The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Russian foreign minister tries to keep the Kremlin’s few allies onside

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a meeting with Secretary General of the Shanghai Cooperation organization Zhang Ming in Moscow on May 18. (Russian Foreign MInistry/Reuters)
6 min

Before the Feb. 24 invasion of Ukraine, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was one of the world’s most well-traveled diplomats — jetting off to countries near and far to discuss strategic concerns, sign cooperation deals with allies and scold what he has called the “golden billion” Western consumers who gobble up the world’s resources at everyone else’s expense.

But Lavrov’s world has shrunk in the past three months. He has been to China, for a meeting of Afghanistan’s neighboring states, and to India, a major purchaser of Russian oil and weaponry. He spent a day in meetings at the Turkish resort of Antalya in early March. In his most extensive trip since the invasion, he traveled last week to Algeria, a longtime Russian partner; to Oman, which prides itself as a neutral go-between in international disputes; and to Tajikistan for a meeting of Central Asian allies.

Official visitors to Lavrov in Moscow have been similarly few and far between. Pakistan’s foreign minister happened to be in the Russian capital the day the invasion began. The next day, Lavrov received “ministers” from the two eastern Ukrainian regions Russia has unilaterally recognized as independent countries. Counterparts from Qatar and the United Arab Emirates came in March to talk about Iran and oil; so did Iran’s foreign minister.

The United Nations and humanitarian organizations have come to plead for humanitarian relief for Ukraine. The foreign minister of Eritrea visited last month, as did an Arab League delegation. On Wednesday, Lavrov met with the secretary general of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, an Asian economic and military grouping, including China, that Russia hopes will be a pillar of Russia’s newly firm determination to live without Western financing and trade.

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A career diplomat, Lavrov, 72, began his service as a specialist on Sri Lanka. Foreign minister since 2004, he is not considered part of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, and is sometimes dismissed by Kremlin scholars as more an apparatchik and mouthpiece than a policymaker.

But he has been the public face of Russian diplomacy and the most frequent U.S. interlocutor with Moscow through nearly a dozen U.S. counterparts. Before he took over the top job, he was well-known to administrations in Washington as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations for 10 years.

In a ministerial career marked by ups and downs in the U.S.-Russia relationship, he has been known as sarcastic and combative, occasionally humorous and strictly committed to talking points that tend to center on Russian greatness and U.S. smugness.

“He’s a complete a------,” according to a George W. Bush administration official quoted in a 2013 Foreign Policy profile. A counterpart from another country was said to have called Lavrov “among the most effective foreign ministers in the world today.”

It was Lavrov who reportedly asked “Who the f--- are you to lecture me?” when Britain’s foreign secretary took him to task over Russia’s military incursion into Georgia in 2008. And it was Lavrov, a year later, who smilingly pushed the Obama administration’s symbolic “reset” button for U.S. relations with Russia with then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

At the end of lengthy and grueling negotiations with John F. Kerry, Clinton’s successor, over Syria in 2015, an impatient Lavrov sat in a Geneva hotel basement near midnight as Kerry phoned President Barack Obama for approval of the deal they had struck. “I hope before Washington goes to sleep we can get some news,” he told journalists gathered in the next room for an announcement.

When apologetic Kerry aides had a stack of pizzas delivered to Lavrov and his delegation as they waited, Lavrov personally distributed them to the reporters, saying they were a gift from the Americans. Minutes later, he returned with a shopping bag full of bottles of vodka. “This is from the Russian delegation,” he said with a grin as the cameras rolled.

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He may have a reduced audience these days, limited to those who agree with Putin on Ukraine or feel they can’t afford not to, but Lavrov does not seem to have lost his style. The combativeness and ability to turn an insulting phrase remains, along with occasionally jarring interpretations of history.

“Russia-U.K. relations leave much to be desired, to put it mildly,” he said at a Feb. 11 news conference with British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, one of several European leaders who tried to dissuade Moscow during the weeks before the invasion. “I am disappointed that it was like a conversation between a mute and a deaf.”

In a May 1 interview with Italian television, for which Putin later reportedly apologized to Israel, Lavrov explained that the fact that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was Jewish had nothing to do with what Russia has called rampant neo-Nazism in Ukraine.

“I may be mistaken but Adolf Hitler had Jewish blood, too,” Lavrov said. “This means absolutely nothing. Wise Jewish people say that the most ardent antisemites are usually Jews.”

In an undated video posted to Twitter on May 11 by Russia’s diplomatic mission in Geneva, Lavrov chuckled as he referenced U.S. “hysteria” over Ukraine, and offered advice “to calm down” those losing sleep over it. “First, imagine that this is happening in Africa. Imagine this is happening in the Middle East. Imagine Ukraine is Palestinian territories. Imagine Russia is the United States.”

In recent public comments, the smiles are rare. Lavrov has chastised “brainwashed” reporters for asking repetitive questions about Ukraine and “not listening” to his answers. He has repeated that it was the “Russophobic” West that threatened Russian security by moving ever closer to its borders, and that Ukraine is a Nazi hotbed. He has expressed irritation over criticism of Russia while the United States got away with invading Iraq, among other nations.

When he visited the Omani capital of Muscat last week, Lavrov was effusive in praising the “warm welcome” he received. But after preliminary comments in a news conference with Oman Foreign Minister Sayyid Badr al-Busaidi, he quickly, and lengthily, turned to Ukraine.

“We are not hiding the operation’s goals,” he said. Russian troops are there to “protect” residents of eastern Ukraine from “Kyiv’s neo-Nazi regime,” and to ensure that “the West will not use Ukraine to create a military threat” to Russia.

In its own brief report, Oman’s state news agency said Lavrov briefed Sultan Haitam bin Tariq al-Said on the “Russian side” of the Ukraine crisis. The sultan, it said, “stressed the importance of adhering to international law,” and of using diplomacy to preserve “independence, sovereignty, and peaceful coexistence.”