A brief history of back channels

The Kremlin spy was happy to participate in a secret, back-channel relationship with the close advisor to the US president-elect. His bosses wanted to deal with the new American leader “on the basis of complete frankness,” he said.

It would help if the upcoming inaugural address contained a positive reference, the spy added. Perhaps it could refer to “open channels of communication to Moscow.”

Is this a read-out of from one of Jared Kushner’s meetings with a Russian during the presidential transition of 2016 and 2017? Nope. It’s a reference to a January 1969 discussion between Henry Kissinger, then a key adviser to incoming president Richard Nixon, and Boris Sedov, a KGB operative working undercover as a Soviet journalist in Washington.

What it shows is that clandestine back channels between adversaries have been common diplomatic tools. They date back to virtually the beginning of the nation-state system. They were a feature of US-Soviet relations throughout the 1960s – and a useful feature, too.

Thus the phrase “back channel” isn’t by definition nefarious when applied to Mr. Kushner’s activities. The important questions are larger: Whom did he meet with and why did he meet them? What did he talk about? Who knew?

In terms of any back-channel communications between Trump officials and Russia, “the issue at stake here is what is the purpose and to what extent is that purpose kept secret from one’s own government?” says Brian Balogh, an associate professor of history at the University of Virginia and co-host of the “BackStory” history podcast.

Those are things that federal and congressional investigators are currently looking at. In particular they are studying a meeting between Kushner, son-in-law of the then president-elect, and a Russian banker, Sergey Gorkov, that took place in mid-December. Mr. Gorkov is a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Mr. Putin’s government controls Gorkov’s bank.

The Kushner-Gorkov…

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