Time was when Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, travelled to European capitals as and when he pleased and was received there as a serious and rational diplomat and, like many rich Russians, loved the dolce vita that continental Europe provided.
As the old Russian song set to English lyrics goes “those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end;” except they did end after Russia invaded Ukraine.
Nowadays Lavrov is sanctioned and shunned and avoided in Europe, and although he is still globetrotting and making Russia’s case against the West, he can no longer champion the sovereignty of states and get away with it as he used to when lambasting the US and Britain for interfering in the internal affairs of other countries.
Speaking in English two weeks ago in New Delhi after the G20 conference at the Raisina Dialogue on geopolitics, he made a fool of himself answering questions in front of an invited audience of leaders and decision makers and other cognoscenti from around world.
Lavrov was speaking about Russia’s energy policy. He was asked whether the war in Ukraine had tilted Russia’s energy policy towards Asia and if so how India featured in terms of the shift eastwards.
“The war, which we are trying to stop, and which was launched against us using the Ukrainian people, has influenced Russian policy including energy policy, and to be blunt we would not any more rely on partners in the West, we would not allow them to blow the pipelines again; the energy policy of Russia will be orientated towards credible and reliable partners and India and China are certainly among them.”
His reply provoked spontaneous laughter, but it was laughter at him not with him. He affected an air of nonchalance but for someone like Lavrov who does not suffer fools gladly it must have been infuriating to be treated as a fool himself.
The audience laughed at exactly the point he claimed the war was launched against Russia which was a ludicrous claim to make even in India, which is well disposed towards Russia. What is puzzling is why a serious and experienced diplomat like Lavrov allowed himself to become a laughing stock by making such a ridiculous claim knowing it was patently untrue?
His audience in New Delhi in India did not comprise the usual anti-Russian suspects one encounters in the West where Russia is held as entirely to blame for the war in Ukraine and the West entirely blameless. They were a lot more impartial and even applauded Lavrov when he castigated the double standards of the US and Britain over their invasion of Iraq in 2003.
The question he was asked did not even invite a justification of the war. It was concerned with energy policy, and Lavrov could have omitted reference to the causes of the war. Or, if he felt the need to give Russia’s side of the story, he could have talked very briefly about Russia’s strategic defence dogma in the style of his illustrious predecessor Andrei Gromyko who was Soviet Russia’s foreign minister for most of the Cold War.
Lavrov has form for lying for his country from the days before February 2022 when he insisted that Russia was not going to invade Ukraine. He is an apparatchik who was outside the magic circle around President Vladimir Putin who made the decision to invade Ukraine, and although the evidence coming out of the US and Britain was that an invasion was imminent, his brief was to deny it repeatedly.
The damage to Russia of having its top diplomat laughed at as not being a serious foreign minister, however, is that Russia itself is not a serious country. Russia in the 1990s under Boris Yeltsin was not a serious country. Yeltsin was often drunk and unsteady on his feet and Russia’s reputation suffered enormously. On one occasion in 1994 his plane landed in Dublin and the Irish prime minister went to greet him at Shannon International only to find he was too drunk to get off the plane. It was very embarrassing and damaged Russia’s image for the rest of his term in office to the end of the century.
The irony is that Putin was chosen to succeed Yeltsin in order to salvage Russia’s reputation as a serious superpower instead of a basket case basking in the glory of the old Soviet Union that it had become under Yeltsin. Up to a point Putin succeeded partly because he was not a drunk and partly because he is an unreconstructed KGB intelligence officer: as he himself said there is no such person as an ex-KGB officer.
Neither Putin nor Lavrov are the kind of leaders who would tolerate being laughed in front of a Russian audience. Democracy there is of the top-down ballot box variety with none of the usual freedoms necessary to make government properly accountable.
The Russians vote in presidential elections and the same person is returned every time, and he answers questions from the public for a few hours once a year and that’s about it. The public has no opportunity to laugh at their politicians like we do in Britain.
When it became clear that Boris Johnson’s performance as prime minister – and that of Liz Truss – were laughable and that Britain under their premiership was no longer a serious country, the Conservative party had no hesitation in getting rid of both of them in quick succession.
It is too much to expect that kind of turnover in Russia, but the hope is that the spontaneous laughter at Lavrov’s claim that Ukraine launched a war against Russia would have some effect in the Kremlin.
Alper Ali Riza is a king’s counsel in the UK and retired part-time judge