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. Sergei 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,” said Dimitri Simes, president of the Center for the National Interest, a Washington-based research organization specializing in foreign policy.
President Vladimir Putin named Lavrov foreign minister precisely because of this attitude, Simes said. “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, said Fyodor Lukyanov, head of the Moscow-based Council on Foreign and Defense Policy.
“Lavrov finds it boring to talk to non-professionals,” Lukyanov said. “With Kerry, he finds it interesting, and despite all the last Syrian developments they maintain a good relationship.”
The diplomats begin their two days of meetings in the Swiss city spearheading their countries’ efforts to seek a political solution to the dispute over Syria. The crisis intensified last month when some 1,400 Syrians, including about 400 children, were killed in what the U.S. calls a chemical weapons attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Assad and his Russian allies dispute that account.
Lavrov and Kerry will discuss a Russian initiative to place Syria’s chemical weapons arsenal under international control in order to forestall a threatened U.S. military strike.
“The United States, Russia and all members of the international community must take advantage of the Syrian government’s willingness to place its chemical arsenal under international control for subsequent destruction,” Putin wrote in an opinion article in the New York Times published tonight.
The possibility of a diplomatic solution emerged earlier this week when Lavrov seized on an offhand remark by Kerry that a punitive U.S. strike could be averted if Assad would surrender his chemical arsenal. President Barack Obama then agreed to explore the Russian proposal and asked congressional leaders to postpone a vote on a resolution authorizing a strike.
“A strike would increase violence and unleash a new wave of terrorism,” Putin wrote in the article. “It could throw the entire system of international law and order out of balance.”
Kerry, 69, and Lavrov know each other well, having met many times during Kerry’s service in the U.S. Senate, which included a stint by the Massachusetts Democrat as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, Simes said.
Lavrov, in an April interview with Foreign Policy Magazine, described himself as a pragmatist who believed ideology had no place in international affairs -- and said Kerry shared that view.
“Kerry is a professional,” Lavrov said in the interview. “He is pragmatic. And this is a very important quality for a diplomat and especially for a secretary of state.”
The one request Lavrov is known to have made to Putin when he was appointed foreign minister was to be able to take a vacation without a security detail once a year to indulge his passion for river rafting, according to the website of Russia’s Whitewater Federation.
He has gained another perk: residence in a closely guarded Moscow apartment building located about a kilometer (0.6 of a mile) from the Kremlin that houses the elite of the Putin era, including VTB Group CEO Andrey Kostin and Gunvor Group oil-trading billionaire Gennady Timchenko.
While Putin clearly is the dominant figure in setting Russian foreign policy, Lavrov is more than merely an implementer of it, Simes and Lukyanov said.
Lavrov has good access to the president and his opinion carries weight with him, in part because he instinctively grasps Putin’s approach to world affairs, Lukyanov said.
“He is not the man who needs to be given instructions every day,” said Lukyanov. “He understands the word and the spirit of diplomacy exactly how Russian leadership understands them.”