, or known or suspected intelligence officers? The former would most likely have been reaching out, openly collecting insights to put into their analyses back to Moscow policymakers as well as seeking longer term contacts with whom to press Russian policy objectives. U.S. diplomats excel at this, almost always doing so in the vernacular language of the country to which they are posted.

If it turns out that the Russian officials talking to campaign workers were officers of the KGB’s successor external intelligence arm, the SVR, or Russia’s military intelligence organization, the GRU, then there’s much more reason for concern. In espionage, these operate in various modes.

Among the publicly known actors in the ongoing Trump-Russia probes, it has been confirmed that one-time Trump advisor Carter Page was being assessed and “developed” by three SVR officers in 2013, according to a federal district court filing. One of the Russians had gotten Page to give him some non-sensitive documents dealing with energy—a classic ploy in agent recruitment.

It’s likely the Russians were out to recruit Page as an “access agent.” Such an asset does not necessarily have access to classified information, but does have contact with those who do. An access agent might also spot and profile other prospective targets for recruitment. Should it be revealed that Russian intelligence officers were in regular contact with fired Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner or other senior staff, the Russians likely were seeking to eventually suborn the Americans to work as “agents of influence.” Such an agent is used to try to influence public opinion or decision-making. So, a close advisor thus recruited might seek to steer the president to make decisions favorable to Moscow like, say, lifting sanctions.

Former CIA director John Brennan explained Russian tactics to the House Intelligence Committee in late May: “They try to suborn individuals, and they try to get individuals, including U.S. persons, to try to act on their behalf, either wittingly or unwittingly.”

We’ve heard this “wittingly” versus “unwittingly” manner of collaboration repeatedly from intelligence professionals and it gets us into a grey area of spy recruitment. A Russian spy will first seek innocent friendship with a target. Once the friendship is cemented, he may ask the target to provide him with publications related to his work (as with Carter Page), to be followed with requests for more sensitive materials over time. He might also seek information on the target’s work place, e.g., electoral campaign, along the same lines. Before the target knows it, he’s a regular informant. By the time he realizes he is being used, it is too late. He is in a compromising situation. His recruiter can blackmail him if he tries to back out. Agent recruitment is the art of seduction for secrets rather than love.

We don’t know the full extent of Moscow’s effort to subvert the 2016 election. It’s Robert Mueller’s and Congress’s task to find out. We know the Russians carried out a sophisticated hacking attack on the Democrats with the aim of undercutting Hillary Clinton and boosting Donald Trump. We know Russian operatives have been active in seeking to recruit individuals in the Trump camp.

“The bigger question relates to the Trump side, not the Russians,” said a veteran of the CIA’s clandestine service. “Why were they so interested in engaging with Kislyak and others? While it is certainly normal to meet with an ambassador, why weren’t they meeting with other ambassadors and representatives from other countries? We cannot assume that the people they met with were diplomats.”

The investigations will reveal just how aggressive and effective the Russians have been. Jared Kushner’s meetings with a U.S. sanctioned Russian banker who is a Putin crony and was trained as a KGB spy certainly warrant thorough scrutiny. Investigators will have to ascertain whether Kushner has been a witting collaborator with Moscow or simply a naïve fool.

It’s likely that some if not most of those found to have been in contact with Russian intelligence operatives are what the Soviets called “useful idiots” — gullible dupes who were oblivious that they were being exploited by a foreign power. A case of the Gang That Can’t Shoot Straight encounters the Evil Empire.

As for Yevgeniy, he turned up two decades later as SVR rezident (station chief) in another capital where I also served. Thirty pounds heavier and not treated kindly by age, he was no longer my doppelganger. When I approached him at a reception to reintroduce myself, his face betrayed recognition, but he feigned no recollection of our encounters at a posting long ago. I then proceeded methodically to discreetly brief allied diplomats on who Yevgeniy really was and what he was up to—just like old times.

James Bruno

Follow James on Twitter @JamesLBruno. James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.