I don’t always feel comfortable in writing in the first person but I have been bemused about the efforts of Kushner’s friends and family to put a positive spin on his discussions with the Russians during the campaign in an effort to establish a ‘back channel’ to Russia on behalf of the Trump campaign and government. His description of the mechanisms of back channels is bizarre and in stark conflict with how, in my experience, back channels work.
I have been used as a back-channel three times in my life: first in Nigeria under Carter; second, with my partner and friend Pierre-Victor Mpoyo, in Angola in 1988 under Reagan/Bush, Sr.; and with the Russian military when it was re-organising after the fall of the Soviet Union under Bush, Sr. There is no need to go into the details of these discussions but I learned several key principles of the use of back channels.
The most important thing I learned is that back channels are used when it is deemed inappropriate for the governments to be speaking directly to each other in any accessible forum. Back channels are not engaged in directly by government officials. It is highly inappropriate for people like Kushner or the National Security Advisor to talk secretly to another government directly, even if the messages are hidden in communications in the Russian embassies. A back channel is conducted by parties who are trusted by both sides who can carry messages between or among governments. Back channel discussions are designed to promote a solution to a real problem among nations which is not necessarily in line with the announced governmental policies in the arena.
For example, when the South African troops ran into some serious unpleasantness in the Battle of Cuito Canavale in 1988 in Angola the stage was set for discussions on a reduction in hostilities with the main national parties engaged in the struggle: South Africa; the Angolan MPLA party; the Cuban troops assisting the MPLA; and their U.S. and Russian backers. All the parties wanted to begin discussions which would provide a possible solution to the problems which a continuing war in Angola would prevent from happening. The South Africans wanted to end the continuing drain on its resources, human and economic. The MPLA Angolans wanted to use the opportunity to take unchallenged control of the country. The Cubans realised that their continued presence in Angola in support of the MPLA would always provoke a reaction by the U.S. and would continue the U.S. covert subsidy of South Africa and the U.S. use of WIGMO airbase and the Caprivi to continue the war. The Russians wanted to see the MPLA take over Angola and allow the Russians to expand their agenda in South Africa and Namibia when Angola was able to end the war.
It was too early to reconcile these interests in any ‘peace talks’. No party wanted to appear the ‘loser’ or admit that the war was damaging all parties. It was important to have initial discussions, not only ‘off the record’, but also which demanded that any contacts on these matters not be conducted by any official representatives of these countries. All parties wanted to test out the waters to see what the parameters of any settlement might be before risking the publicity of direct governmental interventions. This is why they used a back channel.
We were known and trusted by most of the players and trusted to convey, accurately, the positions taken by the principals in the discussions. We had no opinion of our own; we conveyed accurately and frankly, what each side was saying and took messages, threats, bombast and conciliation directly to the parties. The shape of a series of compromises began to appear and preparations were made for formal talks among the parties; talks which ended the war and allowed the governments to frame treaties and agreements. Our work was done when official discussions began.
This was the same thing in Nigeria when the Nigerian Government wanted to reset the diplomatic links with the U.S. and the Carter government wanted to reset the political links with Nigeria. There had been some distance between the countries during the Nixon and Ford administrations and by Nigeria's refusal three times to allow then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger to visit Lagos. The Obasanjo Government in Nigeria wanted to open up relations with the U.S. and Carter and Andy Young wanted to start talks with Obasanjo. Neither side wanted to be the moving party so a back channel was used. I was known and trusted by both sides. I met with the Nigerians and then went to Washington and I met with Carter officials. We arranged that a key military visit by General T.Y. Danjuma to the Pentagon would precede any diplomatic talks. Danjuma opened the door to further discussions and the two governments began their formal relations soon after.
This was similar to my participation as a back channel between the U.S. and Russian militaries. My sister, Gail, had been working with a retired U.S. officer in building a working relationship between the U.S. military and the Russian military, Operation Jeremiah. I was asked to assist because of my contacts with the Russian military. Jeremiah brought a selected number of Russian officers to the U.S. to establish a link between the U.S. and Russian officers. The first meeting was at West Point. Once this informal meeting was set up, the official relations started. They set up a permanent liaison committee of retired U.S. and Russian officers. These were serious people and included among them: General A Burlakov (head of the Western Group of troops in Germany); Marshal. E. Efimov (Marshal of Aviation); Admiral V. Konevski (Deputy Commander-in-Chief of the Northern Fleet); General S. Kostomin (Army Chief Engineer); General V. Lobov (General of the Army and Professor of Military Science); General G. Smoilovich (Head of Military Science); Admiral V. Sidorov (Commander of the Pacific Fleet), General A. Vashin (Presidential Adviser on Military Affairs); Admiral Shalatonov (Deputy of the Marine Centre); and Marshal N. Skomoronov (Head of the Airforce Academy) Several were Heroes of the Soviet Union and Skomoronov was twice Hero of the Soviet Union and Chairman of the Heroes of the Soviet Union Club. There were others as well. My work with this was finished the moment they met at West Point.
They key point, in my experience, was that back channels are used instead of direct government to government communications. Back channels precede official relations and are wholly inappropriate once official relations start. If there are problems, back channels are plausibly deniable. If these are conducted by government officials or the likes of a son-in-law who has also risen, they are implausibly deniable. For the U.S. such ‘firefighting’ of temporary flare-ups of conflict or changes in strategy are handled by men like Vernon Walters, a ‘roving ambassador’ who spoke with the power of the U.S. behind him. This creation of a Kushner back channel is a travesty of international diplomatic propriety and begs the question of what really was the purpose of attempting such an unusual and potentially damaging procedure.