Sergei Lavrov: the inscrutable face of Russian diplomacy

Moscow (AFP) –


Sergei Lavrov, reappointed Tuesday as Russia's foreign minister, is a tough diplomat admired even by Moscow's foes and a sometimes inscrutable enforcer of the Kremlin's foreign policy.

Lavrov, who has steered Russian diplomacy at the helm of the foreign ministry since 2004, is one of the longest serving Russian cabinet members and in March turns 70, which is currently the maximum age limit for state officials.

The experienced yet still energetic diplomat embodies Russia's defiant position and the geopolitical muscle it exercises in the UN Security Council.

His sometimes menacing expression coupled with Russia's policies on Syria, Ukraine and other crises has earned Lavrov the nickname "Mr Nyet" ("Mr No"), first coined in the Cold War to describe one of his obstinate Soviet predecessors Andrei Gromyko.

"We will never cave in to ultimatums, you cannot talk with the Russian Federation using that kind of language," he said in 2018, addressing Russian diplomats expelled over the poisoning of ex-double agent Sergei Skripal in Britain that year.

Rarely talking about his personal life or letting slip his private opinions about controversial policies, Lavrov is often pictured leaning over a desk, hands clasped together, frowning over his spectacles.

- 'Not allowed to dance' -

Born in Moscow in 1950, Lavrov reportedly loved physics at school, but was instead educated in the mecca of Soviet diplomacy, the Moscow Institute of International Relations (MGIMO) where he learned Sinhalese before starting his diplomatic career in Sri Lanka.

Having then spent 15 years working in the UN headquarters in New York, where his daughter studied at Columbia University, Lavrov is also entirely comfortable in the West.

A longtime smoker, he had petitioned against the smoking ban in United Nations buildings, enjoys Scotch whisky and is not immune to wry irony, which sets him apart from the humourless apparatchik style of many cabinet members and former security service officers of President Vladimir Putin's inner circle.

He revealed on a Russian talk show that he had wanted to study French and Arabic at university, only to find out on the first day of term that he had been put on the less popular course studying Sinhalese.

While both allies and adversaries may respect his professionalism, Lavrov has been criticised by some for toeing the Kremlin line rather than directing his own foreign policy.

Rex Tillerson reportedly said in 2017, while US secretary of state: "You cannot tango with Lavrov because he is not allowed to dance."

- Psychology of the negotiator -

Asked once what it takes to be a diplomat, Lavrov said the key qualities were being "erudite" and having a good knowledge of history.

He added it was important to be devoted to one's "motherland" and to understand the psychology of the negotiator across the table.

After one stint in the UN, Lavrov worked under reformist foreign minister Andrei Kozyrev when the Soviet Union fell apart. He was named deputy foreign minister in 1992 but left to work in New York again in 1994 as Russian permanent representative to the UN.

In 2004, Putin named Lavrov foreign minister, replacing Igor Ivanov who had been appointed by Boris Yeltsin.

He retained his foreign minister post in 2018 when Putin selected a government for his fourth Kremlin term.

Lavrov has been Russia's voice through the ups and downs of US-Russia relations and Moscow's 2014 annexation of Crimea and support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.

He has been the mouthpiece of Russia's military campaign in Syria and its role in the latest Libya crisis and constantly counters Western criticism of the country's human rights issues.