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‘Minister Nyet’ Returns to His U.N. Stomping Grounds

Sergey Lavrov has honed the practice of body blocking U.S. and European diplomacy at every turn.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov speaks to press at the United Nations.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov holds a press briefing at the United Nations during the U.N. General Assembly in New York City on Sept. 28, 2018. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

Note: This profile originally appeared in Foreign Policy’s U.N. Brief, the pop-up newsletter covering the United Nations General Assembly this week. Subscribe to it and other newsletters here

In late 2003, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan tried to institute a ban on smoking at headquarters in New York. Most chain-smoking diplomats rolled their eyes and complained about the move, but one senior diplomat fought back.

Sergey Lavrov, then the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, lashed out at Annan and proudly flaunted the ban, continuing to light up at the headquarters building. “The U.N. building is owned by all the member nations while the secretary-general is just a hired manager,” he said at the time. The move was vintage Lavrov, seasoned diplomats said, and foreshadowed the blunt and acerbic approach to diplomacy he would later come to master as Russia’s top diplomat.

Note: This profile originally appeared in Foreign Policy’s U.N. Brief, the pop-up newsletter covering the United Nations General Assembly this week. Subscribe to it and other newsletters here

In late 2003, then-U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan tried to institute a ban on smoking at headquarters in New York. Most chain-smoking diplomats rolled their eyes and complained about the move, but one senior diplomat fought back.

Sergey Lavrov, then the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, lashed out at Annan and proudly flaunted the ban, continuing to light up at the headquarters building. “The U.N. building is owned by all the member nations while the secretary-general is just a hired manager,” he said at the time. The move was vintage Lavrov, seasoned diplomats said, and foreshadowed the blunt and acerbic approach to diplomacy he would later come to master as Russia’s top diplomat.

Lavrov is scheduled to return to his old stomping grounds, no doubt to deliver the same type of diplomatic digs at the United States and its Western allies, in his address to the United Nations General Assembly this week.

During his decades-long diplomatic career, Lavrov has honed the practice of body blocking U.S. and European diplomacy at almost every major turn and turned it into a grim art form. Russia has blocked humanitarian and peacekeeping efforts in Belarus, Ukraine, and Syria, with Lavrov extending diplomatic cover to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime after Assad committed war crimes against his own citizens.

Lavrov has defended Belarusian strongman Aleksandr Lukashenko’s crackdown on pro-democracy protests, including the forced grounding of a European passenger plane to arrest a prominent opposition journalist in May. Most recently, he has rebuffed U.S. efforts to station troops in Central Asia after the chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal.

Western diplomats who went toe to toe with Lavrov in difficult negotiations, often only to come up empty, adopted a nickname for him: “Minister Nyet.” (Nyet means “no” in Russian.)

Even so, Lavrov commands begrudging respect from some of his Western counterparts, who concede his diplomatic experience and prowess is tough to match. “He’s about as expert a foreign minister as there is in the world today,” said John Negroponte, a former U.S. deputy secretary of state who overlapped with Lavrov at the United Nations as George W. Bush’s U.N. ambassador from 2001 to 2004.

Former U.S. National Security Advisor and U.N. envoy John Bolton described Lavrov as “knowledgeable,” “professional,” and “assertive on behalf of Russia” in an interview with U.N. Brief.

Lavrov navigated the transition from neophyte Soviet diplomat to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s right-hand man on foreign policy over the decades—no small feat in the Machiavellian world of Kremlin politics. Most experts agree it is because Lavrov is careful to stay in his lane as a foreign-policy bureaucrat and avoid any hint of posing a threat to Putin’s grip on power.

Of course, being a humble bureaucrat in Putin’s Russia always comes with perks: Lavrov has real estate worth millions of dollars and a longtime female companion who happens to work at the foreign ministry and has more than $13 million in unexplained assets, a recent Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project investigation found.

Lavrov started out as a junior diplomat in the Soviet Embassy in Sri Lanka in the early 1970s before steadily climbing the ranks of the Soviet and then Russian foreign ministry. Even early in his career, he stood out to his supervisors. “In the ministry, he was one of the bright guys,” said Andrei Kozryev, Russian minister of foreign affairs from 1990 to 1996, who has known Lavrov since his university days.

But the image of a chain-smoking, debonair diplomatic pro has begun to slip away in recent years, as Putin tightens his grip on power and the Kremlin increasingly relies on trolling, disinformation, and skullduggery to undercut Western foreign-policy objectives.

“When he was at the United Nations, I think he was very much known as quite urbane, witty, implementing what the Russian government wanted him to do,” said Angela Sent, a former top U.S. intelligence officer on Russia now at Georgetown University. “Increasingly, as the relationship with the West has gotten worse, his reputation has changed. He will now make speeches which reflect the reviews of the one person who is important to him: President Putin.”

Kozryev, once seen as a bold reformer coming out of the Soviet era of glasnost and perestroika, said he was surprised by Lavrov’s trajectory. “I’m surprised personally because, as I said, he’s smart enough to know at the back of his mind that the Russians now are on the wrong side of history, so to say,” Kozryev told U.N. Brief. “He cannot but understand that. So in that sense, I am surprised.”

But if Putin needs to rely on any one man to deliver Moscow’s biggest messages at the United Nations, it remains Lavrov. “Speaking of his professionalism, he is one of the best,” Kozryev said. “And Putin probably understands that.”

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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