Recognizing how Russia’s current foreign policy aim is a resolution of the Syrian crisis, Vladimir Putin resisted the urge to attend the United Nations General Assembly. Instead, he delegated to Sergey Lavrov, who certainly made waves.
The more Russia is different to Western countries, the more it’s the same. Like most people from San Diego to Berlin, Russians are cynical about their leaders. However, there are two politicians who appear to somewhat transcend the misanthropy – Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov.
Whereas in places like London, Paris and Washington, international relations are generally important only to elites, geopolitics matter to ordinary Russians in a manner hard to explain to readers who’ve never been to the country. Possibly due to their nation’s size, or its historical role as a superpower, Russians place massive store on the notion that their country is treated with respect and powerful enough to influence global events.
To this end, Lavrov has become something of an iconic figure. A suave, sophisticated diplomat, with flawless English, who has helped restore Russian pride after the humiliation of the 1990’s. A serious player who represents their interests with aplomb.
Indeed, the foreign minister has even inspired a twitter hashtag named #weloverov, which led to enterprising clothing designers launching a range of t-shirts, borrowing the phrase and showing Lavrov engulfed in a cloud of smoke, while enjoying a trademark cigarette.
Yet another highlights his frustration at dealing with his intellectual inferiors, featuring a contemplative Lavrov mourning the fact that they are “f**king idiots.”
— Fyodor Samsonov (@FyodorSamsonov) August 17, 2015
For all their competence, it’s hard to imagine his peers in the US and Germany, John Kerry or Frank-Walter Steinmeier attracting such devotion. Sure, Britain’s Boris Johnson does garner copious column inches, but they are largely to decry him as a buffoon. Something the Russian foreign minister could never be accused of.
This week highlighted his importance to Russia. For the 71st United Nations General Assembly, America was represented by the outgoing President Barack Obama, Britain’s new Prime Minister Theresa May traveled and so too her Japanese equivalent Shinzo Abe. Meanwhile, President Francois Hollande rocked up for France and the European Union speaker was its chief, Donald Tusk. Despite this high-profile guest list, Putin stayed away and instead sent Lavrov.
And his brief was easy to discern – defend and explain the Russian position on the Syrian quagmire. In this, Lavrov was consistent. Russia, he said, “wants to see any sign that the [US-led] coalition has influence over those who are on the ground facing the government” and it also hoped for a peaceful resolution.
Expanding on his point at a later press conference, he reiterated Moscow’s view of how “anyone in Syria who has no permission from the government is there illegally,” while driving home the point where the same situation applies to air space violations. The foreign minister went on to repeat how the real enemy of the civilized word is Islamic extremists and not the Damascus administration.
“The most effective force fighting ISIS and Nusra is the Syrian army,” he contended. As an aside, the UN itself recognizes the authority of the Bashar Assad executive, known in western media as “the regime.”
— RT (@RT_com) September 21, 2016
Who’s In Charge?
Despite Moscow’s emphasis on the malfeasance of the American presence in Syria, Lavrov conceded the point of how US and Russian plans to end the conflict must be salvaged as there is no viable alternative. Nevertheless, he did pin blame on Washington for failing to control the rebel groups it supports.
He also pointed out the Kremlin’s suspicion that so-called ‘moderate rebels’ had not yet separated themselves from radicals.
“Unfortunately the coalition led by the United States, which committed itself to make sure that this separation happens, has not been able to do this,” Lavrov explained, before assuring listeners of how his “good friend” Kerry had pledged a US commitment to the agreement.
Domestic Russian observers believe Kerry, despite hiss personal integrity, faces two formidable hurdles in keeping the American side of the bargain. The first is the Pentagon’s emotional opposition to any military cooperation with Russia. This because the US defense industry is currently using Moscow as a bogeyman in order to secure future funding – hence all the talk of “Russian aggression” and promotion of a “new Cold War.” Vested interests are aware of how, by successfully allying with the Kremlin, they would undermine their argument of Russia harboring nefarious intentions towards the US and its associates.
This is presumably why we saw the Defence Secretary, Ashton Carter, openly admonish Kerry last week. As the New York Times’ reported “On Tuesday at the Pentagon, officials would not even agree that if a cessation of violence in Syria held for seven days — the initial part of the deal — the Defense Department would put in place its part of the agreement on the eighth day: an extraordinary collaboration between the United States and Russia that calls for the American military to share information with Moscow on Islamic State targets in Syria.” Now, US officials are surely aware that their Russian counterparts can read, and you can imagine how that went down in the Kremlin.
For this reason, many Moscow decision makers believe that US airstrikes last weekend – which killed 62, and wounded more than 100 Syrian soldiers – were a deliberate provocation by the Pentagon to destroy the ceasefire agreement.
The second problem lies in the rebel groups themselves. Moscow sources suspect that Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (previously the al-Nusra Front) has no intention of playing along with the peace deal, because it would lead to a joint Russian-US aerial bombardment against it.
Squaring A Circle
And this brings us back to square one. The Kremlin perceives ISIS as the ultimate enemy and the Syrian government forces as the most competent fighting force capable of destroying it. However, Washington’s main concern has been removing Assad from office, which Moscow believes will worsen the situation by creating a power vacuum. Kerry possibly agrees with Lavrov on this privately and, indeed, Obama could too concur. But both men seem unable to face down the Pentagon, which has too much to lose by being friendly towards Russia.
“It’s essential to fulfill the UN Security Council [UNSC] demand to dissociate the so-called moderate opposition from the terrorists. Here, special responsibility rests with the US and the members of their coalition,” Lavrov claimed. “Their refusal or inability to do this in the present circumstances can’t but strengthen the suspicion that it’s being attempted to remove Jabhat al-Nusra out of harm’s way and that the plans for a regime change are still on the table.”
At the UN, Lavrov also referred to a “bleeding Middle East and North Africa“, which followed on from “arrogant attitudes and feelings of infallibility in pushing unilateral and reckless solutions“. This was aimed at American “regime change” efforts.
Kerry had a different view, referring to a “profound doubt” whether Russia and the Assad ‘regime’ can or will live up to (ceasefire agreements). He also sneered at Moscow’s explanation for Monday’s apparent attack on an aid convoy. The Kremlin suggested the trucks had “caught fire“, which Kerry likened to blaming “spontaneous combustion”.
Subsequently, Moscow produced images showing mortars running alongside the humanitarian fleet. For his part, Lavrov called for an independent investigation into the incident.
The foreign minister’s tour de force in New York further embellished his reputation as a diplomatic heavyweight. However, this probably won’t mean much to Lavrov himself who is obviously hoping for a resolution to the Syria mess before Obama and Kerry leave office in January. Privately, Russian mandarins are concerned that neither man is able to control the Pentagon, which is evidently waiting for Hillary Clinton to ride to its rescue and authorize increased aggression.
In the event of a Clinton Presidency, Russia will need Lavrov’s expertise more than ever. But if her opponent Trump wins, Moscow might be better off employing a clairvoyant, such is his unpredictably. Notwithstanding that, the fact Putin resisted the lure of the big stage and trusted his foreign minister to run the show does confirm one thing – Sergey Lavrov is more important to the Kremlin now than ever before.
By Bryan MacDonald