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Politics

"Sorry for the language - but we shit on Western sanctions." How Russian diplomats turned into banal propagandists

10.08.2023

Shortened version of BBC NEWS material. Authors - Sergey Goryashko, Elizaveta Fokht, Sofya Samokhina.

We recommend reading the original source.

BBC NEWS Russian Service has tried to understand what has happened to diplomacy in Russia during Putin's rule and why the war in Ukraine cannot be stopped at the negotiation table.

The results are quite disheartening.

Robots with papers

On 12 October 2021 Victoria Nuland, one of the US State Department’s key point people on Russia, was coming to the end of an hour and a half meeting in an office in the Russian Foreign Ministry’s headquarters on Smolenskaya Square in Moscow.

Sitting across the table from her was Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov, a man she had known for years and was used to having good conversations with on a one-to-one level. But this time things were different.

Ryabkov was speaking robotically and seemed to be reading out Moscow's official position from a piece of paper.

After leaving the Russian Foreign Ministry building, Nuland made a few brief remarks to journalists, saying the negotiations had been productive, and she was glad to be back in Russia.

Ryabkov also described the talks as useful but lamented that significant progress had not been achieved. “We can’t rule out further escalation,” he said “We made this clear to our American counterparts.”

Privately, Nuland was shocked, according to two people who heard the story directly from her.

They told the BBC that she had described Ryabkov and Deputy Minister of Defence Alexander Fomin, who was also present, as "robots with papers.” It was as if they were having a conversation for people who were not in the room, she said.


Victoria Nuland after the meeting with Sergey Ryabkov, in October 2021
Photo: Maxim Shemetov / Reuters

During the meeting, Ukraine had not even been on the agenda. The discussion had revolved around the work of diplomatic missions in the US and Russia (both of which had been severely impacted by mutual expulsions of diplomats), as well as the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan, and the ongoing tensions in Moscow-Washington relations.

That summer, Vladimir Putin and Joe Biden had begun strategic arms control negotiations in Geneva. Several weeks after Nuland’s meeting at the Foreign Ministry, the US would announce it had evidence showing Russia was preparing to invade Ukraine, and the next senior US official to visit Moscow would be the head of the CIA, Bill Burns.

The fact that Nuland was in Moscow at all, was the result of some successful diplomatic bargaining. In 2019, she had been placed on a Russian blacklist, in response to the US refusal to grant a visa to Konstantin Vorontsov, the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Deputy Director of the Department of Non-Proliferation and Arms Control.

Vorontsov had been expelled from Brussels in the spring of 2018 after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in the UK. He was one of nearly 150 Russian diplomats declared persona non grata by nearly two dozen countries as a result of the incident.

For the Russian Foreign Ministry Vorontsov’s case had become a huge bone of contention. In 2019, the Russian delegation at a UN disarmament commission disrupted proceedings to voice a protest about it. Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomat who was working at the time as a counsellor at the Russian mission to the UN Office in Geneva, told the BBC he was amazed by the fervour with which the Foreign Ministry pursued demands for Vorontsov to be granted entry to the US. He described the situation as "chasing after a fly and burning down the whole flat."

Even Iranian diplomats pleaded with their Russian colleagues to let them discuss international issues and try to resolve their problems with the Americans in private. But their plea fell on deaf ears. "It didn't matter to us. We're Russian, and we can't be wrong," says Bondarev summing up his colleagues’ approach.

Ultimatums as a way of communication

In December 2021, Boris Bondarev received an email at work with an official Foreign Ministry document attached outlining a starkly new approach to relations with the US and NATO.

"I read it and thought, what nonsense is this, it's like a kindergarten,” he recalls. “One of the conditions was that NATO could not accept any new members… It just doesn't work like that!"

The document Bondarev had received was the text of Russia's ultimatum to the US and NATO. At a time when the West was openly discussing the prospect of Russia invading Ukraine, Moscow was demanding "security guarantees."

The essence of Moscow’s demands was that NATO would refrain from expanding further east, that it would not accept former Soviet countries as members, and would return its troops in Europe to 1997 levels.

Both the demands themselves and the subsequent publication of the ultimatum were unprecedented steps in diplomacy. They surprised not only recipients in the West but also many people in the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Bondarev and his boss did some digging to find out where the document had come from. They discovered it had been drawn up by the Kremlin, and that no-one at the Foreign Ministry had even questioned it.

“They just said, Yes Sir! We will comply," says Bondarev. “It’s the usual Russian MFA thing - we are little people and it’s nothing to do with us.”

Questions should have been asked about the ultimatum, says Bondarev. ‘For example about the demand to return NATO troops to their 1997 positions. Moscow seemed to have forgotten that in 1997 there were 300,000 American military personnel stationed in Europe at that time, as opposed to 5,000-7,000 in 2021.

“Everyone was behaving as though Russia was the only country on the planet, and other countries didn’t have any legitimate interests,” he says.

Russia experts were also surprised by the ultimatum. “This is not at all the way Russian diplomacy has ever worked, even under Putin,” says Alexander Gabuev, Director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center based now in Berlin.

Firstly, Russia had openly outlined its red lines.

“You immediately paint yourself into a corner and it’s more difficult to find a way out,” says Gabuev.

Secondly, Moscow actually seemed to be asking NATO to pretend, despite the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the collapse of the USSR, that the alliance had lost the Cold War.

On 10 January, 2022, two Russian deputy ministers - Ryabkov from the Foreign Ministry and Fomin from the Ministry of Defense - met with the Americans at a dinner in Geneva. The United States was represented by First Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Undersecretary of State for Arms Control Bonnie Jenkins. They gathered to discuss the Russian ultimatum.

“It was awful,” says Bondarev.  “The Americans were like - let's negotiate. And instead Ryabkov starts shouting - ‘We need Ukraine! We won't go anywhere without Ukraine! Take all your stuff and go back to the 1997 borders!’ Sherman is an Iron Lady, but I think even her jaw dropped at this.”


US Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov at a meeting in Geneva
Photo: @DeputySecState

On 2 February 2022, the responses from Washington and Brussels to Moscow's demands were published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. NATO offered negotiations on undertakings not to deploy offensive missile systems and troops in Ukraine, and on wider issues of strategic security in Europe. The US also proposed limiting nuclear weapons and the Americans were even ready to talk about the Tomahawk missiles they had deployed within striking distance of Russia in Poland and Romania - something which had long worried Moscow.

As Gabuev sees it, it would have been possible at that time, for the Kremlin to score a big diplomatic victory, albeit by dint of some blackmail, but Putin had already decided to go to war, and so, in the end, talks with NATO were just a smokescreen.

The president eventually announced that the alliance had ignored "fundamental Russian concerns”.

We don't need NATO

By this stage it was becoming increasingly clear that it was Putin alone who was pulling the strings and that it was no longer possible to use diplomacy to try to change his mind.

A former White House official has told the BBC that from as far back as 2010 American diplomats had seen their Russian counterparts becoming increasingly frustrated at their declining influence and lack of any authority when it came to issues of particular concern to Putin.

As the years went on, there were to be more and more such issues.

Ben Rhodes served as Deputy National Security Advisor in Barack Obama's administration from 2009 to 2017. He was also a speechwriter for the American president.

He told the BBC that he doesn’t think any new diplomatic strategy could have changed US-Russia relations, because it would not have changed Putin.

"That's the tragedy of it all. Sometimes there's just a limit,.” he said.

“I’ve come to believe that Putin had crossed over to a really dark side and [he] was never coming back."

"Russia is ready to cooperate with NATO... right up to joining the alliance." It's hard to believe it now, but these words were spoken by Vladimir Putin’ in comments made to the BBC in March 2000. "I cannot imagine my country isolated from Europe," he said.


Vladimir Putin, 2000
Photo: TASS

In July 2023 there is no longer a need to imagine such a scenario.

All direct flights from Western countries to Russia have been banned, sanctions have been imposed against Russian officials and state-owned companies, a broad coalition of states provides military aid to Ukraine, Russia is excluded from the Council of Europe, and the International Criminal Court in The Hague has issued an arrest warrant for Putin over the illegal deportation of Ukrainian children.

"We really did discuss whether to join NATO or not,” says a source who worked in the Kremlin in the early 2000s. “It was Putin's initiative, no-one forced him. The atmosphere was more liberal then. Officials didn't just want to please - everyone tried to solve real problems."

However, even during those years, people with "limited creativity and critical thinking" found their way into the Russian diplomatic corps, recalls another source who worked in the Kremlin in the 2000s.

"The Foreign Ministry is a semi-military organization, where the creative component was absolutely minimal.

People use a specific foreign ministry language where there are no proper names. Everything is written in the passive voice. Ambassadors always refer to themselves in the third person. This jargon implies detachment. You're like a soldier in the army."

In the 2000s, many diplomats were already "hostages of protocol", says the former Kremlin official. He recalls travelling to Washington as part of the official delegation in the early 2000s. Americans suggested changing the sequence of meetings for convenience, at the last minute.

Yuri Ushakov, Russia's ambassador to the US at the time (now an assistant to Putin on foreign policy), was outraged, as the source recalls. “This is a provocation! he shouted. We had a pre-approved schedule! We cannot agree to this; it violates the protocol!"

In 2004, as the Kremlin source told the BBC, presidential administration officials recommended to Putin that Sergey Lavrov should be appointed as Russia’s new Foreign Minister. He was, they said a person with an "international perspective and his own position." He understood both the US and Europe and was considered to be an intelligent and interesting guy. "Lavrov was a very different person back then,” the source says. “He has changed a lot over the years.”


Sergey Lavrov, 2004
Photo: Oleg Lastochkin / RIA Novosti

Former diplomat Boris Bondarev says Lavrov had no choice but to change in order to keep in line with Putin. There’s not a country in the world where a minister can hold different opinions from the president and still keep his job, he says. Lavrov has managed to hold on to his job for nearly 20 years.

In the run up to the war both Putin and Lavrov repeated Russia’s perceived grievances against NATO - that Russia had been ‘lied to’ and given false promises by Western countries both about NATO expansion and Russia’s own prospects of joining the alliance.


Sergey Lavrov, 2013
Photo: EPA

Anyone can offend Russia

The first signal that a new Cold War was beginning came in 2007 with a speech Putin made to the Munich Security Conference. In a 30-minute diatribe, Putin had aggressively accused Western countries of attempting to build a unipolar world.

In 2009, Lavrov and Hillary Clinton pressed their famous red "reset button" in relations. McFaul, who by then had become a special assistant to Obama on the National Security Council, was involved in developing the "reset." Together with the then Deputy Chief of the Russian Presidential Administration, Vladislav Surkov, McFaul led the Russian-American Civil Society Working Group.


Vladislav Surkov, personal assistant to the President of Russia and the creator of the "Kremlin trolls" factory
Photo: Vladimir Velengurin

Obama first met Putin, when the latter was Prime Minister, in 2009. They had breakfast "Russian-style" with a samovar and were accompanied by a folk instrument orchestra. Putin was more interested in presenting his view of the world than discussing cooperation. Throughout the conversation, he blamed Obama's predecessor, George W. Bush, for betraying Russia.

Ben Rhodes says it was clear to US officials working on Russia during Dmitry Medvedev’s presidency, that Russian diplomats were аctually reporting back to Putin and not to Medvedev. For this reason Obama would sometimes organise one-on-one meetings with Medvedev, without any diplomats being present.

"It's a bit strange to be talking to the president of a country and know that the foreign minister and others are not really reporting to him," says Rhodes.


President of the United States, Barack Obama, and Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, over tea at Novo-Ogarevo, July 7, 2009
Photo: AFP

"We knew that people like Lavrov were closer to Putin than Medvedev. And so we were constantly trying to figure out: okay, what is Medvedev empowered to be doing? What is he not…? Like, you know, missile defense. We were trying to negotiate some kind of agreement with Medvedev, and it was pretty clear that Medvedev didn't have any room to discuss that. That that was something that Putin took an interest in."

It soon became clear, that there would be no "reset" in relations between the countries.

We are not hooligans; we are Russian diplomats

“Look at me! Don’t look away! Why are your eyes darting about?”

“Excuse my language – but we s**t on Western sanctions!”

“Go talk to peacocks!”

“F***ing morons”

"The ‘faggot strategy' of the Kyiv regime is nothing new to anyone."

"Let me speak. Otherwise, you will really hear what Russian 'Grad' missiles are capable of."

These quotes are not fragments from political debates on social media. This is how Russian ambassadors and officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs communicate with other diplomats and journalists on the international stage and in the media.

The language of Moscow's foreign policy (now often compared to that of common thugs) started to change rapidly after Vladimir Putin returned to the Kremlin in 2012, according to BBC sources. These changes became symptomatic of the collapse of any hope that relations with the West could improve.

One of the most prominent symbols of this new more outspoken chapter in Moscow's foreign policy is Maria Zakharova, who took over the Department of Information and Press of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 2015.


Maria Zakharova, the spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

"Before her, diplomats behaved like diplomats, speaking in refined expressions,'“ says former diplomat Boris Bondarev. ”We express concern about acceptable outcomes, hoping for consensus… Blah-blah-blah...”

Many at Smolenskaya Square, the MFA headquarters, he says, were convinced that someone "bright and more lively" should be selected for the press secretary position. But no one expected the replacement to be quite as eye-wateringly ‘bright” Bondarev admits.

With Zakharova's arrival, MFA briefings started to resemble theatrical shows, and she herself became one of the most recognizable Russian officials. She actively manages her social media pages, posting her own poetry, caricatures of Western politicians, and thoughts on international politics (the quote about Kyiv’s ‘faggot strategy' comes from her Telegram channel).

Zakharova's frivolous style regularly led to scandals. In 2016, she put on a derogatory accent on TV propagandist Vladimir Solovyov's show, as she spoke about how Jewish support had contributed to Donald Trump's victory. In 2018, she promised – with a wink – to organize a trip to Chechnya for a Finnish journalist who was asking about the persecution and torture of gay people in Chechnya.

And in 2020, even Putin had to apologize after Zakharova insulted Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić when he visited the USA. She suggested he behave at meetings with US officials like the Sharon Stone character in the Hollywood film 'Basic Instinct' who crossed her legs provocatively during an interrogation.

Zakharova’s style was followed by other officials of the Russian Foreign Ministry. By that time, the United Nations platform had already become a place of constant bickering between the then Russian Permanent Representative Vitaly Churkin and foreign diplomats. According to media reports, in 2012, he threatened the Prime Minister of Qatar that his country "would no longer exist" if he did not "change his tone". Churkin later denied this.

Churkin advised the UK to "clean up its conscience" and "get rid of colonial habits", and he accused his American counterpart, Samantha Power, of behaving like "Mother Teresa." When Power met members of the Russian female punk band Pussy Riot (who were jailed for a performance at a Russian Orthodox Cathedral), Churkin suggested she go on tour with the group and start at the National Cathedral in Washington.

Churkin's successors went even further. In April 2017, Russia's Deputy Permanent Representative Vladimir Safronkov, while commenting on the speech of the British delegation, demanded that the UK representative "not look away" and then added: "Don't you dare insult Russia any more!"


Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia, Vladimir Safronkov, at a United Nations session
Photo: picture alliance/ZUMAPRESS/Li Muzi

Vasily Nebenzya, Russia's Permanent Representative to the UN in recent years, told the German representative presiding over a Security Council meeting that he would not comply with the meeting's regulations: "You can turn your wonderful hourglass as much as you want, but I will take as much time as I need."

To be fair, in recent years, the tone has changed not only in Russian diplomacy but also in other countries, albeit on a smaller scale. In 2013, Japan's representative for human rights at the UN, Hideaki Ueda, demanded that foreign colleagues "shut up" at a meeting.

In 2019, the then UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson used the same words against Russia. And Ukraine's ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, last year referred to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as an "offended liver sausage" (Die beleidigte Leberwurst meaning an insulted loser).

This behaviour is related to the fact that politics "is becoming more public," explains political scientist Alexander Gabuev:

"A significant part of politics is defined by public opinion, and the one who shouts louder appears more favourable, not the one with more reasonable arguments. Western diplomats have begun to play to the public too."

One reason Russian diplomats are increasingly using the language of the street is that they are aiming their pronouncements not just at foreign colleagues, but more importantly at a home audience.

Political scientist Gabuev notes in particular that Zakharova, for example, maintains her social media presence exclusively in Russian: "She is an internal propagandist, just like [the editor-in-chief of the Russian state-controlled broadcaster RT] Margarita Simonyan. Her task is to evoke pride in Russia's foreign policy among the electorate. This is a marker of how diplomacy has changed — it is no longer the interface for communication with the outside world."

A former Kremlin official told the BBC he agrees with this viewpoint. According to him, the focus of Russian diplomacy has also shifted towards domestic audiences because "they are not being heard in the West anyway".

Russian diplomats not only imitate each other but also take their cues from the president, according to Gabuev. Over his years in power, Putin has become known for his use of prison slang, from the famous "wipe them out in the outhouse" (about rebel fighters in the North Caucasus). to a more recent phrase: "Like it or not, put up with it, my beauty" (a reference to a prison song about rape).

Russian diplomats do not see any room to soften their combative rhetoric. The higher the position, the harsher the statement should be. Silence is not an option — if you are not loud enough, someone else will be appointed in your place.

From a bad world to a world war

In 2014, Ukrainians took to the streets in mass protests against the then president Viktor Yanukovich. Ukrainians call the ensuing momentous events, the "Revolution of Dignity". Moscow says what happened was a coup. Within weeks, Russia annexed Crimea and intervened militarily in the conflict in Donbas, leading to an ongoing war. In response, sanctions against Russia began to be imposed.

The events in Ukraine were the final straw for Moscow's relations with the West. All diplomatic contacts toughened after that, as Ben Rhodes recalls: "Putin would go on and on and on about how the US had sponsored a coup to overthrow Yanukovich. And at first Obama would debate that and argue with him about that. At a certain point, we just started saying, "Look, our interest is in Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity, the rules of the international system".

In 2014, Russia's relations deteriorated not only with the US but also with Europe, particularly with its main ally, Germany. Kadri Liik, a senior research fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, recalls the shock in Berlin over the annexation of Crimea: "Germany knows how things end when they begin with an Anschluss."

From the 2010s onward it was clear to US officials that Putin was shaping his world view with little or no reference to the Foreign Ministry. And meetings with Putin were proving an increasingly frustrating experience.

"He would always obfuscate whatever the issue was, whether it was election interference or Ukraine or anything,” says Ben Rhodes.

Putin continued to deny that Russian military was involved in Donbas. During their last meeting, he claimed to know nothing about Moscow's interference in the US elections, despite the evidence provided by the Americans.

"Every now and then [Putin] would say something kind of interesting,” Rhodes continues. “I remember him saying one time to Obama something like: ‘Nothing you could tell me could convince me that the US government isn't out to get me.’ So every now and then you get a window into his psychology."


The meeting between Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama, 2014
Photo: AP Photo / Carolyn Kaster, File

By the end of President Obama’s term in office Ben Rhodes says Russian Foreign Ministry employees seemed to have transformed irreversibly into "robots".

"I think by the end they had almost no influence,” he told the BBC. “I think they could work on certain accounts that Putin didn't care about. But on the issues that Putin cared about – Ukraine in particular – I did not get the sense that those guys had much influence at all. So they just delivered the talking points that they were given."

Diplomacy on standby

After a year and a half of war, is there any hope that diplomacy (and diplomats themselves) could help to bring the fighting to an end?

Most of the people the BBC spoke to for this story think that’s highly unlikely.

Even optimists acknowledge that the contradictions between Russia, Ukraine, and Western countries are too great, and there is currently no basis for any behind-the-scenes negotiations.

However, sooner or later, dialogue will have to take place, says RAND analyst Samuel Charap. The only alternative to negotiations is "absolute victory," and it’s unlikely either Kyiv or Moscow could achieve such a victory on the battlefield, he argues.

Even if Ukraine or Russia managed to regain or occupy significant territories, it would not stop the war by itself: "You're left with a negotiated end by default."

Recently, even in communication with states that Russia considers allies, such as the CIS countries or African countries, problems have arisen for the Russian president. South Africa, which maintains a neutral position on Ukraine at the official level, asked Putin not to attend the August BRICS summit due to the arrest warrants from the ICC in The Hague.

Both Moscow and Kyiv, at least in public statements, insist that the future of their countries will be determined on the battlefield, meaning they are counting on that absolute victory.

As of August 2023, it is certainly not expected that Russia will willingly return to diplomacy. The Kremlin has been and continues to rely on three main tools in its foreign policy: the military machine, the intelligence services, and geo-economic power (primarily related to energy resources), says Alexander Gabuev.

According to the expert, Putin considers these methods the most effective, mainly because they have yielded results in the past.

In these dispiriting circumstances, why aren’t Russian diplomats simply voting with their feet and resigning from the Foreign Service altogether?

A former Kremlin employee, told the BBC the same question could be asked of many officials in Putin’s Russia. "It's a problem for everyone who's been stuck in their positions for 10-20 years. All your life skills atrophy. There's no other life for you. It's terrifying."

The source described a chance encounter with Sergey Lavrov a few months previously: "A tired man. Slightly dishevelled. War is not his thing, but he has nowhere else to go. He has long overstayed himself. And there's nowhere else for him to go besides retirement. So he just sits there, guarding his chair."


Sergey Lavrov and the Minister of Foreign Affairs of South Africa, Naledi Pandor, 2023
Photo: AFP - PHILL MAGAKOE

"These people are smart enough to know better, but lack the courage to do anything about it. That is what it is. The fact that they've been in those jobs for so long. They're just survivors. They're just apparatchiks of Putinism." says Ben Rhodes.

Boris Bondarev, one of the few former Foreign Ministry officials to walk away from the job, confesses to the BBC that he despite the evident degradation all around him, did also resisted leaving the diplomatic service for a long time.

"I'm not saying that I am a very principled person,” he says. “We had people at the Foreign Ministry who left in 2014. There was Lavrov's favourite interpreter; allegedly, he almost begged her to stay, but she said, 'No, I can't’. If it hadn’t been for the war, I probably would have stayed and put up with it. The job isn’t so bad. You sit, suffer a bit, and in the evening, you go out—it's Geneva, a beautiful city. It’s some sort of compensation. Many people think the same way."

So what does he consider to be his main diplomatic achievement, the BBC asks him.

"That I resigned,” he says. “That was probably the most human decision I’ve ever made in my entire life."

The full article can be read at the following link: BBC News

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