The Russian Foreign Minister, among the country’s most recognizable figures, embodies both the corruption and confusion of the Putin regime. Not everything is what it seems — and that’s the point.
From the outside, one might have the impression that the Russian Federation is run through a highly complex and well-coordinated apparatus that ensures that any single cog in Vladimir Putin’s system is by definition both in synch with the other cogs — and utterly replaceable. The Kremlin appears to us through this lens as an impregnable citadel with long arms and peering eyes that are literally everywhere.
And yet, this is a completely false picture — and there’s no greater proof than in looking more closely at one of Russia's most prominent figures, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov.
The way in which Lavrov, 72, so regularly and effortlessly falls in tune with Putin's unpredictable actions is evidence that there is indeed no system. There is just one-man rule, and a symphony of yes-men and henchmen (and a few women) to create the illusion of something more elaborate and functional.
A different kind of autonomy
Needless to say, this non-system has had brutal consequences for Ukraine, and continues to threaten other neighbors and the world at large.
So it’s worth understanding who Sergey Lavrov is. And more importantly, ask what his modus operandi says about Putin, and the risks that it creates for events unfolding in the coming weeks and months.
He exists separately from Putin’s true inner circle.
The jowly, chain-smoking Lavrov is perhaps the second most recognizable Russian political figure of the past two decades, having served as Russia’s top diplomat since 2004, after stints as permanent representative of the USSR at the United Nations in the 1980s and deputy foreign minister in the 1990s for Boris Yeltsin.
However, the Moscow native has been in big-time Kremlin politics since the days that Putin was merely a junior officer in the KGB, and has developed his own set of powerful relationships. He exists separately from Putin’s true inner circle, dominated by his contacts from his native Saint Petersburg, such as former deputy chief of staff Igor Sechin and businessmen Gennady Timchenko.
Lavrov’s diplomatic weight was important for Putin, and lofty position and experience in international politics, to some degree, render Lavrov an independent political player, which he has repeatedly proved with outrageous statements about Jews or the risk of Russia using nuclear weapons.
Corruption runs deep
At the end of last year, the investigative journalistic team working with jailed opposition leader Alexei Navalny released a major investigation of Lavrov, revealing previously secret information about the politician: Lavrov has two families, official and "for the soul," a mistress and illegitimate children. Many of these people, close to and distant from Lavrov, have huge fortunes: apartments and houses in Russia and Britain, offshore bank accounts, and other property. Evidence was further revealed in March when the UK government imposed sanctions on the London-based daughter of Lavrov’s mistress.
Lavrov is closely linked with Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, and still serves as a kind of personal lobbyist for the aluminum and energy tycoon, using his public office (the post of Minister of Foreign Affairs!) to solve Deripaska's personal and business problems.
Navalny's team reports that When Western countries imposed sanctions on Deripaska, Lavrov stood up explicitly to defend his benefactor. "Lavrov, like other Putin cronies, has been a parasite in his post for 17 years and uses the post of minister to live beautifully,” the Navalny report said.”They literally milk the whole country, believing that they have no responsibilities, but only endless privileges, given to them for some reason."
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (front), and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergei Lavrov
Out of sync
Such deep corruption at the highest levels of Putin's government is a major problem for Russia, but the more dangerous aspect of Lavrov internationally is actually how often he is out of sync with Putin.
In Putin's entourage, more and more politicians are becoming set pieces rather than real political actors.
The first and most telling example was Lavrov's repeated declarations that the Kremlin would not attack Ukraine just days before the war. At that time, the minister ridiculed the panic in the Western media, which was reporting the imminent outbreak of hostilities. And since then, the disconnect between Lavrov's words and Putin's actions has become more and more pronounced. Some even quip that if Lavrov reports that something will never happen, then it is about to happen. Or vice versa. A recent example was Lavrov’s previewing what he billed would be a historic Putin speech at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, even if the Russian president said nothing of consequence.
In Putin's entourage, more and more politicians are becoming set pieces rather than real political actors. Russian political blogger Maxim Katz attributes this to the fact that the propaganda script is constantly changing: the limited liberation of the peoples of Donbas suddenly turns into a large-scale war against all Ukrainians, which escalates into a war against Nazism and only a few days later into NATO confrontation. Under these conditions, says Katz, the Kremlin does not need patriots who truly believe in Putin, but rather flexible performers who can easily forget their own statements and can stay one step ahead of any situation.
For those who are not able to adapt quickly, a different fate awaits. For example, the star of 2014’s Russian annexation, Natalia Poklonskaya, who uttered the legendary phrase "Crimea is Ours", was recently transferred to a closed structure without the right to speak publicly or on social networks because she doubted the motives of the invasion.
Sergey Lavrov, on the other hand, is not threatened by such troubles: he is an exemplary element of the corrupt propaganda system, which is simultaneously the greatest strength and greatest weakness of the Putin regime. It is a system in which only Putin knows what will happen tomorrow, and what happened yesterday. Everyone else is a noise to distract from the signal, which makes reading the future of Russia (and the future of its neighbors, and beyond) virtually impossible.