Lavrov: ‘Nyet’ to No Smoking, Yet No ‘Strangelove’ for Kerry

Photograph by Paul J. Richards/AFP via Getty Images

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov(L) and US Secretary of State John Kerry speak as remarks are delivered to the media while meeting with US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu, and staff on August 9, 2013 at the US Department of State in Washington, DC.

John Kerry is going to school on Henry Kissinger, one of the world’s most seasoned statesmen and a veteran of the Cold War, as he negotiates with the Russians over a proposal to seize the chemical weapons of Syria.

Yet Kerry, secretary of state for less than a year and a former longtime U.S. senator seasoned in foreign relations, is going up against Sergei Lavrov, who has served as Russia’s foreign minister for nearly a decade — longer than anyone before him.

And, as Bloomberg’s Ken Fireman in Washington and colleagues in Moscow report, Lavrov is not one to take nyet for an answer:

When New York City instituted a ban on indoor smoking in 2003, United Nations officials told everyone working in the East Side headquarters to comply. Lavrov, Russia’s then-UN ambassador, was having none of it.

Lavrov kept right on smoking cigarettes, arguing that the world body wasn’t under the jurisdiction of the city, according to a Russian Foreign Ministry official who requested anonymity.

Lavrov, 63, who was promoted to Russian foreign minister in 2004 and still holds that position, will bring the same hard-edged attitude to the application of international law when he meets with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry today in Geneva to discuss the crisis over the Syrian civil war.

“He is clearly more tough-minded than other Russian diplomats,” says Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based research organization specializing in foreign policy.

Russian President Vladimir Putin named Lavrov foreign minister precisely because of this attitude, Simes says. “Putin saw in him a kindred soul, one prepared to stand for Russian national interests, who would not hesitate to be acerbic in debates,” Simes said. Lavrov was picked “to project Russian power, Russian pride, and that’s what he’s doing.”

In the course of fulfilling that mandate, he clashed frequently and publicly with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during her 2005-2009 tenure. In May 2007, after a meeting in Germany, they traded barbs at a press conference over U.S. plans to install a missile-defense system in Europe.

Lavrov called the U.S. contention that the system wasn’t aimed at Russia “ludicrous.” Rice cited Putin’s remark that Russian missiles could destroy any defense system the U.S. might build, adding, “We agree.” Lavrov shot back: “I hope that nobody has to actually prove that Condi’s right about that.”

Lavrov’s relationship with Rice’s successor, Hillary Clinton, at first comparatively cordial, became less so over the course of her 2009-2013 term.

At the same time, Simes and other observers who know Lavrov describe him as witty, urbane, and respectful of professionalism when he finds it in diplomatic counterparts. And he puts Kerry in that category, says Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.

“Lavrov finds it boring to talk to non-professionals,” Lukyanov says. “With Kerry, he finds it interesting, and despite all the last Syrian developments they maintain a good relationship.”

See the full report on Lavrov at

And remember, despite all the gamesmanship of modern relations between the U.S. and Russia, diplomacy is on a far stronger footing than it was during Kissinger’s day, when Stanley Kubrick brought us “the Doomsday Machine.”

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