Russia-Africa: Sergei Lavrov, Vladimir Putin’s global thinker

By Mathieu Olivier
Posted on Thursday, 23 December 2021 11:39

Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov on 2 December 2021. © Russian Foreign Ministry/TASS/Si/SIPA

A tough and seasoned politician, Russia’s foreign affairs minister Sergei Lavrov is the face of Moscow's charm offensive in Africa, where Russia is tapping into anti-Western sentiment.

In the cool of the Russian capital, where temperatures rarely rise above 5 degrees in March, the Moscow Sisterhood stands in the misty sky.

The Stalinist skyscraper, one of seven built on the orders of the former Soviet leader to challenge the Western world, has 27 floors, 28 lifts and 2,000 offices. As the headquarters of the USSR’s diplomacy and then of the Russian Federation since 1953, the building dominates Smolensk Square with its sculpted mass and, 200 metres to the west, the Moskova River, which winds its way through the capital. This structure is Sergei Viktorovich Lavrov’s undisputed stronghold.

In March 2017, the foreign affairs minister had a West African meeting on his agenda. Russia had decided to make Africa a new space of conquest.

A new sphere of influence

Vladimir Putin and Lavrov were not only eyeing Sudan and the CAR, but also the Sahelian countries. In the latter, the security situation had worsened, under the dual impetus of Al-Qaeda and, more recently, the Islamic State (IS). Anti-Western sentiment, particularly directed against the former French colonial power, had created fertile ground.

Ever since he took office in 2004, Lavrov’s number one priority has been to put Russia back on the African scene. Before its decline, the Soviet Union had been one of the main supporters of independence movements against colonial powers. On Smolensk Square, at the entrance to his ministry, his pawns were ready to welcome the day’s guest: Ibrahim Yacouba, his Nigerian counterpart.

The Moscow diplomat hates delays as much as he loves order. Every morning, except when he is travelling abroad, he is always one of the first people to enter the building. His staff are punctual, as are the journalists who are allowed to follow him. Some have become accustomed to the minister’s gaze, scanning their ranks like a general in search of an ill-fitting uniform. Others, who remember him turning a blind eye to a long-drawn-out conference, still fear him.

“You are my friend now”

On that day in March 2017, his meeting with Yacouba lasted an hour. “Lavrov was rediscovering Africa,” says a member of the Niger delegation. “It was a phase of exploration for him. He was looking for ways to position himself in the Sahel.”

He welcomed his guest in hesitant French. “You are my friend now,” he said from the start. The man, whom the Niger delegation believed to be “cold and insensitive”, turned out to be “warm” and “easy to talk to”. “Even when you are meeting him for the first time, you quickly feel as if you have known him for 10 years, that you have met an old friend,” says one guest.

Sitting in the centre of the long meeting table, facing his counterpart, Lavrov listened. “Even though he felt that the fighting in the Donbass [Ukraine] or the accusations of Russian interference in the US presidential election were more pressing, he still seemed really interested and enthusiastic. He wasn’t just being polite,” says a Niger man who was there that day.

“He’s a pretty unique character,” says one of his former African peers. After all, the man does have experience. Born in 1950 to an Armenian father from Tbilisi (Georgia) and a Russian mother, he attended the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), where he demonstrated a knack for foreign languages.

Even though he grew up during the era of Cold War diplomacy, he has managed to flourish more than ever in today’s world of unbridled multilateralism.

In Leonid Brezhnev’s USSR, young Sergei was an ardent patriot. After finishing high school, he joined a volunteer brigade to dig up the foundations of the Ostankino tower, which is the headquarters of the Russian TV and Radio Broadcasting Network. At MGIMO, he perfected his English and learned French.

Every day, his teachers talked to him about the central role that the Soviet Union and its diplomats would play in the world revolution. In the early 1970s, following a recommendation, he decided to study Sinhalese. He then obtained his first post outside the country, in Sri Lanka, in 1972. As an attaché to the ambassador, he spent four years in this state, which was an ally of the USSR, but destabilised by the Tamil minority’s demands.

New York, New York

In 1976, Lavrov returned to Moscow to work in the foreign ministry’s International Organisations Department. While there, he familiarised himself with the UN’s inner workings. The Brezhnev era was coming to an end when, in 1981, he was sent to New York, the world capital of imperialism. He served as first secretary, advisor and then chief advisor of the USSR’s permanent representation to the UN for seven years. Closely watched by the KGB’s big guns, he learned the US way of life and also preserved his Russian ‘soul’.

The diplomat, who had just turned 31, enjoyed whisky and the tunes of Frank Sinatra. He also read the poems of Vladimir Vyssotski, the unofficial spokesman for Soviet youth. Like so many other USSR leaders, he moved with the times, a sailor on a ship whose revolutionary voyage was coming to an end.

In 1988, he was recalled to his country. Mikhail Gorbachev set out to break the USSR’s deadlock with the US. As deputy head of the Department of International Economic Relations and then director of the Department of International Organisations from 1990 to 1992, Lavrov watched the collapse of the Soviet Union from Moscow. In 1992, a year after Boris Yeltsin became president of the new Russian Federation, he was appointed deputy foreign affairs minister.

However, his experience soon made him a prime candidate for a return across the Atlantic. In 1994, he became Russia’s permanent representative to the UN. In the megalopolis of New York, he held a series of meetings and receptions, while also taking time out to teach his daughter Ekaterina to drive. On her 18th birthday, he gifted her with a song that he had composed and recorded.

This 1.88-metre-tall sportsman – who is a huge fan of Spartak Moscow football club, so much so that he displayed its emblem on his phone for a long time – seemed relentless, even though he smoked two packets of cigarettes a day and willingly invited his interlocutors to the Waldorf Astoria palace for red wine and whisky. He often went rafting or skiing in Vermont. Lavrov flourished in Bill Clinton’s US.

The ‘Niet’ man

“Lavrov encapsulates side diplomacy,” says one of his compatriots and fellow traveller. “He knows that the best way to charm someone is by holding a one-on-one meeting.”

In 2004, when George W. Bush had been in the White House for three years, President Putin called him back to Moscow. In the meantime, Lavrov had become the undisputed jousting champion of the United Nations Security Council. He watched helplessly as the wars in the former Yugoslavia and the fall of Saddam Hussein took place. On 9 March, when he replaced Igor Ivanov as head of the foreign ministry, he was thirsty for revenge. Moscow’s Sisterhood became his domain, from where he intended to restore Russia to its former glory.

They are against imposing regime change from the outside. They failed in Libya. That served as a lesson for them for the Syrian crisis.

“He had the same obsession as Vladimir Putin: spreading his country’s influence,” says an observer of Russian political life. “Even though he grew up during the era of Cold War diplomacy, he has managed to flourish more than ever in today’s world of unbridled multilateralism.” Over the years, Lavrov has established himself as one of his government’s key men.

Charming in private settings, he manages to annoy his addresses in public by slipping in little phrases that he knows will make his adversaries jump out of their skin. Condoleezza Rice (who, however, speaks Russian), and then Hillary Clinton, ended up paying the price.

On one occasion, although he had been smiling just the moment before, he suddenly brandished – under the nose of a stunned John Kerry – a compromising confidential document that his intelligence services had intercepted.

Very quickly, Lavrov became the new ‘Mr. Niet’ at the UN, opposing – on Russia’s behalf – any foreign interference in the internal affairs of states, citing the inviolability of borders and a new multipolar world order.

In 2011, he was against intervention in Libya. Furthermore, he distanced himself from the Western vision of the Arab Spring and then, after Putin’s return to the presidency, continuously voted against attempts to mediate in Bashar al-Assad’s Syria.

“Lavrov and Putin’s doctrine is all about protecting sovereignty, which, according to them, is a factor of stability,” says a French diplomat. “They are against imposing regime change from the outside. They failed in Libya. That served as a lesson for them for the Syrian crisis.”

‘Bluffing’

“There are no more rules today,” Lavrov likes to say, pretending to regret the days of the Cold War, when the blocs were clearly defined.

Lavrov has nevertheless mastered this unbridled game. Under his ministry, Moscow has once again become a key player in the Syrian, Iranian and Libyan issues. Spending his life in planes, Lavrov has increased his number of stopovers and only settles down for discussions or press conferences that have been organised by Maria Zakharova, his ministry’s director of information. “He’s pretty amazing,” says one of his former interlocutors. “Even when he spends the night on a plane, he manages to land in a foreign capital without looking tired.”

“He’s a pretty exhausting person: one minute he’s brutally negotiating, the next he’s making jokes,” says a diplomat. “We diplomats are all honest people. Things only get messy when we are put together,” the minister once told a journalist who had come to meet him at his home. To the same visitor, he said: “I like to convince and, sometimes, I let myself be convinced too, but rarely.”

People who have worked with him – adversaries and friends alike – all agree on one point: Lavrov either  “terrorises” or “seduces”, depending on his needs. “Sometimes we go to him, even when we’re not sure if we can trust him. Then we talk and, in the end, we realise that we have said more than we wanted to,” says one of his African partners.

For some years now, Lavrov has been trying to give up smoking, as he has noticed that he becomes a little out of breath during his Sunday football games. He now only smokes four or five cigarettes a day, and every morning he goes to the gym and rides his exercise bike.

Although Mikhail Bogdanov, his deputy minister for Africa and the Middle East, has travelled more extensively on the continent, Lavrov has visited several African countries since 2018: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Angola, Namibia, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Ethiopia. “While looking for new natural resources, the Russians have found a way to relaunch, at little cost, their confrontation with the West on new terrain,” says an African diplomat. Lavrov is now expected in Mali, at the invitation of Assimi Goïta’s transitional government and under the Quai d’Orsay’s worried gaze.

House of Cards

“Since 2017, the Russians have had their eye on the Sahel. They have conquered the CAR, starting from Sudan. Now they want to gain [ground] in Chad, Niger and Mali. N’Djamena and Niamey are considered French strongholds, so it is not surprising that they are now interested in Bamako,” says a former West African foreign affairs minister.

The face of Russian diplomacy for nearly 18 years, Lavrov has become the velvet glove of Putin, with whom he can talk at any time, but is he all-powerful? “The President has placed army representatives at his side,” says a Russian journalist. “In Africa, defence minister Sergei Shoigu [in office since 2012] and delegates from the Wagner group [notably Yevgeny Prigozhin] are also on the front line.”

In Moscow – from his seventh-floor office where he received his Malian counterpart Abdoulaye Diop on 11 November – Lavrov can nevertheless serenely contemplate the world chessboard, over which he is the doyen. A star of diplomacy, he is one of only a few figures, along with Putin and astronaut Yuri Gagarin, who appears on the T-shirts sold in souvenir shops on Red Square. This man, who sports a suit and a cigarette on his lips, has managed to get through seven US secretaries of state and six French foreign affairs ministers since taking office. He has spoken with Xi Jinping, Donald Trump and Emmanuel Macron.

His next ‘coup’ will be to organise the second Russia-Africa summit, which will take place in November 2022.

On 16 November in Moscow, he met with Chad’s Moussa Faki Mahamat, president of the African Union Commission, to discuss the preparations for this event. In the words of the minister, this will serve as a new opportunity to weaken the Western bloc and chastise its “colonial and neo-colonial methods”.

It has been the work of a lifetime. “Take a step back, look at the big picture, that’s how you eat a whale. One bite at a time,” said Frank Underwood, the Machiavellian politician in House of Cards.

An apt quote, given that Lavrov is a fan of the series.

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