Mid-August 2014. I had now been the U.N. reporter for The Yomiuri Shimbun for well over a year. My reputation at the U.N. had grown in scope – I was now actively asking questions at press conferences that were considered hard and to the point by many diplomats and U.N. officers. From asking about the awareness of U.N. Security Council resolutions regarding North Korea among the import/export community towards the Head of the North Korean Sanctions Committee to pointed questions at Ambassador Sergeyev of Ukraine regarding Russia’s annexation of Crimea and Ukraine’s response – people were noticing.
Standing at the U.N. Security Council Stakeout area reserved for journalists, one day in that August a high-ranking Russian diplomat walked up to me.
“I hear you’re an American born and raised in Japan. I find that very interesting…and I’d like to be your friend. Let’s go out for dinner, on me.”
Around this time French U.N. Ambassador Araud and others notables in the U.N. world began following me on Twitter…the reality hit that members of the Security Council were now paying attention to me.
August 30th – Russia invades Eastern Ukraine. The following Tuesday I have dinner scheduled with that high-ranking Russian diplomat at a Russian restaurant where he insists I have vodka with him. This invite was after an outing to an upscale Japanese restaurant where he let me order whatever I wanted, all on him. He paid in cash.
“Let’s keep this meeting of ours secret. Don’t tell anyone…you seem to have a good grasp of world affairs and I want to hear what you have to say.”
Our conversation on international politics began with the promise of secrecy.
The Russian diplomat began explaining in his opinion Russia always does better “with a strong leader.”
I interrupted: “you’re right, not all societies are fit to be democracies.” He perked up at this comment.
“Even the democracy we have here today, we went through the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and the Women’s Liberation Movement. You can’t impose democracies from the top.”
We began talking history. I explained to him in my view the U.S. played more of an assisting role in defeating the Axis powers, and the Soviets took on the brunt of the fighting in WWII as reflected in Soviet casualty rates and German casualty rates on the Eastern Front.
We began talking about Cold War dynamics, how the U.S. inherited the British Empire structurally and financially and created an alliance system to contain the Soviets, and due to nuclear deterrence things were relatively stable excluding Korea and Vietnam until Perestroika. I also told him in my view, as the U.S. is a young country compared to Eurasian societies and lacks institutional memory of international politics, this inexperience is reflected in our foreign policy decisions.
The Russian diplomat, who up to now was maintaining a reserved, stoic posture and attitude, widened his arms, leaned in, and with open eyes and an expression of amazement exclaimed “I can’t believe an American is saying this!”
From there we began meeting every two weeks, always at a restaurant some distance from the U.N. He always paid, in cash, bringing an occasional gift such as bottles of expensive whiskey.
After three months passed, he took our conversation to another level. “I like your ideas of the world. I want to have meaningful conversations about them with you…write me an essay on your ideas of Japan-Chinese relations. Three pages. I’ll read it over and we’ll talk about it in depth.”
Though the Russian diplomat stressed not to tell anyone about our meetings, I had confided to my senior colleague Mizuno-san about our restaurant rendezvous. I brought up this request with him.
“Did you write it?
“No I haven’t, wanted to see what you think.”
“Don’t write it. He’s got an ulterior motive, and it’s not appropriate for a Yomiuri journalist to be writing about that topic for a Russian diplomat anyway.”
Early December, me and the Russian diplomat met at another upscale Japanese restaurant downtown. He brought with him another expensive bottle of whiskey.
Our conversation started on the world, as usual. “So, the Russians were conducting military drills near northern Japan recently…”
Toward the end of the dinner, he says, “so, the three-page pager on Japan-Chinese relations…”
“Nah I didn’t write it! Talked it over with my boss, it’s not appropriate for a Japanese journalist to be writing about that to a Russian diplomat.”
His expression turned sour. We quietly finished eating, he paid, but did not schedule another time for dinner. His last words were “I told you not to tell anyone, there’s a saying in Russia if you tell one person everyone will hear about it…”
That was the last time I had dinner with that high-ranking Russian diplomat. We maintained cordial relations at the U.N. onwards. I ran into him and his family at the Museum of Natural History in New York months after I left the U.N. He ran up to me “Matthew Matthew! You remember me?” He seemed happier to see me than me him – I at least had made a good impression.
I to this day do not know what he wanted from me via that paper. Maybe I don’t want to know.