by Bethany Elliott
Monday, 16
January 2023
Profile
10:30

Is Sergei Lavrov looking for a way out?

One of Vladimir Putin's most loyal servants appears to be running out of steam
by Bethany Elliott
Get me out of here. Credit: Getty

Since the Ukraine invasion, Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been an ardent cheerleader for the Kremlin’s ‘special military operation’. In February, he likened talking with then-UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss to “speaking to a deaf person”, while at the UN Security Council in September he called Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a “bastard” before departing early. With apparently no limits to his ambition, last month, Lavrov even sparred with the Pope, labelling him “un-Christian”.

But there are signs that being the public face of Putin’s revanchism has taken its toll. In November, reports emerged that Lavrov had been rushed to hospital during the G20 summit in Bali due to a heart condition (which Lavrov dismissed). And there are doubts over Lavrov’s own commitment to the war. “Sergei Lavrov can serve a good example of how Putin’s system transforms human beings and how fast they can degrade regardless of the starting point”, Nikolai Petrov, Senior Research Fellow in Russia and Eurasia at Chatham House, tells me. “I can’t imagine that he’s actually ideologically committed to this war, but like Putin’s other top nomenklatura guys he keeps his personal views, if any, at the very depth of his conscience, being just a cog in the bureaucratic machinery”.


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Rumours persist that Lavrov and the Foreign Ministry as a whole were sidelined by Putin in the decision-making around the Ukraine invasion. Russian ex-Foreign Minister Andrei Kozyrev refused to comment on speculation that Lavrov learnt the invasion was going ahead when it actually started, while former US national intelligence officer Angela Stent has suggested the Foreign Minister “only knew it was happening as it was taking place”.

Former US Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul has claimed this is part of a broader tendency, whereby Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has become increasingly passive in foreign policy, no longer a “maker” but merely an “implementer”, with Putin and a small coterie of security and intelligence figures having taken the helm. Petrov agrees, saying that “it’s Putin who shapes foreign policy and the task for the Foreign Ministry is to implement it, minimise negative consequences and provide propagandist support for Putin’s decisions”.

Having ascended to the role of Russia’s Foreign Minister in 2004, Lavrov is one of Putin’s longest-serving ministers. It was here that the Kremlin’s top diplomat soon attracted a reputation for decidedly undiplomatic language, whether mumbling “fucking morons” during a 2015 press conference with the Saudi Foreign Minister or, in the same year, advising a crouching female reporter that it is “politically incorrect for a lady to address a gentleman on her knees”.

Despite an uncompromising bent which earned him the moniker ‘Minister Nyet’, Lavrov did enjoy surprisingly warm ties with his counterparts. In 2015, he and John Kerry gifted one another potatoes as a running gag, while he publicly bantered with the then-US Secretary of State the following year about their respective ages.

But, as the war drags on, Lavrov is unlikely to enjoy a comfortable retirement any time soon. While rumours circulated in 2018 of the minister seeking to leave his post, Petrov tells me that now “Putin wants everybody to stay onboard and there is almost no way to quit”. Whether he likes it or not, Lavrov is now here for the long haul.

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Tom Watson
Tom Watson
16 days ago

Did I miss something? It seems to me the sum total of evidence cited here is:
-Rumours 4 years ago that he might quit
-Reportedly hospitalised for a heart condition last year
-A (Russian exile?) Chatham House analyst’s view that he’s basically Eichmann in the banality-of-evil stakes.
-Unconfirmed claims that details of the invasion everyone and their mums was waiting for at the start of 2022 may have been kept on a need-to-know basis within the military and security services

Seriously weak stuff.

Tony Price
Tony Price
17 days ago

Only one way out for him – death – of himself or Putin, by natural means or foul.

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
16 days ago

“like Putin’s other top nomenklatura guys he keeps his personal views, if any, at the very depth of his conscience, being just a cog in the bureaucratic machinery”

I wish we had civil servants who served the government instead of their own personal agendas.

j watson
j watson
16 days ago

Hitler allegedly found Ribbentrop tiresome and increasingly irrelevant. One doubts Lavrov will share the same eventual fate, but he has his hands soaked in blood and should he ever flee from Putin’s praetorian guard we should look forward to seeing him in the dock in The Hague.

Peter B
Peter B
16 days ago

He’s as guilty as the rest of Putin’s rotten crew. “I was only following orders” is no defence (even assuming we believe that – which I do not for a moment).
The Russian people need to put these people on trial for corruption and stealing billions, quite apart from their international crimes.

Joe Donovan
Joe Donovan
11 days ago

Within the last few days Lavrov said that the West is planning a “Final Solution” for Russia. This is sheer blasphemy.

Chris Keating
Chris Keating
16 days ago

He has a very stressful job that no-one is helping him to perform. The Russians had hoped to be included in the West but are now mortified that is is not the case and that they are now the enemy of people that they thought might be friends.
He now has to pick up the pieces and find a path for a good outcome for the people that he represents, Russians.
To me, he seems the only statesman in the whole Ukraine shitshow.

martin logan
martin logan
16 days ago
Reply to  Chris Keating

Does “statesman” involve providing cover for a surprise attack on a neighboring country?
Right up there with Ribbentrop, Kurusu and Nomurua, who each “didn’t had no idea” that they were enabling a war.
Who said stooges weren’t valuable?