Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, long a fixture – indeed, legend – in global diplomacy, has been looking testy of late, and much less in command. Even in his recent first official meeting with new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, he was clearly taken aback when journalists were suddenly ushered out of the room. There are recurring rumours that he will step down this year after being in post for 13 years, making him the most longstanding of all President Vladimir Putin’s ministers. He has reportedly tried to retire twice before; maybe third time is the charm.
Of course such talk is common coin in Moscow, a city where the less transparent policymaking becomes, the more eager people are to claim an inside source. Nonetheless, it would be hard to blame him. Having been a figure to rival such dour Soviet foreign ministers as Vyacheslav Molotov and Sergei Gromyko, he is now reduced to a shadow of his old self.
Since Crimea, he has essentially been excluded from the inner circle setting foreign policy and is instead relegated to the role of articulating and defending an increasingly untenable and incredible official line. The sight of him being openly mocked by his peers at the 2015 Munich Conference was in many ways the beginning of the end.
On specific issues and areas that have become of key interest to the Kremlin, real authority has passed to “adhocrats”, figures made presidential plenipotentiaries regardless of their official role. Presidential aide Vladislav Surkov certainly plays a more powerful role over Ukraine for example, while Security Council secretary Nikolai Patrushev appears unofficial ‘minister for the Balkans’. Once the nabob atop the elephant leading the parade, now Lavrov follows behind with bucket and spade, to clean up the mess.
Much will depend on who succeeds him. The traditional approach would be to appoint a professional from within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID), and there are certainly serious and credible candidates. Some of the deputy ministers are perhaps a little too old but there is a strong bench of potential successors. Elevating any of them other than Oleg Syromolotov – the career Federal Security Service (FSB) general made deputy foreign minister for counter-terrorism cooperation as a reward for keeping the Sochi Winter Olympics safe – would suggest continuity. Even if the MID might no longer have as powerful a voice in the government, at least it would retain its role as a force often advocating moderation and cooperation behind the scenes, while justifying extremist and confrontation in the outside world.
Yet these are not normal times, and as Putin appears to be talent-spotting for his post-2018 governing team, he is increasingly elevating personal favourites and contacts regardless of the customary lines of succession. If it is, for example, a figure such as Alexei Gromov, first deputy chief of staff of the Presidential Administration responsible for foreign affairs, or even – heaven forfend – Syromolotov, then it is also a signal both general and specific. It will underscore the extent to which Putin is strengthening the personalistic aspect of his regime, replacing technocrats with courtiers, elevating loyalty over experience. Specifically for the MID, it will make it increasingly just the executive arm of the Presidential Administration, the institution which has become the real locus of power under late Putinism.
After all, this is not just about Lavrov. In so many ways the avatar of MID, his decline has been both cause and result of his ministry’s marginalisation.
The wider implications are worrying. MID’s formidable reservoir of knowledge about the outside world is being neglected, and FSB security briefings appear to have more weight than ambassadorial cables. The result is an impoverishment of policy. While often known more for its bombastic rhetoric and peevish insults – official spokeswoman Maria Zakharova has the kind of waspish partisanship that could get her a show of her own on Fox News – the MID has still internalised the etiquette of the post-1945 global order more deeply than the Kremlin. By caring (a little) more about questions of legality and the mood of the global commons, it sometimes can act, in however limited a way, as a moderating force. The smaller its traction on the policy process, the less its chance to do this.
So this will be one of the Russia-related topics to watch in 2017. Will Lavrov stay or go? And if he goes, who will replace him? With the United States looking likely to adopt an increasingly unilateralist, assertive and erratic foreign policy, Moscow will no longer be able safely to play the role of the loose cannon, while relying on Washington to be the sensible and restrained party. Instead, it will become all the more important that Russia demonstrate these characteristics, and it is more likely that they will have to come from the MID. It therefore becomes of universal interest quite what happens to it.
Mark Galeotti is a senior research fellow at the Institute of International Relations Prague, a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations, and the director of Mayak Intelligence. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and tweets as @MarkGaleotti.