Controversial Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak is leaving the US

The Russian Ambassador to the US at the center of a political firestorm over his encounters with associates of President Donald Trump is leaving his post, but Russia says the move is not unexpected.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova is clarifying reports that Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is leaving his post in Washington and returning to Moscow.

“The changing of an ambassador, especially to a major country, is a question of at least a year. It is all planned in advance. Especially when an ambassador has worked for a long time. No unplanned replacement of Russian ambassadors is taking place,” she told CNN.

Kislyak’s replacement as ambassador, Anatoly Antonov, was approved last month by the foreign affairs committee of the lower house of the Russian parliament, according to state media.

The 66-year-old came under the spotlight when his communications with Trump’s short-lived National Security Adviser Michael Flynn led to Flynn being fired for failing to be entirely up front about them.

Meetings between Kislyak and then-Senator Jeff Sessions — now Trump’s Attorney General — during the 2016 campaign have caused further heat for the Trump administration, despite Sessions’ claims that the meetings were part of his Senate duties and had nothing to do with the campaign.

Congressional committees and Department of Justice special counsel Robert Mueller continue investigations into Russia’s efforts to influence the US election and the Trump campaign’s contacts with Russian officials. This includes allegations of collusion between Trump’s campaign and Russia in an effort to defeat rival candidate Hillary Clinton.

Trump, his campaign and Russian officials have denied any collusion took place between them.

Spy allegations

In March, CNN reported that Kislyak is considered by US intelligence to be one of Russia’s top spies and spy-recruiters in Washington, citing senior US government officials.

Russia’s Foreign Ministry strongly rejected the allegations.

Kislyak trained as an engineer in Moscow before joining the Foreign Ministry in 1977, at the height of the Cold War. His first tour of duty as an envoy to the US was between 1985 and 1989, where he specialized in arms control.

Kislyak later served as Russia’s ambassador to NATO and as Deputy Foreign Minister.

He commenced his role as Russian ambassador in Washington shortly before President Barack Obama was elected.

It had been speculated that rather than returning to Moscow, Kislyak might take up a new senior position at the United Nations in New York, heading a newly created Counterterrorism Office.

However, another veteran Russian diplomat, Vladimir Voronkov, was appointed to that role in the end.

Heavyhitting replacement

Kislyak’s replacement in Washington will be Anatoly Antonov, according to Russian state media.

Seen as a heavy hitter, Antonov is currently the Deputy Foreign Minister and previously served as Deputy Minister of Defense.

Kislyak’s departure date has not been announced. However, the US-Russia Business Council is hosting a farewell reception for him at a hotel in Washington on July 11.

“Ambassador Kislyak has served as Russia’s representative to the United States since 2008 and has been a reliable and thoughtful interlocutor for the American business community during his time in Washington,” says the invitation, posted online.

“Please join us to help wish Ambassador Kislyak the best of luck in his next endeavor.”