STOLYPIN: If Lavrov goes, can we hope for better from Russia’s diminished foreign ministry?

STOLYPIN: If Lavrov goes, can we hope for better from Russia’s diminished foreign ministry?
Is Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s time really up? And what will it mean for Russia's foreign policy if he finally leaves?
By Mark Galeotti director of the consultancy Mayak Intelligence and also an honorary professor at UCL School of Slavonic & East European Studies October 22, 2020

STOLYPIN: If Lavrov goes, can we hope for better from Russia’s diminished foreign ministry?

Mark Galeotti

Is Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s time really up? And if so, will this free the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MID) from the last vestiges of diplomacy, or allow it to regain some of the relevance it has lost since 2014? Either way, this has significance beyond the embassies and chancelleries.

Once a legend of international diplomacy, a man whose longevity, exploits and gravel-voiced bon mots other diplomats would discuss with genuine respect, Lavrov has been steadily diminsished in stature and significance by a Kremlin that considers the MID little more than a source of information operations, a virtual offshoot of the presidential press office. Crises in Belarus, the South Caucasus and Kyrgyzstan have thrown the relative weakness of Russian foreign policy into sharp relief, and while the blame really lies with the Kremlin, MID is often the scapegoat of choice.

Notoriously, Lavrov had no role in the key decisions first to seize Crimea and then to intervene into the Donbas. Instead, he was simply expected to defend the indefensible, a role he has had to assume many times since, whether accusing the Dutch of lying about the MH17 shoot-down to “achieve their own political goals” or claiming that it was British secret services “known for their ability to act with licence to kill” who may have tried to murder Sergei Skripal (as a distraction from Brexit).

As a result, his international reputation – an absolutely crucial asset for a diplomat – has dwindled dramatically. In many ways, the turning point was at the 2015 Munich Security Conference, where his attempts to justify Russian policy in Ukraine were met not with protest but derisive laughter. For at least the last three years, there has been open discussion about life after Lavrov.

Exit Lavrov?

No wonder that, by all accounts, the 70-year-old has tried repeatedly to retire. (Vladimir Putin has a tendency not to want to let people go.) There are strong indications that he may at last be allowed to leave the MID’s Stalin-Gothic skyscraper on Smolensk Square – where, apparently, he goes as little as possible, these days – and after sixteen years, the ministry would have a new master. Much of this has come from the usual anonymous ruminations on Telegram channels such as Nezygar, the usual mix of accurate insider gossip, random speculation and character assassination for fun or profit, but even Ekho Moskvy’s Alexei Venediktov, a man of many contacts, considers the notion ‘not impossible.’

One scenario had him moving to the Federation Council as a presidential appointee, but while Putin’s meeting with the body in September proved less significant than expected, this is still one of a number of possibilities. It is unlikely he would simply recede into retirement, to write a memoir and watch his beloved Spartak play football.

Who would replace him, though? There are fully ten deputy ministers, but one of the reasons Lavrov has been stuck in place so long is a widespread suspicion that none are quite up to the job, especially in these difficult times and having to move out of their predecessor’s long shadow. This may be unfair, as most have serious if perhaps narrow diplomatic experience (the obvious exception being Oleg Syromolotov, transferred across from the Federal Security Service to the new and pretty meaningless role of Deputy Minister for Counter-Terrorism co-operation). Nonetheless, it does appear that the front-runners come from outside MID.

Names being bandied about include Sergei Naryshkin, head of the Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR), perennial presidential trouble-shooter Dmitry Kozak, and at least two of the current deputy ministers.

Naryshkin’s appointment to head the SVR in 2016 never looked like a long-term appointment, and while he has been assiduous in maintaining his public profile, he has by all accounts been a relatively hands-off spymaster. What is interesting is that the SVR has itself been more active of late in commenting on wider issues in a way that inevitably intrudes onto MID’s turf, such as claiming that ‘the Americans are preparing a “revolutionary” scenario for Moldova… [because] they are not satisfied with the current head of state, I. Dodon, who maintains constructive relations with the CIS countries, including Russia.’ Thus, ‘the US State Department has ordered its embassy in Chisinau to set up the opposition in advance to organise mass protests in the event of his re-election.’

This reads like Naryshkin’s application for the job, as well as an attempt to reassure the Kremlin, if any such reassurance was needed, that he would be unflinching in his hawkishness.

Kozak, by contrast, has been relying on show more than tell. As a deputy head of the Presidential Administration, he has more direct contact with Putin. Apparently, Kozak lobbied to be sent to Bishkek as his representative for crisis talks with then-president Sooronbay Jeenbekov. Given the continuing chaos in Kyrgyzstan and the lack of any sense that Moscow is able to exert much meaningful traction there, this can hardly be considered a great success. Putin trusts Kozak and this is unlikely to change, but it may have done his chances of being foreign minister no great favours.

Inevitable decline?

An appointment of an existing insider – unless it is Syromolov, which would be as alarming as it is unlikely – would probably be a technical, continuity choice, even though the specialism in question would also suggest something about the Kremlin’s priorities. First Deputy Minister Vladimir Titov is considered an EU expert, for example, while fellow deputy ministers Sergei Ryabkov and Igor Murgulov’s experience is in the US and China respectively. However, overall, continuity likely means decline.

In their more honest and unguarded moments, Russian diplomats are often very candid about the extent to which their ministry has declined in importance alongside its minister. Whole areas of policy are being driven by other institutions, whether the Defence Ministry in Syria, the Presidential Administration in Ukraine or Rosneft in Venezuela, with MID simply expected to take their lead. There are some areas of continued relevance – the Afghanistan team, for example, is still well-regarded for its expertise – but there is a sense that as soon as one of the bigger beasts in the system becomes interested in one of them, they get to take over.

This helps explain the often strident and embittered tone of much official rhetoric coming from MID these days. Theatre, like ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova’s frequent tirades (and off-colour jokes), is one of the few activities left to it, and it is competing with other voices, official and unofficial, to please a Kremlin with little interest in nuance and restraint. Furthermore, the stridency is one of the few outlets for diplomats who cannot scream at the Kremlin and must settle for a West they feel doesn’t understand their plight either.

If a technical replacement would mean business as usual, what about a Naryshkin or a Kozak? Naryshkin is a politician, more interested in brownie points with the Kremlin than impact abroad. He is already signalling that he would be a warfighting minister, and one eager to follow the current belligerent and aggrieved policy line rather than to change it.

Kozak, though, is essentially an administrative problem-solver. He was effective in creating a temporary stability in the North Caucasus as presidential representative, without tackling the underlying causes of turmoil. Last year, as shadow curator of the Donbas war, he made it clear that he expected neither an end to the conflict nor an escalation, and focused on making the status quo as stable and cost-effective for Moscow as possible.

As foreign minister, he might be equally pragmatic. He would not be a friend of the West by any means, but he might have a better idea of which adventures might make sense and which most certainly would not – and enough of the president’s confidence actually to be able to have some impact.

Lavrov’s, after all, is a storied past and a shabby present. MID needs a new hand for the future, and while it is tempting to think that it makes no difference who that might be, given the ministry’s diminution, things could be worse – but also better.