Russia’s Rottweiler or Putin’s Poodle?

Sergei Lavrov's misreading of Russian history.


Encounters with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov can be fiery, and Susan Glasser’s profile of the diplomat highlights Russia’s obstreperous posture on the stage of world politics (“Minister No,” May/June 2013). Brash, loud, and demanding, Lavrov is tasked with reasserting his country’s position on the world stage in the aftermath of what he views as the disastrous period following the Soviet Union’s fall, when Russian President Boris Yeltsin went cap in hand to the West. In this role, Lavrov likens himself to Russia’s greatest diplomat, 19th-century Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov. Despite his protestations, however, the hard-drinking, chain-smoking Lavrov has emerged as more of a Soviet analogue than he would perhaps like to admit.

Gorchakov was Russia’s foreign minister for almost three decades after the Crimean War, a time of crisis out of which he steered his country. When the fighting with Britain and France ended in 1856, it was obvious that the Russian Empire had missed victory because it had fallen behind in the race to modernize. In fact, Russia had yet to enter the race. It needed time to catch up industrially, educationally, and socially; Russia’s internal transformation had to become the supreme priority. For most of his career, Gorchakov steered clear of international conflict, making policy comprehensible and predictable to the rest of the world. But he was no pushover in diplomacy. He never accepted the demilitarization of the Black Sea as permanent, and he shrugged off Western complaints about the brutal suppression of the 1863 Polish uprising. Eventually, he predicted, the Russian Empire would rejoin the card game of European politics with a handful of trumps.

It is easy to see why Lavrov might keep a portrait of Gorchakov, a new hero of post-communist Russia, in his office. But he also has former foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Andrei Gromyko on display — the same Molotov who signed the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939, the same Gromyko who voted to install SS-20 missiles in Eastern Europe and invade Afghanistan. Lavrov is usually reluctant to mention them when abroad, but the choice of the portraiture for his ministry is far from accidental. Despite his Rottweiler manners, Lavrov is President Vladimir Putin’s poodle. Putin has always placed an emphasis on state interests, official prestige, and international assertiveness. He stresses the continuity of the Russian Empire, the Soviet Union, and the Russian Federation. He has abandoned Yeltsin’s silence about the achievements of the Soviet years.

Those continuities with the Soviet Union are altogether too remarkable for comfort. Russia remains perilously dependent on the world market prices for oil, natural gas, diamonds, and timber, and it still needs to diversify its economy. The rule of law has yet to be established, and foreign direct investment is weak. Putin and Lavrov enjoy the plaudits they win with Russian popular opinion whenever they give offense to a U.S. president or secretary of state, and they balk at American efforts to form coalitions promoting a foreign policy based on democratic principles. They point to undesired consequences that flowed from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. What they fear above all is that such an operation might one day be applied to Moscow itself.

Putin has wasted the windfall from the rise in energy export revenues since the end of the 1990s. Although he balanced Russia’s budget in his first stint as president, he has shirked the task of fundamental modernization. All this is very different from what happened after the Crimean War, in Gorchakov’s day and the age of reforms. By the 1880s, Russia had one of Europe’s fastest-diversifying economies. Foreigners poured investments into the industrial and transport sectors. Undoubtedly, it was still a country of authoritarian tradition, and the movement toward the rule of law was a tormented one. But several basic reforms were seriously attempted, and Gorchakov was their eager supporter. Lavrov is many things, but, alas, he is no Gorchakov.

Professor of Russian History
Oxford University
Oxford, England

Robert Service is an emeritus professor at Oxford University and a Hoover Institution senior fellow. His latest book is Kremlin Winter: Russia and the Second Coming of Vladimir Putin.

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