Churkin died in New York City on Monday. He served as Russia's permanent UN representative and represented Russia in the UN Security Council for over a decade, beginning in April 2006. He joined the diplomatic service in 1974, and devoted virtually his entire life to his work. The envoy's unexpected passing has led to a flood of condolences, from Syrian UN Envoy Bashar Jaafari to US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and former UN Chief Ban Ki-moon, among many others.
In his message of condolences to Churkin's family, President Vladimir Putin said that "for more than 10 years, sometimes in extremely stressful circumstances, [the ambassador had] firmly and consistently defended Russia's position on major international issues, which required tremendous effort and dedication." Churkin, Putin said, was "without exaggeration" one of Russia's "most prominent diplomats," a "professional of the highest level, a man of profound intellect and extraordinary energy, charisma and a rare sense of humor…"
Throughout his time at the UN, Churkin was known for his fearless engagement of Russia's diplomatic opponents in verbal jousting matches. Armed with a war chest of English-language slang and able to formulate candid responses to adversaries' statements on his feet, Churkin was ideally suited to representing Russia in the global diplomatic arena, particularly amid the tensions that ensued between Moscow and Western countries over the crises in Ukraine and Syria beginning in 2014.
Churkin to Haley: 'Hey, remember the US Constitution?'
On February 2, 2017, newly minted US UN Ambassador Nikki Haley made her debut appearance at the international body, accusing Russia of supporting anti-Kiev militia in eastern Ukraine and calling "for an immediate end to the Russian occupation of Crimea."
"In this regard, one cannot forget the remarkable historical words that are found in the Constitution of the United States: 'We the people'," Churkin quipped. "The people of Crimea quite clearly expressed their will in a referendum."
Samantha Power's attack against Russia: 'As if she were Mother Teresa herself'
Over the last four years, Churkin had quite a few jousts with Haley's predecessor, Obama-era UN Ambassador Samantha Power, as well. Perhaps one of the most brilliant moments in these exchanges took place in December 2016, when Power attacked Moscow, Tehran and Damascus over the alleged 'carnage' in Aleppo and equated the countries' actions to 'genocide'. "To the Assad regime, Russia and Iran, your forces and proxies are carrying out these crimes…Are you truly incapable of shame? Is there literally nothing that can shame you?" Power asked.
Churkin's reply was hard-hitting and on point, with just a hint of sarcasm. "I do not want to remind the Western Troika [the US, UK and France] about its role in the creation of ISIL [Daesh], which came about as a result of the American-British intervention in Iraq," the diplomat said. "US policies in this country facilitated the emergence of ISIL. I do not want to remind anyone about the role these three countries played in inciting the Syrian crisis, which resulted in dire consequences and opened the door to the terror spree in Syria and Iraq," Churkin added.
As for Power's attempts to 'shame' Russia and its allies over Syria, Churkin noted that it was astonishing to see Ambassador Power lecturing Russia, Iran and Syria on morality. "The US representative's speech has appeared particularly strange to me; she gave her statement as if she were Mother Teresa herself. Please remember which country you represent. Please remember the track record of your country," he quipped.
Calling Out Hypocrisy and Fact-Free Commentary Where He Saw It
Judging by his work at the UN, calling out hypocrisy was one of Churkin's favorite pastimes.
Last October, UK Ambassador the UN Matthew Rycroft demanded that Russia stop its airstrikes in Syria. Churkin retorted: "The UK's representative has pathetically exclaimed 'Stop now'. Indeed, [the UK should] stop supporting all sorts of rabble around the world – extremists, terrorists, and others who love to destabilize the situation in one country or another. And in general, stop intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign states, end these colonial habits, leave the world in peace and then, perhaps, the situation would improve in many regions of the planet."
Just weeks later, UN Deputy Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien accused Russia of bombing civilians in Aleppo, citing 17th century Scottish poet Robert Burns while doing so. Churkin's response was witty, and called O'Brien out on his empty rhetoric. "If we wanted to be preached at, we'd go to church; if we wanted to listen to poetry, we'd go to the theater…Provide us with at least one fact [about these allegations] or leave these kinds stories for the novel you're going to write some day," Churkin said.
Last summer, following reports of dozens of civilians being killed in US-led anti-Daesh airstrikes in northern Syria, Ambassador Power tried to shy away from Washington's responsibility for the attack, insisting that the US would carefully gather and review "any and all credible information we can gather about the incident, including information from organizations within Syria that document harm to civilians."
Digging into Power's words about 'organizations within Syria', Churkin issued a biting response: "So are there no US drones, no US and allied special forces in Syria, no US satellite intelligence capabilities, no videos of the kind made by all modern fighter jets when conducting a strike?" he asked. "I would not like to believe the militaries of the US-led coalition are in such a deplorable state," he added. "This talk about civil societies leads me to thoughts that we will never know the truth, and that everything will be swept under the carpet."
Conflict in Ukraine: 'Stop Looking for the Hand of Moscow'
"Some, including in this chamber, stubbornly refuse to see the true causes of what is happening in Ukraine, and are constantly looking for the 'hand of Moscow' in the events in the southeast. Quit doing it," the ambassador urged. "Quit spreading tales that Russia has built up military armadas on the border with [Ukraine], ready at any moment…to make a push for La Manche. Quit claiming that we have sent hordes of agents to coordinate the actions of the people protesting in Ukraine." The reality, Churkin stressed, was that post-Maidan authorities had systematically refused to listen to those who did not accept Kiev's "radicalized, chauvinistic, Russophobic, anti-Semitic forces." This, he said, was the real source of the conflict in the Donbass.
Fight for the Right to Veto
Russia's legal predecessor, the Soviet Union, insisted on veto rights for the permanent members of the Security Council as a founding principle of the UN in 1945. Ever since, Russia, and Churkin, have fought to keep this right. In September 2015, France proposed that the five permanent members should suspend their veto rights in cases of genocide or other atrocities.
Churkin's response was brilliant: "I have the feeling that some countries don't understand what a veto is," he said. "They present it as the selfish right of the five permanent members." In fact, Churkin explained, "the veto right is the mechanism that compels [countries] to search for a compromise in their work on Security Council documents. Every day, the pressure from the fact that a resolution can be blocked forces documents that are voted on to contain not God knows what, but a polished document, one which can be confidently adopted by all five members of the Security Council."
Churkin's Vision: Sovereignty, Multipolarity, and Cooperation Against Terrorism
In May 2016, providing an overview of his and Russia's overall worldview on the subjects of peace and security at a meeting of the UN General Assembly, Churkin laid out, in a few concise theses, exactly what it is Russia is fighting for in global affairs.
"Instead of engaging in the reshaping of geopolitical landscapes, instead of stooping to the forceful removal of legitimate authorities, as was done in Ukraine, instead of seeking to expand one's zone of control, as is happening with the unrestrained expansion of NATO, instead of seeking military domination, which the US is aiming for with the creation of its global missile defense system, we must return to the basics of sound political thinking – to the slogan that 'peace is indivisible'; to the understanding that the desire to ensure one's security at the expense of others only undermines global security," Churkin insisted.
He Left Before His Time
Judging by Ambassador Churkin's recent work, it's obvious that he had only just reached his prime. He will be missed by his colleagues, by Russia's allies, and by millions of ordinary Russians, who knew that for long as Churkin was in New York, Russia's reputation abroad would be defended.