A back channel with Russia that saved lives
Jared Kushner is not the first member of a presidential family to try to open a back channel with the Kremlin. John F. Kennedy’s brother Robert met secretly with a Soviet intelligence agent named Georgi Bolshakov many times during the Kennedy administration. Their dealings illustrate the shortcomings and dangers of informal high-level diplomacy — but also the potential for a breakthrough in a crisis.
The Kennedy brothers were, in their way, as highhanded as the Trump family. President Kennedy appointed his own brother to be attorney general — the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer. (Their father, Joseph Kennedy, insisted.) JFK used RFK to run covert actions against Cuba, including assassination plots against Fidel Castro.
So perhaps it is unsurprising that, in late April 1961, during the first year of the Kennedy administration, when Soviet spy Bolshakov, using an American newspaperman as an intermediary, first approached Attorney General Kennedy for a secret meeting, Bobby did not hesitate to say yes. Bolshakov posed as the editor of a glossy English-language publication on Soviet life. Undercover, he was a colonel in the GRU, the military counterpart of the KGB.
On the afternoon of May 9, the U.S. attorney general and the Soviet spy sat together on a park bench on Constitution Avenue, near the Justice Department. “Look here, Georgi, I know pretty well about your standing and your connections with the boys in Khrushchev’s entourage,” Bolshakov later recalled RFK saying, according to Richard Reeves’s biography “President Kennedy: Profile in Power.” “I think they wouldn’t mind getting truthful firsthand information from you, and I presume they’ll find a way of passing it on to Khrushchev.”
For his part, Bolshakov sometimes lied to RFK. On Oct. 5, 1962, the GRU agent reassured Kennedy of Khrushchev’s promise that the Soviets would put only defensive weapons in Cuba. Less than two weeks later, American U-2 spy planes flying over Cuba photographed nuclear-tipped missiles that could reach Washington. The most dangerous crisis of the Cold War had begun.
But it was also the Bolshakov back channel that first hinted at the way out. On Oct. 23, the morning after the president announced a blockade of Cuba and millions of Americans faced the real prospect of nuclear war, RFK passed a message to Bolshakov. In 1993, historians Timothy Naftali and Aleksandr Fursenko found Bolshakov’s cable in the papers of the Soviet foreign office in Moscow: “R. Kennedy and his circle consider it possible to discuss the following trade: the U.S. would liquidate its missile bases in Turkey and Italy, and the USSR would do the same in Cuba.”
That is exactly the deal that was struck by Robert Kennedy, meeting privately and secretly with Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin on the night of Oct. 27. Over the intervening four days, the saga of the Cuban missile crisis had taken numerous twists and turns — and come perilously close to the brink — but the Kennedys’ penchant for back channels, in the end, had proved useful and possibly essential.
Back channels can be a terrible idea. They can sow confusion by subverting normal diplomacy and, potentially, precipitate disaster by expressing the unchecked will and wiles of headstrong leaders. But they can also lead to peace.
Evan Thomas is the author of “Robert Kennedy: His Life.”