The face of the Kremlin's diplomacy, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the longest-serving member of the Russian government, turns 70 today. Starting out as a low-ranking diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in Sri Lanka in 1972 fresh out of the USSR's diplomatic school, MGIMO, Lavrov worked his way up to becoming the head of the Russian Foreign Ministry in 2004.
Led by Lavrov, the ministry went through a major shift, changing the way it handles Russia's international interests, and allowing Moscow to strengthen its positions on the global arena over the last 16 years.
Lavrov's unusual combination of taking a hard-line stance along with his ability to resort to witty remarks and jokes have left an indelible mark on international diplomacy. Here are Lavrov's main accomplishments as well as the most memorable remarks and gaffes that accompanied them.
- With Lavrov's appointment as foreign minister, Moscow drastically changed the way it interacted on the international arena. If previously it gladly agreed with Western countries on almost every issue, trying to act in line with their policies, in the early 2000s Russia started to pursue an independent agenda. This resulted in Moscow beginning to use its right of veto at the UN Security Council in order to force other states, especially Western nations, to take Russia's opinions on global matters into consideration.
- Lavrov’s hard-line style and sometimes vehement opposition to the positions taken by his Western colleagues spurred many comparisons between him and famous Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. Some even started to refer to Lavrov as "Mr No" - Gromyko's nickname.
- The Russian foreign minister also effectively channelled Moscow’s new stance calling for a multipolar world order rather than a unipolar one, thereby opposing the efforts of the US and other Western countries to be the ultimate “world policemen” and unilaterally decide the fate of other nations.
- At the same time, Lavrov has maintained constructive and even positive relations with many of his foreign colleagues, including US secretaries of state. He gladly took part in Hillary Clinton's initiative to restart US-Russian ties in 2009, as well as exchanged gifts with Secretary of State John Kerry and his spokeswoman Jen Psaki, despite the at times strained ties between the two countries. Lavrov even showed Kerry his rare classic Russian car, a white "Pobeda", during the latter's visit in 2015.
- As foreign minister Lavrov also participated in and facilitated holding numerous talks that were crucial not only for Russia, but also for its global image, including major negotiations such as for the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Normandy Four format talks, and negotiations on finding a settlement to the Syrian Civil War.
Main Gaffes and Hilarious Remarks
Despite being known as one of the toughest nuts in his profession to crack, Lavrov is also famous for unconventional, often witty, responses to the most provocative questions and comments, as opposed to standard bland diplomatic language.
- Lavrov is widely known for his jokes and witty responses to mundane comments. When his American counterpart John Kerry wished him a happy birthday and hoped that it would bring him "extra wisdom" back in 2016, Lavrov replied that if wisdom is indeed measured in years, then he would have "no hope of reaching Kerry's own heights" – as he is seven years older than the Russian minister.
- Making colourful comparisons to prove his point is also one of Lavrov's distinctive skills. For example, in 2017 he compared US-Russian ties to a "tango", explaining that efforts by both sides are needed to "dance" it, but the US, in his opinion, was continuing to "perform a solo breakdance" instead. When American counterpart Rex Tillerson noted that he would like to dance a tango with Russia, but wouldn't dance with Lavrov personally, the Russian minister noted that his "mother also forbade [him] to dance with boys".
- During his visit to Japan in 2018, the minister also showed off his skills at cracking jokes on the spot during a meeting with his Japanese counterpart. When then-Foreign Minister Taro Kono noted that Lavrov had brought snow with him from Russia, the latter responded that since Russia hadn't meddled Japan's elections, it decided to at least meddle in the country's weather.
- He is apparently also no stranger to obscenities – another rarity in diplomacy. During a presser with former Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir in 2015, Lavrov unexpectedly said "f**king retards" in Russian without addressing anyone specifically, believing that his microphone was turned off. While it remains unclear to this day who infuriated the minister, it's widely believed that he was commenting on the loud behaviour of some journalists during the presser. Other theories, however, suggest that he was angered by "invalid" questions from journalists or by a slow interpreter. In one of his interviews after the incident, Lavrov admitted that he had used Russian obscenities in the presence of non-Russian speaking people "on numerous occasions" during his career.
- Another notable story involving Lavrov using strong language began with apparent misreporting by the UK's Daily Telegraph. The newspaper claimed, citing an anonymous source, that the Russian minister had lashed out at then-UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband, exclaiming "who are you to f**king lecture me?!" when the two discussed the Georgian military aggression against South Ossetia in 2008. The story was denied by both ministers. However, Lavrov admitted that an obscenity was uttered during the conversation as he was retelling how an unnamed European leader had characterised then Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili as a “f**king lunatic”.
Apart from being considered one of the best diplomats in the world by his colleagues, Lavrov is also a poet who writes poems and songs, although he has been left with little time for his hobby due to his responsibilities. One of his songs even became the official anthem of Russia’s main university for preparing future diplomats, MGIMO, albeit with minor changes to the text.