Anne Sophie Goninet
November 09, 2016
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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.
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.
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
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.
Ukrainian President Zelensky addressed the G7 leaders via video call at the summit in Kruen, Germany, where he asked to “intensify sanctions” against Russia and warned against the war dragging on.
Among the most immediate effects of the overturning of Roe v. Wade is that women who find themselves in states where abortion is outlawed will travel to where it is legal. But that of course requires the right information and economic means to do so.
Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.
Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.
Then there is Mariupol, under siege and symbol of Putin’s cruelty. In the largest city on the Azov Sea, with a population of half a million people, Ukrainians make up slightly less than half of the city's population, and Mariupol's second-largest national ethnicity is Russians. As of 2001, when the last census was conducted, 89.5% of the city's population identified Russian as their mother tongue.
Between 2018 and 2019, I spent several months in Mariupol. It is a rugged but beautiful city dotted with Soviet-era architecture, featuring wide avenues and hillside parks, and an extensive industrial zone stretching along the shoreline. There was a vibrant youth culture and art scene, with students developing projects to turn their city into a regional cultural center with an international photography festival.
There were also many offices of international NGOs and human rights organizations, a consequence of the fact that Mariupol was the last major city before entering the occupied zone of Donbas. Many natives of the contested regions of Luhansk and Donetsk had moved there, taking jobs in restaurants and hospitals. I had fond memories of the welcoming from locals who were quicker to smile than in some other parts of Ukraine. All of this is gone.
Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
According to the latest data from the local authorities, 80% of the port city has been destroyed by Russian bombs, artillery fire and missile attacks, with particularly egregious targeting of civilians, including a maternity hospital, a theater where more than 1,000 people had taken shelter and a school where some 400 others were hiding.
The official civilian death toll of Mariupol is estimated at more than 3,000. There are no language or ethnic-based statistics of the victims, but it’s likely the majority were Russian speakers.
So let’s be clear, Putin is bombing the very people he has claimed to want to rescue.
Putin’s Public Enemy No. 1, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, is a mother-tongue Russian speaker who’d made a successful acting and comedy career in Russian-language broadcasting, having extensively toured Russian cities for years.
Rescuers carry a person injured during a shelling by Russian troops of Kharkiv, northeastern Ukraine.
Yes, the official language of Ukraine is Ukrainian, and a 2019 law aimed to ensure that it is used in public discourse, but no one has ever sought to abolish the Russian language in everyday life. In none of the cities that are now being bombed by the Russian army to supposedly liberate them has the Russian language been suppressed or have the Russian-speaking population been discriminated against.
Sociologist Mikhail Mishchenko explains that studies have found that the vast majority of Ukrainians don’t consider language a political issue. For reasons of history, culture and the similarities of the two languages, Ukraine is effectively a bilingual nation.
"The overwhelming majority of the population speaks both languages, Russian and Ukrainian,” Mishchenko explains. “Those who say they understand Russian poorly and have difficulty communicating in it are just over 4% percent. Approximately the same number of people say the same about Ukrainian.”
In general, there is no problem of communication and understanding. Often there will be conversations where one person speaks Ukrainian, and the other responds in Russian. Geographically, the Russian language is more dominant in the eastern and central parts of Ukraine, and Ukrainian in the west.
Like most central Ukrainians I am perfectly bilingual: for me, Ukrainian and Russian are both native languages that I have used since childhood in Kyiv. My generation grew up on Russian rock, post-Soviet cinema, and translations of foreign literature into Russian. I communicate in Russian with my sister, and with my mother and daughter in Ukrainian. I write professionally in three languages: Ukrainian, Russian and English, and can also speak Polish, French, and a bit Japanese. My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
At the same time, I am not Russian — nor British or Polish. I am Ukrainian. Ours is a nation with a long history and culture of its own, which has always included a multi-ethnic population: Russians, Belarusians, Moldovans, Crimean Tatars, Bulgarians, Romanians, Hungarians, Poles, Jews, Greeks. We all, they all, have found our place on Ukrainian soil. We speak different languages, pray in different churches, we have different traditions, clothes, and cuisine.
My mother taught me that the more languages I know the more human I am.
Like in other countries, these differences have been the source of conflict in our past. But it is who we are and will always be, and real progress has been made over the past three decades to embrace our multitudes. Our Jewish, Russian-speaking president is the most visible proof of that — and is in fact part of what our soldiers are fighting for.
Many in Moscow were convinced that Russian troops would be welcomed in Ukraine as liberating heroes by Russian speakers. Instead, young soldiers are forced to shoot at people who scream in their native language.
Starving people ina street of Kharkiv in 1933, during the famine
Putin has tried to rally the troops by warning that in Ukraine a “genocide” of ethnic Russians is being carried out by a government that must be “de-nazified.”
These are, of course, words with specific definitions that carry the full weight of history. The Ukrainian people know what genocide is not from books. In my hometown of Kyiv, German soldiers massacred Jews en masse. My grandfather survived the Buchenwald concentration camp, liberated by the U.S. army. My great-grandmother, who died at the age of 95, survived the 1932-33 famine when the Red Army carried out the genocide of the Ukrainian middle class, and her sister disappeared in the camps of Siberia, convicted for defying rationing to try to feed her children during the famine.
On Tuesday, came a notable report of one of the latest civilian deaths in the besieged Russian-speaking city of Kharkiv: a 96-year-old had been killed when shelling hit his apartment building. The victim’s name was Boris Romanchenko; he had survived Buchenwald and two other Nazi concentration camps during World War II. As President Zelensky noted: Hitler didn’t manage to kill him, but Putin did.
Genocide has returned to Ukraine, from Kharkiv to Kherson to Mariupol, as Vladimir Putin had warned. But it is his own genocide against the Russian-speaking population of Ukraine.