Russian Diplomats’ Credibility Crisis

Shifting justifications for Ukraine aggression suggest they may be running blind.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
Police stand guard outside the Russian Embassy in Ukraine.
Police stand guard outside the Russian Embassy in Ukraine.
Police stand guard outside the Russian Embassy during a protest in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Feb. 22. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

Putin’s War

For several weeks, Russia’s diplomatic corps coalesced around a single message: The West’s warnings about a Russian invasion of Ukraine amounted to pure hysteria. “There is nothing to worry about,” Russia’s envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted on Feb. 12. “As Moscow repeatedly explained, no plans of invasion.” That tweet was nine days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to engage in so-called peacekeeping in Ukraine’s separatist eastern regions. 

In recent days, as the prospect of military confrontation grew increasingly likely, the message shifted. Instead of denying Russian plans for military intervention in Ukraine, Russian officials implied they may be forced reluctantly to take action. 

“I am one of those who doesn’t believe that Russia can undertake an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This is simply impossible,” Ulyanov told Foreign Policy in a direct message via Twitter on Sunday, one day before Putin ordered Russian “peacekeepers” into Donetsk and Luhansk. “My concern is that Kiev can compel us to engage by starting a large-scale military operation against Donbass like it did twice in the past. I hope it will not happen.”

For several weeks, Russia’s diplomatic corps coalesced around a single message: The West’s warnings about a Russian invasion of Ukraine amounted to pure hysteria. “There is nothing to worry about,” Russia’s envoy to the Iran nuclear talks, Mikhail Ulyanov, tweeted on Feb. 12. “As Moscow repeatedly explained, no plans of invasion.” That tweet was nine days before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered Russian troops to engage in so-called peacekeeping in Ukraine’s separatist eastern regions. 

In recent days, as the prospect of military confrontation grew increasingly likely, the message shifted. Instead of denying Russian plans for military intervention in Ukraine, Russian officials implied they may be forced reluctantly to take action. 

“I am one of those who doesn’t believe that Russia can undertake an unprovoked invasion of Ukraine. This is simply impossible,” Ulyanov told Foreign Policy in a direct message via Twitter on Sunday, one day before Putin ordered Russian “peacekeepers” into Donetsk and Luhansk. “My concern is that Kiev can compel us to engage by starting a large-scale military operation against Donbass like it did twice in the past. I hope it will not happen.”

On Monday, Putin removed all pretense of seeking a diplomatic outcome to the crisis, claiming without evidence that Kyiv was preparing a bloodbath in the separatist region, that it may pursue nuclear weapons, and that “Ukraine has never had its own authentic statehood.”

Russia’s action drew widespread international condemnation and threats to move ahead with sanctions from U.S. and European powers. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres—who rarely confronts the United Nations’ five big powers directly—issued a statement through his spokesperson accusing Moscow of violating Ukraine’s sovereignty in a manner inconsistent with the U.N. Charter.

This diplomatic sleight of hand, according to some Western diplomats and observers, is the latest evidence that Russian diplomacy has become divorced from reality under Putin and his veteran foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov. Increasingly, it has relied on deception and misdirection to achieve Russian aims. The shift in tone comes amid claims by the United States that Russia and its separatist clients in eastern Ukraine are orchestrating a series of so-called false flag campaigns aimed at provoking all-out war and that it has essentially voided the 2015 Minsk agreement, which aimed at ending the 2014 conflict between Ukraine and Russian-backed separatists in Ukraine’s Donbass region.

“President Putin gave a speech that clearly sets up a pretext for invasion,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters outside the U.N. Security Council on Monday night. “In doing so, he tore the Minsk agreements to shreds and, as the secretary-general said earlier today, he violated the U.N. Charter. Just now, my Russian counterpart made assertions without evidence that demonstrate their efforts to create a pretext for conflict, and it is alarming, it’s revealing, and it’s shameful.”

Russia’s public diplomacy campaign has benefitted from past U.S. intelligence failings, principally the George W. Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq based on false claims that then-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had preserved its arsenal of weapons of mass destruction after the first Gulf War. For Russia, the U.S. condemnation of Russian action reeks of hypocrisy, following the U.S.-led overthrow of regimes in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan that are justified, in Russia’s view, via deception.

But the effort also risks shredding the credibility of Russia’s diplomats, who have mocked the United States and Britain’s warnings that full-scale military intervention in Ukraine is imminent. It has also raised suggestions among some observers that Russia’s diplomats may be running blind without full knowledge of the intentions of Putin and a small coterie of his military and security advisors.

On Sunday, Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, told Margaret Brennan, host of CBS’s Face The Nation, that Russia is “not trying to take any territory of foreign countries,” adding the eastern regions where Russian-backed separatists are fighting are indeed a “part of Ukraine.”

The following day, the Kremlin recognized the eastern separatist regions as independent.

“Russian diplomats in New York or Vienna, arguably even Lavrov, have no clue what is being planned,” said one European diplomat who spoke on condition of anonymity. “So mockery is the sort of default position because what other choice do they have?” 

Russia’s diplomatic corps have seen their standing diminished in the years following Russia’s 2015 military intervention in Syria, when Putin came to rely increasingly on his military and security advisors as well as the use of private mercenaries, according to some diplomats.

“My sense is that the foreign service in the Russian system has been less and less central over the last 10 years and even more so over the past five years,” said Michel Duclos, a former senior French career diplomat. Duclos said a marker of Russian diplomacy’s demise was Lavrov’s attempt to resign as part of Russia’s sweeping cabinet reshuffle in January 2020. Putin decided to keep him in his post. “Lavrov, our old friend, wanted to leave and more or less handed in his resignation to the boss,” Duclos said. Perhaps, he suggested, Lavrov may have “had the feeling the golden age of Russian diplomacy was over.”

Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia in the 1990s, said much of Russia’s diplomatic corps, including Lavrov, were raised in the Soviet system, where “the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was essentially an action arm of the Kremlin and exercised very little influence.”

Pickering suggested that Putin relies on a handful of three to four security advisors but makes his own decisions. 

“Putin operates as if he is the whole decider, and his approach is to keep us guessing as long as he possibly can, to use deception, uncertainty, and surprise as principal tools,” Pickering said. “He doesn’t seem to be persuaded that our sanctions approach is anything like we’re advertising it to be: the mother of all sanctions.”

Andrei Kozyrev, who served as Russia’s foreign minister under former Russian President Boris Yeltsin in the 1990s, told Foreign Policy in a telephone interview from Florida, where he now lives, that the Russian foreign ministry has played an increasingly diminished role in Russian geostrategy. 

“The foreign ministry is now mostly used for propaganda purposes, and its credibility is exactly zero,” he told Foreign Policy. “It’s worse than Soviet propaganda,” he added, noting that even the government-controlled newspaper, Pravda, would check basic facts before publishing. 

Kozyrev, who appointed Lavrov as his deputy and later as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, said his former protege has largely provided cover for Putin’s military aims, citing his role in dragging out endless negotiations over Syria while the Russian military helped Syrian President Bashar al-Assad consolidate his power.

“Lavrov, who is actually a gifted, very good diplomat … is just playing the same game as he played with the Obama administration,” said Kozyrev, who wrote the book Firebird: The Elusive Fate of Russian Democracy on Putin’s rule. “You remember those endless talks about Syria. It went on for two years. Every time, there was a kind of hope that the negotiations would produce something. It was just a cover.”

For years, U.S. policymakers have underestimated Putin’s Russia. After Sen. Mitt Romney characterized Russia as the United States’ greatest geostrategic adversary in his 2012 presidential campaign, in 2014, then-U.S. President Barack Obama dismissed Russia as a second-rate power that posed little threat to the United States. “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors—not out of strength but out of weakness,” Obama said at the time. 

For all the talk about Russia’s diminished standing on the world stage, Putin has muscled his way into a position of increasing influence in the Middle East, where he prevented Assad’s collapse in Syria, as well as in Africa, where Russian mercenaries have played an increasingly active role in backing governments and armed groups in the Central African Republic, Libya, and Mali. Putin is now seeking to reshape Eastern Europe’s security architecture and reestablish the sphere of influence Russia lost at the end of the Cold War.

“The Kremlin lies even though it either expects or doesn’t care that others see through such deception,” wrote Christopher Bort, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Russia and Eurasia program, in January. “It lies to deflect blame for outrages in which its role has been exposed, such as the shootdown of [Malaysia] Airlines Flight MH17 over Ukraine in July 2014, the poisoning of former Russian military intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the city of Salisbury in the U.K. in March 2018, or the assassination attempt on opposition leader [Alexey] Navalny in Russia in August 2020.”

Ulyanov, who served under Kozyrev, said suggestions “that Russia has lost its credibility seem to be an exaggeration,” adding, “At least I don’t feel it when I communicate with Western colleagues at my level. Leave alone the rest of the world.” 

“For very many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, Russia is a very attractive and credible partner,” he added.

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

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