Free Sergei Lavrov!

Free Sergei Lavrov!

It didn’t use to be this way for Sergei Lavrov.

Russia’s veteran foreign minister still has something of a personality cult back home — a lingering vestige of the days when, in the words of one former U.S. ambassador, he would run “rings around us in the multilateral sphere.” You can still buy Lavrov kitsch — ‘We LuvRov’ T-shirts, and cellphone cases with the notoriously unrepentant cigarette-lover’s silhouette showing through a haze of smoke — even in Moscow’s glitzy Evropeisky mall.

But at last weekend’s Munich Security Summit, the usually commanding Lavrov was visibly uncomfortable. He even faced boos and mocking laughter as he tried to sell the world on Russian policy in Ukraine. This isn’t the first time Lavrov has been treated like a punchline: Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty’s chief Russia analyst Brian Whitmore scornfully suggested in January that, given the direction his foreign service career appears to be headed, Lavrov always has a second career as a comedian or a fiction writer ahead of him. (As it so happens, Lavrov actually writes poetry, and apparently has even done some improv comedy.)

How did this happen to a consummate career diplomat? Lavrov has been foreign minister since 2004, was Moscow’s representative to the United Nations for a decade before that, and has been praised throughout his career for talents ranging from being multilingual — he even speaks fluent Singhalese — to being able to summon on command moods from playful to intimidating. Lavrov’s counterparts have on multiple occasions attested to his formidable talents. One U.N. insider summed him up in 2007 as “the most powerful personality on the Security Council …, with a rapid mind, with comprehensive and accurate knowledge and awareness of what was going on, and with a capacity for articulate intervention which could easily change the tenor of the debate.” Even now, MID, Russia’s formidable ministry of foreign affairs, remains his unquestioned fiefdom. But within the Kremlin as a whole, today he seems a marginal character at best.

On the one hand, Lavrov is simply another casualty of the Kremlin’s current attitude toward professionals in government. Since his return to the presidency in 2012, Vladimir Putin has surrounded himself with a tighter and tighter circle of friends and cronies, while marginalizing those who’ve spent years running the country. He has even physically withdrawn, increasingly governing not from the Kremlin, but from his palace at Odintsovo, outside Moscow. Thus, in today’s Russia, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu appears not to have been part of the final discussions on whether to seize Crimea, Central Bank Governor Elvira Nabiullina struggles to get on Putin’s schedule — and Lavrov’s job is increasingly not to shape, but merely to sell, Russian foreign policy.

But as Putin fritters away Lavrov’s talents, Moscow’s international standing is suffering. While Putin’s geopolitical ambitions are clear — and they don’t involve becoming a friend to the West –- he does express frustration that Russia is misunderstood. More to the point, while Moscow has bombed its way to a seat at the table over Syria, it is also discovering the limits of hard power. It remains under economic sanctions, is at daggers-drawn with Turkey — until recently an ally — and is discovering that China is not so much interested in a Russian alliance as it is in cheap Russian energy. Meanwhile, the country is less popular in the world than ever: Only in Vietnam, Ghana, and China do a majority of people hold favorable opinions of Russia, rather than unfavorable.

As it happens, it is in the realm of shaping public opinion where Lavrov could shine, if used correctly. No, the foreign minister isn’t a friendly face in the mode of, say, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, whose smiling features have contributed immeasurably to Iran’s ongoing image makeover. But he can do urbane with the best of them. And urbane would be a vast improvement over the current situation. At the moment, the tone of MID talking points and its spokespeople is equal parts shrill, hectoring, and unsubtle, with a distinct neo-Soviet flavor that doesn’t even play well on domestic TV. The current team could announce a cure for cancer and make it sound like a threat; Moscow needs people who can announce an airstrike on Kiev and make it sound like helpful urban renewal.

Lavrov was once that person: When former Austrian Foreign Minister Ursula Plassnik first visited Moscow, for example, he made a show of greeting her at the romantic Café Pushkin with a bunch of yellow roses. But he also came with a sharp edge to him that at times endeared him to both his colleagues and the public at large by offering a blessed relief to the usual bland platitudes and lowest-common-denominator communiqués of the diplomatic circuit. Although he says he merely told then-British Foreign Minister David Miliband “Don’t lecture me” in 2008, London claims that there were a lot more expletives in there. It would be no surprise, as his infamously muttered “fucking morons” during a meeting with his Saudi counterparts attests. Yet with both the public and many within the Western diplomatic corps, this is a feature, not a bug. As one Western attaché in Moscow told me, “Lavrov can be an absolute breath of fresh air, and he’s at his best when you don’t know if he’s going to offer you a drink or bite your head off.”

Watching him now is like watching a two-dimensional caricature of the old Lavrov. The sparkle is now just a hard frost, the sharp edge looks like short temper. When he followed German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s suggestion that there was a 51 percent chance the Syrian cease-fire would hold by giving his own estimate of 49 percent, it sounded simply churlish, rather than witty, as presumably intended.

That’s in part because, in comparison with the past, Lavrov has little good news to tell, and few bones to throw. It would make sense for him to be allowed to try and improve the atmosphere in the room with some token concessions — a tradition the Soviets had once mastered — like letting some dissidents out of prison or relaxing some constraints on civil society. But it is clear that this Kremlin isn’t interested in even the most trivial gestures of goodwill. If anything, it seems to make a virtue of looking tough even when doing so offers few rewards, whether it’s bombing Syrian hospitals or hitting back at condemnation of its actions in Ukraine by raising at the U.N. the British bombing of a Yemeni city — in 1946.

But Lavrov’s current lackluster demeanor must also reflect his own sharp awareness that, as MID insiders admit, it is clear that today he is just a frontman, for a show no one wants to watch. It has become common knowledge within the ministry that both Lavrov and the MID itself have been playing an increasingly diminished role in actual policymaking. Rather than being asked to contribute, guide, and brainstorm, they are there to sell today’s line — a job that increasingly involves the demoralizing task of telling truly absurd lies — and tomorrow pick up the pieces. As one MID insider put it, “if Lavrov had been brought into the room earlier on Crimea, we’d have managed it better, and probably stayed out of the rest of Ukraine.” Why? “He knows the Ukrainians were going to mess things up for themselves, and why make ourselves their alibi?”

Lavrov is as busy as ever: In his time as foreign minister, he has flown the equivalent of 83 times round the world. But at times he even seems to be physically diminishing, perhaps because it is ever clearer that he has no real decision-making power. Maybe U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry might sympathize: It was striking that the real power couple hammering out potential terms over Ukraine during recent negotiations, for example, was Kerry’s notional subordinate Victoria Nuland (who may be just the assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, but enjoys a direct line into the White House) and Putin’s aide Vladislav Surkov. The fact that Lavrov is more prominent in the Syrian negotiations does not suggest any resurgence, either. Rather, the tragic irony is that this underscores the extent to which the Kremlin neither expects nor even necessarily wants them to succeed. If they were truly important, Lavrov would probably have once again been just an extra on the set.

In Sergei Lavrov, the Kremlin has — through no great doing of its own — a tremendous asset: one of the world’s toughest, smartest, and more experienced foreign ministers. It would do well to put him to some better use.

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