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Russia’s top diplomat offers the U.S. little hope for diplomacy


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For almost two decades, Sergei Lavrov has been the frowning face of Russian diplomacy. He became Russia’s foreign minister during the early days of Vladimir Putin’s first presidency and outlasted almost all of his contemporaries, both in Russia and outside of it. Successive U.S. administrations have become used to biting humor and erudite anti-Americanism.

But since Russia invaded Ukraine a year ago, Lavrov has increasingly become something he hasn’t been in his long career: An irrelevance. While Russia’s top diplomat was long known as “Mr. Nyet” for his knee-jerk opposition to Western interests, he was also begrudgingly respected as an effective diplomat, a witty interlocutor and a direct line to an increasingly remote Russian president.

Now, Lavrov looks increasingly isolated both inside and outside of Russia.

On the sidelines of the Group of 20 largest industrialized nations meeting in New Delhi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke for roughly 10 minutes with Lavrov. It was the first time America’s top diplomat had spoken with his Russian counterpart face-to-face since the invasion of Ukraine over a year ago. The meeting was brief, ad hoc and undoubtedly inconclusive.

A top State Department official told The Post’s John Hudson that Blinken stressed Washington’s support for a peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine that maintains the country’s territorial integrity. Lavrov offered little sign of acquiescence and accounts from Moscow dismissed the importance of the meeting. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told reporters that it was Blinken who had initiated the interaction and that the talk happened “on the go” during a G-20 session.

“There were no negotiations, no meeting or so on,” Zakharova added.

G-20 fails to reach consensus on global agenda amid Ukraine disputes

For all his blunt language, Lavrov is an experienced diplomat. He knows the United States particularly well. Even before becoming Russia’s top diplomat in 2004, he had served a decade as Moscow’s representative to the United Nations in New York, where his daughter studied at Columbia University.

“It was not unusual to see Lavrov in a UN corridor spending a few moments gossiping with a few favored journalists,” one account of his years at Turtle Bay claimed, adding that he sometimes appeared to duck out of Security Council meetings for a quick drink, “no matter the time of day.”

He is fluent in English and has a dry sense of humor. As Russia’s top diplomat, he has proved more interested in fierce, back-and-forth debate than his often dreary Soviet forebearers — even if his loyalties consistently lied with Russia and his rhetoric leaned heavily on the anti-American. He was more open with reporters, telling Russia’s Esquire magazine in 2017 that he liked playing football and was a fan of the Beatles.

Though he was never part of Putin’s innermost circle — he had not grown up in St Petersburg with the Russian president, nor served in the Soviet-era intelligence community — his unusually long tenure as top Russian diplomat suggests a healthy working relationship.

But if Lavrov was the pugnacious diplomat that his peers loved to loathe, he has now become a symbol of something far darker. Since the invasion of Ukraine, the Russian diplomat has found his circle of interlocutors deeply cut, with his own status effectively downgraded to persona non grata at many diplomatic functions.

Placed under sanctions by the United States, Europe and Britain, Lavrov has not been able to attend some of these events. When he has, or when he has attended virtually, they have often ended with either his colleagues walking out or Lavrov himself exiting prematurely.

Even at home, he appears to be an outsider.

Last month, the Financial Times reported that Lavrov only learned of Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine from a 1 a.m. phone call. The Russian diplomat was caught “completely by surprise,” the British newspaper reported. According to the account, Lavrov had responded to later demand for an explanation from an oligarch with a typically Lavrovian statement.

“He has three advisers … Ivan the Terrible. Peter the Great. And Catherine the Great.”

Blinken has rare encounter with Russia’s Lavrov at G-20 meeting in India

It’s reasonable to ask if anything has really changed. Boris Bondarev, a former career diplomat with the Russian mission to the United Nations in Geneva, wrote last year that many in the Foreign Ministry had rejoiced when the well-respected Lavrov was appointed, but soon came to understand another side of his personality.

“My colleagues in the Kremlin repeatedly told me that Putin likes his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, because he is ‘comfortable’ to work with, always saying yes to the president and telling him what he wants to hear,” Bondarev, who resigned in protest of the war in Ukraine, recounted for Foreign Affairs.

Other accounts suggest that as eloquent as he is, Lavrov isn’t so different than many of his Russian elite peers. Opposition figure Alexei Navalny’s investigative team reported in 2021 that Lavrov led a double life, complete with an alleged secret family and financial ties to oligarchs like Oleg Deripaska, who was indicted on a charge of sanctions evasion last year. (Deripaska denies the alleged links.)

For Lavrov, the main focus now appears to be on proving that Russia is not isolated by shoring up support in its scattered allies. After a recent tour of Africa and the Middle East, the Russian diplomat offered a halfhearted version of his old verbosity, accusing the West of organizing an “anti-Russian orgy.”

Some analysts say the audience for the trips is found back in Russia. “We may laugh when we see Lavrov roaming around Africa, but what’s important for Putin is that the part of Russian society that believes everything they say on TV watches the news and says, ‘What a great Putin we have. There is no isolation,’” Fedor Krasheninnikov, an independent Russian political analyst living in Lithuania, told The Post’s Mary Ilyushina at the time.

At 72, Lavrov is already two years over the expected retirement age for Russian civil servants. Speculation has been rife for years that he would step down soon. But for Western capitals, there’s a worrying question: Who would replace him? And then a worrying follow-up: If Russia’s top diplomat is so sidelined, what difference would it make anyway?