MOSCOW — It's no secret that the norms of diplomacy have been in flux recently. Trolling is in. The Russian Embassy in London appears to be gaining an edge in sardonic tweets directed at the West (although the other side has shot off a few zingers of its own, as well). And Russia's most senior diplomat has dropped NSFW one-liners on prime-time news.
But even by prevailing standards, Russian diplomat Vladimir Safronkov's speech on the floor of the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday was unusual.
Accusing the British of blocking political efforts to end the Syrian conflict, the Russian deputy envoy to the United Nations suddenly wagged a finger at Matthew Rycroft, Britain's permanent representative to the United Nations, and said: “Look at me! Don’t you look away from me! Why are you looking away?”
“Don’t you dare insult Russia again,” he added later.
Safronkov's tone, not just what he said but how he said it, turned heads. Even RT, the state-funded Russian media network, called the harangue an “extraordinary attack on his British counterpart, using some decidedly undiplomatic language.” RT also, like others, noted the ambassador's unusual use of the familiar “you” (“ty” in Russian, as opposed to the formal “vy"), which is “used for talking to friends and children and almost never in public addresses.”
That show of disrespect seems to have surprised even Russian officials. Although a spokesman for President Vladimir Putin said there was “nothing insulting” in the remarks, the Moscow Times noted that Russia's official U.N. website edited the transcript of Safronkov's speech to soften his language. “The transcript changed Safronkov’s speech from the informal 'ty' form in Russian to the formal 'vy' form, erasing much of the aggressive thrust of his actual remarks,” the newspaper wrote.
In memes, Safronkov was quickly compared to thuggish Russian hustlers called “gopniks,” tough men who like Adidas tracksuits, sunflower seeds and sitting on their haunches on street corners.
Another video of Safronkov's remarks was edited to include audio of a tirade of profanity that we won't translate here.
Being Moscow's ambassador to the United Nations is not a job for the fainthearted or those leery of confrontation. Andrei Gromyko, who went on to become foreign minister during the Cold War, was known as “Mr. Nyet” (Mr. No) and “Grim Grom.” (A later, softer Gromyko was played up by the New York Times as “Amiable Andrei.”) Vitaly Churkin, the late Russian ambassador to the United Nations, engaged in epic verbal battles with Samantha Power, who was Washington's U.N. ambassador until earlier this year.
“Are you truly incapable of shame?” Power said in remarks directed at Churkin in December as she criticized Russia for its support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad amid reports of mass killings in the campaign to retake the city of Aleppo. Churkin retorted that Power was acting “as if she were Mother Teresa herself.”
But shortly after Churkin died of a heart attack in February, Power wrote an article in the New York Times headlined, “My Friend, the Russian Ambassador,” emphasizing their close, even friendly, working relationship.
“Vitaly was a masterful storyteller with an epic sense of humor, a good friend and one of the best hopes the United States and Russia had of working together. I am heartbroken by his death,” she wrote. “I am also saddened that, in our hyperpolarized environment, praise for Vitaly — the diplomat and the man — has been interpreted as acquiescence to Russia’s aggression.”
Churkin's death also deprived Russia of one of its most experienced diplomats during a period of heightened tensions with the United States. Speeches from the Security Council are regularly broadcast on Russian television, an opportunity to show Russian diplomats sticking it to their Western rivals.
For Safronkov, Wednesday's speech was his highest-profile to date, coming on the same day that he vetoed a Security Council condemnation of the chemical attack that killed dozens in Syria's Idlib province last week.
It's likely that the Kremlin wanted a stinging retort to the West, something that would showcase Russia's support for Assad and its resilience to Western pressure. But it may not have expected the “ty.”