His suit was perfectly tailored, just like his message. Let the rest of the world accuse the Syrian government of attacking its own people with chemical weapons. So what if United Nations experts had offered incriminating evidence? Russia’s top diplomat was having none of it Tuesday.
Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, stayed on task after a meeting here with his French counterpart, Laurent Fabius. He always does. “We have very serious reasons to believe that this was an act of provocation,” Lavrov told reporters, asserting once again that someone was trying to make the Syrian government look bad to prompt an attack against it.
“He knows his script and sticks to it,” said Fiona Hill, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. She calls him the consummate Russian-Soviet diplomat — his first posting was in 1972 — and one who clearly and formidably advances Russia’s interests. Don’t forget repeatedly.
“Central casting couldn’t have done better,” she said. “He has the looks, the gravelly voice, the imposing figure, the hair. You expect to see him in smoke-filled corridors maneuvering everyone into a corner. He knows what his job is.”
Lavrov was speaking a day after U.N. inspectors said they had found “clear and convincing evidence” that large quantities of the nerve gas sarin were used last month in Syria.
The inspection report presented to the U.N. Security Council on Monday does not assess blame for the attack. But the report’s underlying evidence, including the trajectory of poison-filled rockets, was cited by the United States and its Western allies as proof of the Syrian government’s responsibility.
In an interview aired Tuesday evening by the Spanish-language network Telemundo, President Obama said it was “inconceivable that anybody other than the regime” used the chemical weapons.
Also on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said that it had tracked trajectory points described in the U.N. report and that they are consistent with the capabilities of the Republican Guard 104th Brigade base in Damascus.
The rockets have a range that would have allowed them to have been fired from the base, although they could have been launched from other points on that trajectory, said Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director at the organization.
Fabius strongly disagreed with Lavrov’s contention. The work carried out by U.N. inspectors proves that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is responsible for the attack, he said.
Lavrov did not budge. He has been Russia’s foreign minister for nearly 10 unyielding years. For two years he has rejected all arguments in favor of intervention in Syria, even as his country supplies Assad with arms. Those deals are strictly legal, he points out, frequently.
When reporters asked him Tuesday about the discovery of Cyrillic lettering on one of the rockets that delivered the gas, Lavrov shrugged it off as not meaningful. Maybe other nations, including some in the West, have been counterfeiting old Soviet weaponry, he suggested. He told them they should stop doing so.
“He has perfected the art of the poker face,” Hill said. “You never know what he’s thinking.”
Russians view the 63-year-old Lavrov as a talented diplomat with admirable skills. He is not one to be caught at a loss for words. He speaks four languages. He projects the style and confidence of a savvy diplomat, one who represents a great power, said Vladimir Frolov, a foreign policy expert and former Russian diplomat.
“He played the Syrian situation brilliantly,” Frolov said. “He engaged in creative obstructionism, making it clear that without his consent not much could be done. That will be his diplomatic legacy.”
Lavrov is fixated on Russia’s strategic interest, said Frolov, now president of the LEFF Group, a government relations and PR company.
“He sees Russia as a great power in international affairs,” he said. “But make no mistake. He’s not the one who makes the ultimate decisions.”
Lavrov was Russian ambassador to the United Nations from 1994 to 2004. In a recent interview with Jake Tapper on CNN, former secretary of state Madeleine Albright described him as many different things. “He is very smart. He also does know U.N. procedure very well. He can be very nice and practical,” she said. “And he can be the opposite.”
The negotiations between the United States and Russia in Geneva over the weekend that resulted in an agreement to remove chemical weapons from Syria offered a classic example of Lavrov at work, Frolov said. The policy came from President Vladimir Putin, he said. Lavrov carried it out.
“He was brilliant in seizing the initiative, but it wasn’t his,” Frolov said. Both Putin and Obama “wanted a face-saving way out of an attack on Syria.” If the United States had attacked Russia’s Syrian client while Moscow stood helplessly by, Putin would have looked dangerously weak, especially at home, Frolov said. For Obama, an attack on Syria was growing more and more politically unpalatable.
Now that Russia has committed itself, he said, he expects Moscow to exert considerable pressure on Syria to comply with the weapons removal.
Lavrov made it clear that Russia will veto any resolution that countenances the use of force in case of Syrian violations. Such a resolution would fall under Chapter 7 of the U.N. Charter, which allows the international body to approve military action — something Russia has adamantly refused to permit regarding Syria.
Many difficulties lie ahead, Frolov said, and the agreement could easily fall apart. But now there is some hope of progress in Syria. “Getting the chemical weapons out means you have to move toward a negotiated political settlement,” he said.
Lavrov came to his work with a pedigree from the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, where most of the country’s top diplomats have trained. Little is known about his personal life. He is married and has a daughter. He smokes. Occasionally he goes white-water rafting.
And in Russia, he is admired for speaking French, an ability that a few years ago got John Kerry into trouble on the campaign trail.
Loveday Morris in Beirut contributed to this report.