Are Russian Diplomats Lying or Just Clueless?

Russian diplomats take flak misleading the world on Putin’s plans for Ukraine.

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy, and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Foreign diplomats stage a walkout during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's virtual address at the U.N.
Foreign diplomats stage a walkout during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's virtual address at the U.N.
Foreign diplomats stage a walkout during Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's virtual address to the United Nations Human Rights Council at the U.N.'s Geneva headquarters on March 1. Salvatore di Nolfi/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, Russia’s then-ambassador to the United Nations, the late Vitaly Churkin, confided in his French counterpart. “Churkin told me in a rare moment of frankness, just after we were told they had annexed Crimea, that he ‘would have never thought they would do it,’” France’s then-U.N. envoy, Gérard Araud, recalled in a recent interview.

For Araud, the exchange provided an early sign that Russia’s diplomatic corps was frozen out of the decision-making process in Moscow, forcing its envoys to improvise without the benefit of previewing the Kremlin’s increasingly militarized playbook. That view would later be reinforced during U.N. deliberations over Syria, when Churkin was forced, at least once, to renege on informal assurances he provided his American, British, and French counterparts of Russian support for a U.N. Security Council resolution expanding access to humanitarian relief convoys. “He was obliged to call and say that the Kremlin didn’t want it,” Araud said.

The gap between the actions of the Kremlin and assurances of Russia’s diplomats have been especially gaping during the runup to and aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, when the entirety of the Russian foreign ministry repeated falsely, repeatedly, that Putin had no intention of seizing Ukraine by force, only to revise their account to suggest that Russia had been forced to invade because of unsubstantiated claims of Ukrainian aggression in pro-Russian separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. This has also engendered deep skepticism about the credibility of Russian pledges or its commitment to pursue meaningful diplomatic talks with Ukraine, which it falsely claims is controlled by a cabal of neo-Nazis.

In 2014, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the invasion of the Crimean Peninsula, Russia’s then-ambassador to the United Nations, the late Vitaly Churkin, confided in his French counterpart. “Churkin told me in a rare moment of frankness, just after we were told they had annexed Crimea, that he ‘would have never thought they would do it,’” France’s then-U.N. envoy, Gérard Araud, recalled in a recent interview.

For Araud, the exchange provided an early sign that Russia’s diplomatic corps was frozen out of the decision-making process in Moscow, forcing its envoys to improvise without the benefit of previewing the Kremlin’s increasingly militarized playbook. That view would later be reinforced during U.N. deliberations over Syria, when Churkin was forced, at least once, to renege on informal assurances he provided his American, British, and French counterparts of Russian support for a U.N. Security Council resolution expanding access to humanitarian relief convoys. “He was obliged to call and say that the Kremlin didn’t want it,” Araud said.

The gap between the actions of the Kremlin and assurances of Russia’s diplomats have been especially gaping during the runup to and aftermath of the Ukraine invasion, when the entirety of the Russian foreign ministry repeated falsely, repeatedly, that Putin had no intention of seizing Ukraine by force, only to revise their account to suggest that Russia had been forced to invade because of unsubstantiated claims of Ukrainian aggression in pro-Russian separatist enclaves in eastern Ukraine. This has also engendered deep skepticism about the credibility of Russian pledges or its commitment to pursue meaningful diplomatic talks with Ukraine, which it falsely claims is controlled by a cabal of neo-Nazis.

“There is no invasion and there is no such plans,” Russia’s ambassador to Washington, Anatoly Antonov, told CBS News on Feb. 20, echoing similar denials by Russian foreign ministry officials. “We are not trying to take any territory of foreign countries.” Within a day, Russia recognized two pro-Russia breakaway territories in Ukraine, precipitating the full-scale invasion days later.

The reputational damage inflicted on Russia’s diplomats has implications for the prospects of any diplomatic settlement to end the war, fueling deep misgivings among Ukrainian officials and Western diplomats about any level of trustworthiness of their Russian counterparts to build working relationships. “We of course remain open to pursuing any reasonable path, but it’s very hard to see any path when the bombs are dropping, the planes are flying, the tanks are rolling,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters Wednesday at the State Department.

One of U.S. President Joe Biden’s top envoys in Europe fumed over his Russian counterpart’s position on Ukraine, underscoring how difficult it is to negotiate with Russian diplomats when they cling so closely to the party line out of Moscow.

“The Russian ambassador here continues to maintain absolutely ludicrous and unfounded, and frankly just preposterous positions about de-Nazifying Ukraine, when his country’s military forces are among other things bombing near the Babyn Yar Holocaust memorial, and when we all know the president of Ukraine is a Jewish Ukrainian,” Michael Carpenter, Biden’s ambassador to the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, told Foreign Policy.

“The degree of mendacity, the lies, the propaganda, the disinformation that we’re seeing just doesn’t allow for an honest dialogue or discussion,” he added. “It’s like they’re off in a different universe.”

Even as Russia has escalated its military campaign against Ukraine, allegedly committing war crimes by repeatedly and indiscriminately targeting civilians and residential areas, the Kremlin has dispatched a nationalist former cultural minister, Vladimir Medinsky, to lead the Russian delegation, which includes deputy ministers from the foreign and defense ministries, to talks with Ukraine on the Belarusian border. But the Russians have suggested that nothing short of surrender would be sufficient.

“What will bring peace to Ukraine?” Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asked at a Feb. 28 press conference at U.N. headquarters.

“As we said, that is demilitarization and de-Nazification of Ukraine, which creates a clear and immediate danger to us,” Nebenzia added, noting that Ukraine would also need to commit to neutrality and to not joining NATO. “As President Putin said, if not today or tomorrow, one day in 30 or 50 years, Ukraine might and will perhaps become a NATO member that will move NATO to the Russian border, and that will be an existential threat for us.”

For Russia, diplomacy has long served to relieve political pressure, offering the illusion of progress, even as it doubles down on the military front. On Thursday, Ukraine and Russia announced the two sides had reached a tentative agreement to establish safe corridors for civilians to evacuate the war zones and to ensure the delivery of humanitarian assistance. But Russian forces have escalated their military offensive, shelling residential buildings in the northern Ukrainian town of Chernihiv, consolidating control over the Black Sea port of Kherson, and seizing control of a nuclear power plant in Enerhodar.

Putin reportedly told French President Emmanuel Macron that the military operations were “going according to plan” in a call between the two leaders on Thursday, according to the Kremlin. A French official told the Washington Post the call reflected Putin’s “determination to continue the military operation and to continue it to the end,” despite warnings from Macron the invasion would weaken Russia and an urge to Putin not to “lie to himself.”

“Russian diplomacy is Potemkin diplomacy,” said one Eastern European diplomat, who was not authorized to speak to press on record. “I never had any trust in them. Definitely since 2014, it has become clear that they don’t have any power to push for change internally, that they are there only to deflect, delay, and to buy time to change conditions on the ground by other means—military.”

Andrei Kozyrev, who was Russia’s foreign minister in the 1990s, said that the Russian foreign ministry is quite competent at carrying out classic diplomatic functions, particularly when it comes to matters where its interests coincide with those of other key powers, like preserving the power of the U.N. Security Council veto and containing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. U.S. officials have voiced appreciation to Russia’s chief nuclear negotiator, Mikhail Ulyanov, for his role in helping to advance the Iran nuclear talks, which are nearing the endgame. “They don’t want the proliferation of nuclear weapons,” Kozyrev said.

But when it comes to matters where interests diverge, Putin only understands force, Kozyrev said.

“The logic of the regime there in Moscow is that you go until you are stopped,” he said. “They respect only the position of force on the other side. Otherwise, they despise those who cannot stand against them.”

Russia’s foreign policy reached a turning point in 2008. In April of that year, NATO leaders at the Bucharest Summit welcomed Georgia’s and Ukraine’s aspirations for membership in the trans-Atlantic military alliance, which was a redline for Putin, who characterized the move as a “direct threat” to Russia’s security.

In August 2008, Russia responded by launching an offensive in Georgia’s breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and later recognizing the two Georgian provinces as independent. In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula of Crimea and fomented a separatist rebellion in the eastern Ukrainian region of Donbass, following the popular revolution that ousted Ukraine’s Russian-backed President Viktor Yanukovych. Last month, Putin recognized the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions, then launched a major military intervention in Ukraine.

Some observers see parallels in the Ukraine campaign with Russia’s intervention in Syria in 2015. In Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proved adept at engaging the world in endless rounds of diplomacy in Syria while Russian forces helped consolidate Syria’s military gains on the ground. In September 2013, Lavrov brokered a deal with then-U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons program in exchange for holding off U.S. airstrikes against Damascus. The pact resulted in Syria dismantling major parts of its chemical weapons arsenal, though international inspectors subsequently detected traces of lethal agents in undeclared laboratories, raising suspicions that Damascus hid some of its chemical weapons. But it also ensured the survival of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and the Syrian leader strengthened his grip on power with the aid of Russia and Iran.

Doubts over the virtue of negotiating with Russia prompted the United Kingdom to privately oppose plans by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres in 2018 to select the U.N.’s fourth special envoy, the Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen, to continue political talks in Syria. The appointment of a U.N. mediator, London reasoned, would only provide Russia and Syria with diplomatic cover for their ongoing effort to consolidate military control over the country.

Russia’s latest outrage has set off a flurry of diplomatic activities. The United States and many Western countries urged Putin not to invade its neighbor, but Russia’s decision to press on has since raised questions about the sincerity of Russian diplomacy, and it has dented the reputation of Lavrov on the world stage. For years, Lavrov was viewed by colleagues as one of the most brilliant diplomats of his generation. But over time, his skills have been viewed as increasingly cynical cover for military operations. In recent weeks, the Russian diplomat has been shunned by some in the diplomatic community.

On Tuesday, Lavrov was unable to fly to Geneva for U.N. conference due to a ban on Russian planes from European Union airspace. In a virtual address to the U.N. Human Rights Council, Lavrov faced a walkout by more than 100 delegations from 40 countries as he sought to defend Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine, leaving the Russian diplomat to speak to a room of empty seats.

Elsewhere in Europe, Russian ambassadors and their embassies are becoming targets of seething anger from Europeans over Putin’s invasion.

In Ireland, the Russian ambassador’s car was temporarily blocked from the embassy as anti-war protesters swarmed it. Russia’s ambassador to Ireland, Yury Filatov, was raked over the coals by an Irish television host as Irish lawmakers called on their government to kick him out of the country.

“Why should our viewers believe the Russian version of events when Russia has been misleading us in recent weeks?” the presenter asked the Russian envoy. “Ten days ago, you [said] … that claims of an imminent Russian invasion of Ukraine were ludicrous, that they were an attempt by America to inflate tension. Now either you did not know what was going on or you were lying, sir, which was it?” Filatov did not directly respond to the question.

“What the ministry of foreign affairs thinks or believes doesn’t matter,” said Araud, the former French diplomat. But the last weeks have revealed that even Putin’s inner circle of military, intelligence, and security advisors appeared to have little say in the course of the conflict. During a televised Feb. 21 meeting of Russia’s national security council, Putin humiliated his own head of foreign intelligence, Sergei Naryshkin.

Araud said the televised meeting exposed the degree to which Putin is Russia’s sole decision-maker. “When you watch that video, you realize that even the intelligence people were terrified by Putin,” Araud said. “Only one person is deciding, and this person is Putin, and he is totally isolated.”

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

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

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