The Brave soldier Sergei

Residence of France, London, April 2013

     Sergei Lavrov, sometimes called a “Russian Talleyrand”, probably improperly because he could rather be compared to a devoted patriot and faithful servant of the state like Chou En-lai, became inaudible. In counterpoint to almost silent diplomacy, boot noises are deafening after Georgia in 2008 and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan.

Despite the recent phase, which began with the Russian-American meeting in Geneva, is it still time for diplomacy? President Putin, in his affirmation of power, did in fact completely replace it by conceptualizing military gesticulation and internally by having made himself the advocate of the rehabilitation of Russian “values” – including by annexing to its cause the Orthodox Church – and the promoter, not without success, moreover, of a constant anti-Western propaganda hostile to freedom and democracy.

Is a script already written? The worst outcome is not necessarily sure. In any case, the game played by a country sometimes described as a “weak power” can be a danger to Russia itself, a new missed opportunity since the end of the Soviet Union, and a considerable risk to the international system as a whole. In the end, the question raised is: what kind of playbook to deal with Moscow do we need?


Sergei Lavrov was one of the rising stars of the MID (NB: Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs), who helped to restore Russian diplomacy under the leadership, from 1996 on, of Minister Evgeny Primakov. After having been in charge of the Department of International Organizations, he was logically appointed in 1994 Ambassador to the United Nations in New York, where he would remain for ten years before becoming Minister himself in 2004. This unusual New York period, in addition to a previous experience of 7 to 8 years in the same Permanent Mission to the United Nations, gave Sergei Lavrov an in-depth knowledge of the United States and exercised it sustainably in public diplomacy which he then had to master with a great art in his functions as Minister for 18 years until today.

He replaced Minister Igor Ivanov who had distinguished himself during the famous session of the Security Council of 2003 by opposing, like Dominique de Villepin, an international legalization of a military intervention in Iraq, while Jack Straw, who also showed a great talent as a legal expert, spoke the opposite in the name of the United Kingdom. Born in Moscow as Igor Ivanov, Sergei Lavrov had, like the latter, Caucasian origins through his father, an Armenian of Tbilisi.  His success in his ministerial duties, combined with this southern sensibility, against the backdrop of a somewhat interim presidency of Dimitri Medvedev, have undoubtedly enabled him to play an important role in dealing with the 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict. In August 2013, in the aftermath of the massive chemical attack in the suburbs of Damascus, it was with US Secretary of State John Kerry that he negotiated directly – marking in the area considered a kind of “end of Sykes-Picot” – an agreement to dismantle the Syrian chemical arsenal.

In retrospect, this year 2013 may be a high point in the visibility of Sergei Lavrov’s diplomatic role and his partner-adversary relationship with his American counterpart. In addition to the Middle East, Russian-American talks were also particularly intense, for example on the Ukrainian issue. Indeed, 2014 was marked by the indefensible annexation of Crimea in the light of the principles of international law, regardless of the point of view one may have on the “historical” sovereignty on the territory. How could Sergei Lavrov, whose strength of statement, especially in the United Nations, had been based for years on coherence and respect of international law, would not have been weakened, if not affected, by this flagrant violation? The Minister did his best to put on equal footing both Crimea and the unilateral proclamation of Kosovo’s independence in 2008, but he struggled to convince.


Sergei Lavrov remains today, after eighteen years at the head of the MID, an incomparable figure of international diplomacy. His views are not necessarily based on ideology but rather on the tradition of the Russian state power from which he will never depart. However, he has been less vocal for the lasting years because the current path of Russian assertion, despite his loyalty, does not in every aspects correspond to  that he seemed to favour. Can a Realpolitik that does not make “values” absolute guiding principles, the attachment to a multilateral system and to international law fit perfectly with a direction already contained in 2007 in the Munich Speech of President Putin?

Fifteen years after the presidential intervention in the Wehrkunde, with a rather “Lavrovian” tone, it is possible to respond positively to this question. What had struck at the time was the clear questioning of a unipolar world. Apart from this denunciation, the discourse was logically characterized by the defence and illustration of a multilateral system where the UN would keep the monopoly of the legitimate use of force, where would be continued the reduction of Russian and American nuclear arsenals and where non-proliferation and non-weaponization of outer space would remain major objectives. As for the security architecture in Europe, the bitter criticism of NATO’s enlargement, despite the “assurances given by the European partners even after the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact”, as Vladimir Putin said at the time, was already well present. As for the OSCE, it was considered on Moscow side that its “bureaucratic apparatus” had distanced itself from the aspirations of its founding States.

But the context is no longer the same and appears profoundly degraded. It is no longer a question of pleading, as was the case in Munich, for a “just and democratic world order” but, it seems, of returning to a status quo ante that preceded the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Russian-Georgian war of 2008, the first military intervention outside Russia’s borders since Afghanistan in 1979, and the annexation of Crimea in 2014, passed through there. In reverse chronology, the Anschluss preceded the Donbass Sudetenland crisis. Language has sometimes gone beyond what was heard in the Cold War, both in the East and in the West. It is not even the weapon of gas that is not now mentioned: according to the head of the International Energy Agency, 30% of the capacities would be retained by Moscow. If this were the case, it would be unprecedented and would not only harm the recipient countries, but seriously damage the reputation of a supplier country of energy raw materials, that never proceed in that way even at the height of the Cold War. This would not be the best way to promote Nord Stream 2. To complete this bleak picture, we can see that Moscow sent at a very recent date, under cover of the CSTO, a contingent of Russian forces in Kazakhstan to help deal with internal matters in a sovereign country, something that even the Warsaw Pact had finally refrained from doing in Poland in 1981.

If it is not a question of minimizing the disappointments and feelings, whatever their basis, which developed in Russia in relation to the West in the post-war years. The Soviet scenarios that are currently emerging – or that we want to play with – can be catastrophic. It is, however, difficult to imagine that Moscow could take the risk of direct military intervention, whatever the scale, in a country with the status of a sovereign state. In addition to the resulting victims on both the Ukrainian and Russian sides, the rupture with Kievian Russia – with which both historical and spiritual ties are emphasized in Moscow – would be completed. As for the sanctions already announced by President Biden, they would make any consideration of the final phase of Nord Stream 2 superfluous to stick only to this major project. Finally, such a war could not have the effect, which has already begun, not only to make the NATO member states more supportive but to multiply the requests for membership, which is nevertheless shown by Russia as being at the heart of its concerns.


Since the worst is not always certain, it will be necessary, in any case, to “do with” Russia as it will present itself to us. It is not a question here of writing a playbook of relations with Moscow, but some basic recommendations can be made.  

It is essential, and this is the basis of diplomacy, to maintain a minimum of dialogue with Moscow. In this regard, the recent meeting in Geneva, despite the frustrations felt by the Europeans absent while directly concerned by the Ukrainian issue, the holding of a NATO-Russia Council and the meeting of the OSCE in Vienna, were a first and necessary step.

Russia clearly aspires to a new form of recognition and this is one of its ambitions in the bilateral and direct dialogue with Washington. Instead of ostracizing, it is better to use all the possibilities to stay in touch and Russia’s exclusion from the G7 was probably a mistake that led Moscow to take an even greater interest in the BRICS or the Shanghai Organization (SCO). In this dialogue maintained against all odds, everything can be said bilaterally, provided it is not done publicly. So it was a good idea to invite President Putin to Versailles but much less to question him or his close circle at the press conference. We are still paying the consequences of that as far as we are concerned.


Sergei Lavrov, who is notoriously not easy to handle, has always shown respect towards France, whose a somehow dissent voice is always expected and even quite generous towards French counterparts who were far from matching his level.  Hopefully will be Sergei one of the architects of a renewed dialogue. Of course, we will not recognize the man who, during his summer holidays, grew a beard and did not shave, went to camp along the Siberian rivers with a band of friends and who, in the evening by the fire, scratched with them the guitar. For, and this is not to insult him, because the years have passed as for each one of us,  but above all, the world has changed.                                                                                               


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