Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has said “No” to the West so many times over Syria that he may come to rival a Cold War predecessor for the title of “Mr Nyet.”
The chain-smoking, battle-hardened diplomat is proving every bit as formidable as the long-serving former Soviet foreign minister Andrei Gromyko as Moscow holds out against a US-led push for new sanctions on Syria and the removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Lavrov is the cause of much hand-wringing and frustration in the West, where his country’s policies are seen as an obstacle to ending the bloodshed in Syria.
However, he has won plaudits in Russia for his stubborn defense of Moscow’s position. For hawkish Russian President Vladimir Putin, back in the Kremlin after a four-year absence, he is the right person in the right place at the right time.
At 62, the former UN ambassador seems to be relishing the challenge. Long accustomed to criticism, Lavrov has made an art of stonewall diplomacy and shrugs off each new attack on Russia’s position on Syria by simply restating policy.
“It’s a diplomatic game for Sergei Lavrov,” Russia in Global Affairs editor Fyodor Lukyanov said.
Anyone who doubted Lavrov’s stubbornness before the conflict in Syria should look back to 2003, when he defied attempts by then-UN secretary-general Kofi Annan to impose a smoking ban at the UN headquarters in New York.
Lavrov carried on smoking, saying Annan “doesn’t own this building.”
Described by both admirers and rivals as highly professional and a tough negotiator, he also has a sharp tongue.
Annan said he “learned to appreciate both his wisdom and his wit.”
In nearly a decade as Moscow’s UN envoy — a post also held by Gromyko before becoming foreign minister in Soviet times — Lavrov won a reputation for digging in his heels.
It was there he honed his skills in the cut-and-thrust of diplomacy that would at times be used later to antagonize rivals or partners who saw the world differently, including former US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.
Glenn Kessler, a veteran journalist and member of the Council on Foreign Relations, a US think tank, described him as “a showman who doesn’t hesitate to use a diplomatic stiletto.”
Of his relationship with Rice: he knew how to “push her buttons,” Kessler said.
Lavrov’s expertise and reputation as a strong negotiator made him a natural choice for Putin when the president sought to replace former Russian foreign minister Igor Ivanov in July 2004.
Although Putin is in charge of foreign policy as head of state, Russian experts say Lavrov is more than just an executor of policies dictated to him by the Kremlin.
“There’s no one to touch him in terms of professionalism and as a communicator,” said Vladimir Frolov, the former director of the National Laboratory for Foreign Policy think tank, who is now head of a communication company called LEFF Group.
“His independence depends on the issue. On Syria he is clearly very influential. He’s pretty much the driver of policy and he can claim with some credibility that he’s pulled Russia back into the center of international decisionmaking,” Frolov said.
In the West, he and his country are assailed for blocking calls for al-Assad to leave power. When Annan quit as special envoy for Syria on Thursday last week, he complained of “finger-pointing and name-calling in the [UN] Security Council” and a lack of will for peace among the protagonists.