Vitaly Churkin, Moscow’s U.N. ambassador, died Monday of a possible heart attack in New York at the age of 64, marking an abrupt end to the career of one Russia’s most formidable diplomats, a man simultaneously admired and reviled in U.N. circles as a brilliant tactician and a cynical shill for President Vladimir Putin’s bullying foreign policy.
For more than a decade, Churkin deployed his considerable diplomats skills — and a masterful understanding of the U.N.’s byzantine procedures — to constrain the West’s military power, denouncing interventions from Iraq to Libya, while defending Russia’s own military adventures from Georgia to Crimea and Syria.
His bitter public brawls with American and European diplomats, including Susan Rice and Samantha Power, injected high drama into the normally staid debates in the Security Council. But his passing prompted a flood of condolences from some of his old sparring partners.
“Vitaly was a formidable adversary, but always a friend,” Rice wrote on her Twitter account. “Vitaly was a huge force at the UN. Smart, committed, highly effective and very funny.”
“In my short time at the United Nations, Ambassador Vitaly Churkin showed himself to be a gracious colleague,” Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote in a statement. “We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country’s positions with great skill.”
In her first Security Council meeting, Haley denounced Russia’s “aggressive actions” in Ukraine and vowed to maintain sanctions against Moscow until it ended it occupation of Crimea.
Asked to respond, Churkin — who has spoken favorably about President Donald Trump, whom he has met twice since the 1980s — refused to take the bait, instead telling reporters that it was too soon to forecast the future of U.S. and Russian relations and that he expected they would have a strong working relationship.
Churkin performed as a child actor and a competitive speed skater in his youth, before embarking on a 40-year diplomatic career that got its start in the waning years of the Soviet Union.
In the early 1980s, he served as a spokesman for the Soviet embassy in Washington. He would later go on to work as former Russian President Boris Yeltsin’s special envoy in the Balkans during the Bosnian war, before taking on a succession of diplomatic postings, including stints as ambassador to Belgium and Canada. Putin appointed him U.N. envoy in 2006, one of the most influential posts in the Russian foreign ministry
Churkin, who was frequently rumored to be in line to replace Sergei Lavrov as Russia’s foreign minister, used his position to harangue the United States for abusing a 2011 U.S. mandate to halt atrocities in Libya to topple a sitting leader, pitching the North African country into years of chaos and violence.
He also served as a vital ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad at the United Nations, casting six Security Council vetoes intended to shield Syria from efforts by the United States and other Western powers to pressure Assad to halt atrocities against his own people and to yield power to a transitional government.
Among his colleagues, Churkin had a reputation as a stickler for protocol, scolding younger diplomats who had the audacity to attend a Security Council meeting without a suit and tie. And he frequently fumed at the leaks of the council’s closed-door sessions to the press. He once issued a statement urging the U.N. to revoke the press credentials of a Reuters reporter after he reported on the contents of a closed-door meeting.
Churkin once mocked Rice’s alma mater, Stanford University, for educating a top American diplomat given to heaping crude insults in closed-door deliberations. When Samantha Power called him out in the Security Council for aiding a Syria dictator — “are you truly incapable of shame?” — he dismissed her as a hypocrite seeking to wear the mantle of Mother Theresa.
But he also possessed a keen, sharp wit, and a lively sense of humor.
Gérard Araud, a former U.N. envoy who currently serves as France’s ambassador to the United States, described Churkin on Twitter as an “extraordinary colleague during my 5y in the UNSC. Abrasive, funny and technically impeccable.”
The Russian mission to the United Nations said that Churkin was in his office working when he died, a day before his 65th birthday. His death, according to a statement issued by the mission, came as a “terrible shock. It is impossible to realize that Ambassador is no longer with us.”
“The loss sustained by Russia is grave and irreplaceable,” Petr Iliichev, a senior diplomat at the mission said Monday, according to Tass news service. “Ambassador Churkin remained at his work post until the last minute. He devoted his whole life to defending the interests of Russia and was to be found on the very front lines and in the most stressful posts.”
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