Today, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov met at Winfield House, the London home of America's ambassador to the United Kingdom. It was, by all accounts, a last-ditch attempt to avert further crisis over Ukraine -- Kerry apparently seeking a pledge that Russia wouldn't increase the tension in Ukraine by increasing its military presence or using local militias to threaten towns outside Crimea.
Kerry and Lavrov have met several times over the last week, each time with no immediate sign of progress. Today was no different: After the meeting, Lavrov, who speaks fluent English, spoke Russian when he told a news conference that the two sides had "no common views."
The reports from the scene match what we've come to expect of the 63-year-old Lavrov. Over the past 10 years (he assumed office March 9, 2004), he has become known not only for his intelligence and wry sensibility -- Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph once called him the "most formidable foreign minister in the world" -- but also his steadfast, even stubborn, presentation Russia's perspective and aims.
Put simply, he's become the foreign minister whom the United States loves to hate. During his time as foreign minister, his American counterparts have been Kerry, Hillary Clinton, Condoleezza Rice and Colin L. Powell. He seems to have teased and annoyed them all:
- Back in 2004, he clashed with Powell over the status of Ukraine after the Orange Revolution. "We must avoid the ever more deleterious practice of double standards in evaluating electoral processes," Lavrov said, in an apparent reference to the disputed U.S. elections in 2000.
- In 2006, Lavrov and Rice reportedly argued in a closed meeting regarding Iraq, with The Post's own Glenn Kessler later observing that "Lavrov has perfected the art of irritating Rice -- so much so that she often responds in a very sharp, acerbic, and even emotional way." Rice's autobiography lists a number of tense, if not downright hostile, interactions with Lavrov.
- Lavrov chided Clinton when the United States mistranslated the Russian word for "reset" on a button given as a gift in 2009 (the word actually meant "overcharge"), though it was relatively polite. Later, when Russia blocked attempts for a U.N. resolution on Syria and Clinton called it a travesty, Lavrov said that the West's (and by extension, Clinton's) reaction verged on hysteria. "This brings to mind the saying, 'He who gets angry is rarely in the right,'" he said at a 2012 press conference.
His diplomatic skills come in part from an immense intelligence and formidable experience: He speaks four languages and was Russia's ambassador to the United Nations during the Kosovo and Iraq crises. Personally, his dominating physical appearance -- he's known for his height and his athletic ability -- is tempered by reports of his softer side that focuses on his apparent love of writing poetry (though he has also been reported to be a big fan of more macho pursuits such as buying Italian suits, Scotch whisky and smoking).
People respect him, even if they don't like him. “He is very smart. He also does know U.N. procedure very well. He can be very nice and practical,” former secretary of state Madeleine Albright said of him in a recent interview, before adding: “And he can be the opposite.” When Susan Glasser wrote a profile of Lavrov last year for Foreign Policy, one (unnamed) former official from George W. Bush's administration gave her a more blunt assessment of his personality: "He's a complete a------."
The hope had been that Kerry might work better with Lavrov -- he's not only a man with shared interests, he's also, to be blunt, a man. And for a while, even through the Syrian conflict, it seemed as if they were creating a real relationship. Last year the New York Times reported that Kerry and his counterpart had "developed a rapport" over their shared love of hockey and an appreciation for what one source called "the grace of the older school style."
Today, it really appears the script has changed. There's little sign of a rapport over Ukraine and Crimea, and even the Twitter account of Russia's Foreign Ministry couldn't resist tweaking Kerry: