Can we shed a tear for Sergey Lavrov? Who could have foreseen, a few years back, the huge mess he now finds himself in?
Spanning five decades of service in Moscow’s foreign policy hierarchy, the veteran envoy has worked his way up to the very highest levels of international diplomacy after starting out in an entry-level job in the Soviet Union’s Sri Lankan embassy in 1972. Among his most distinguished postings, he served as Moscow’s top ambassador to the United Nations from 1994 to 2004 before moving up to become its foreign minister, a job he has held onto for 18 years.
But instead of savoring his golden years, Lavrov, 72, finds himself and his government the targets of deep global contempt over their role in launching and defending Moscow’s devastating assault on Ukraine. In an extraordinary development, he is living under the weight of personal sanctions.
Rather than looking back with contentment on a lifetime of shrewd negotiation, he spends his time these days trying to fend off insults as he pushes Russia’s justification for the invasion and attempts to defend his government against accusations of human-rights violations, terrorism, genocide and other war crimes.
At the same time, the Western news media dwell on Moscow’s military setbacks. The gruesome videos seen on television and social media display far more charred tanks than signs of combat progress, while haunting photographs immortalize shattered apartment buildings and corpses on the ground.
It’s not that Lavrov is showing signs of weakness during public appearances or heavy sweating during tense news conferences and lengthy TV interviews. He still comes across as the feisty talker he has always been for decades. But it must be hard to serve as a global punching bag.
As Russia’s UN ambassador, Lavrov was a member of that rare club of diplomats representing a nuclear power with a permanent seat and veto power in the Security Council. (Let us not forget, of course, that the UN Charter obliges members of this club, above all, to bear “primary responsibility for the maintenance of international peace and security.”)
At six-foot-one, impeccably clad in a trim dark suit, he appeared to fit the bill with his imposing figure, a deep voice capable of generating fear as well as respect, and a face that could intimidate but also occasionally evinced charm, revealing a small smile during a relaxed moment.
Allies and rivals alike praised his negotiating skills, his intelligence and his fluent if blunt English. He had a clear gift for debating and also remembering long-ago facts, dates and places.
Standing outside the Security Council chamber during a break, he could typically be found smoking nonstop, casually grinding his butts into the carpet in a one-man protest against a 2003 smoking ban imposed by then Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
He also used Council pauses to grab a drink, no matter the time of day, disappearing into the nearby bureau of a Russian news agency that kept vodka in a filing cabinet for him and other Russians who might find themselves working close by. It was not unusual to see Lavrov in a UN corridor spending a few moments gossiping with a few favored journalists, though he did not take kindly to those who enjoyed asking tough questions.
But times have changed.
As Western leaders immediately ganged up on Moscow over what they called an illegal and unprovoked invasion, Lavrov tried to turn the tables on his accusers by warning that military support for Ukraine meant the alliance “in essence, is engaged in a war with Russia” that could lead to escalation and a nuclear confrontation — or even World War III. “The risk is serious, real. It should not be underestimated,” he said.
Rather than quake at this tough talk from the chief diplomat of a major world power, his rivals dismissed his threats as bluster. “This only means Moscow senses defeat in Ukraine,” Ukraine Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba tweeted in April.
Rather than cower, the United States, Britain and other Western powers have sought to counter the assault by unleashing literally thousands of sanctions, including asset freezes, expulsions, travel bans and seizures of yachts and real estate, aimed at Russian officials, business figures and even so-called influencers as well as private and government entities.
Unusually, the targets include Lavrov himself, his wife and an adult daughter. Also hit was the socialite daughter of a woman identified by Russian insiders as part of Lavrov’s “second family,” including his longtime “unofficial wife.” These sanctions aim to inflict economic pain on Lavrov and some of the people near and dear to him by tying up their foreign properties, cash, investments and outside business activities.
“As Foreign Minister, Lavrov has advanced the false narrative that Ukraine is the aggressor as he has aggressively sought to justify Russia’s actions globally. Additionally, as the top diplomat representing Russia on the world stage, Lavrov has helped facilitate Russia’s aggressive actions against sovereign states and enabled Russia to degrade democracy globally,” the US Treasury Department said in a Feb. 25 press release announcing some of the earliest sanctions, one day after the war started.
The invasion has undermined Russia’s global standing in many other ways. The UN General Assembly voted in April to suspend Moscow from the 47-member Human Rights Council following allegations of atrocities against civilians in Ukraine. The vote was 93 to 24 with 58 nations abstaining. Russia responded by quickly announcing that it had resigned from its seat before the suspension.
Lavrov was also humiliated when about a hundred diplomats walked out of a speech he was trying to present to the Human Rights Council in Geneva on March 1. Lavrov could not even attend the session in person because of a European ban on flights from Russia. So he launched into the speech on a video link, only to learn that most attendees were stalking out of the chamber, leaving him to address a mostly empty room. He used the speech to present the spurious claim that Ukraine was seeking to acquire nuclear weapons.
Clearly stung by the hostility displayed by the international community, Lavrov has fought back through the media, but not always in the most constructive ways. Earlier this month, for example, his boss, Russian President Vladimir Putin, had to apologize to Naftali Bennett, the Israeli prime minister, after Lavrov put forward another baseless claim: that Hitler had Jewish roots.
From the start, Russia insisted that it had to launch its “special military operation” against Ukraine to “denazify” the country. That led Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky to ask what kind of nazification his nation could have “if I am a Jew?”
“In my opinion, Hitler also had Jewish origins, so it doesn’t mean absolutely anything,” Lavrov responded in a May 1 interview on Italian television, as translated by The Associated Press. “For some time we have heard from the Jewish people that the biggest antisemites were Jewish.”
Jewish leaders were appalled. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid quickly branded Lavrov’s statement “unforgivable and scandalous and a horrible historical error.” Putin called Bennett to offer a rare apology. “The Prime Minister accepted President Putin’s apology for Lavrov’s remarks and thanked him for clarifying the President’s attitude towards the Jewish people and the memory of the Holocaust,” Bennett’s office said.
Lavrov served two long stints at the UN in New York City. Between 1981 and 1988, he held the posts of first secretary, adviser and senior adviser in the Soviet Mission before returning to Moscow to take on several top jobs at its Foreign Ministry.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Lavrov returned to New York City in 1994 to take on the new Russian Federation’s top UN job as its permanent representative. He held onto that post when then-President Boris Yeltsin resigned and handed the reins to his chosen successor, Vladimir Putin, in 1999. On March 9, 2004, Lavrov returned to Moscow as minister of foreign affairs.
Those stints in New York City were far different from the job he handles today. A top priority back then was to use the UN as a forum to hold Washington accountable for its words and deeds. Today, Lavrov’s task is to convince the world that Putin tells the truth.
Moscow and Washington managed to get along somewhat better than they had before the end of the Cold War in 1991. In the late 1990s, Lavrov worked side by side with the US on a variety of crucial matters, including the drive to end Iraq’s efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. In a 2001 interview for a Yale University UN oral history project, Lavrov boasted of his government’s recognition of the importance of supporting the Security Council’s work.
“You’re not as cynical about the future of the Security Council as many are,” the questioner put it to Lavrov in the interview.
“Well, I still have about, I hope, not less than 10 years to go before my retirement, so I cannot be pessimistic about my job,” he responded.
But now his relations with the West are openly hostile, his words cutting and even sarcastic as he increasingly accuses Western leaders of an enduring bias against Russia.
After talks with his British counterpart, Liz Truss, in February, Lavrov said her delegation had shown up “unprepared” and described their two-hour meeting as “a dialogue of a mute person with a deaf person.” While the session, which took place before Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, was meant to try to head off an attack, Lavrov declared that Western worries about Russia’s military buildup along its frontier with Ukraine were “incomprehensible anxieties.”
If only he had known then what we know now.
Two weeks after the Truss-Lavrov meeting, Putin announced the start of his country’s “special military operation” even as, eight time zones away in New York City, the Security Council was meeting in a late-night emergency session, called by Ukraine, to try to head off an invasion. As previously reported by PassBlue, the first reports of explosions in Ukraine began surfacing about 20 minutes into the meeting. (Ironically, Russia was president of the Council that month.)
“You have a smartphone, you can call Lavrov now. We can make a pause to let you go out and call him,” Ukrainian Ambassador Sergiy Kyslytsya told Russian Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia as news of the bombings kept streaming in.
But Nebenzia did not respond. Three months later, the conflict that Moscow has refused to describe as “war” is still raging.
Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.