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Europe

Sergey Lavrov - diplomacy with bite

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is known as professional and tough. These are important qualities in Russia during times of crises. Now, he is reaping the fruits of his labor.

The soon-to-be US President Donald Trump has been talking about a new era of friendship with Moscow, while in Europe there are increasingly open reflections on the easing of sanctions against Russia. These are just some of the reasons why Sergey Lavrov should be pleased these days. It seems as though the Russian foreign minister has passed the greatest test so far during his time in office: He has used diplomacy to strengthen Russia during a time of crisis - or at least make it appear strong.

On an equal footing

In the midst of an unprecedented heightening of tensions between Russia and the West, spurred on by Moscow's annexation of Crimea in 2014, Lavrov was tasked with preventing his country's foreign policy isolation. Observers believe that this was achieved, amongst other things, by engaging in diverse forms of negotiation. The Russian foreign minister has travelled the globe in recent years, be it Ukraine, Iran or Syria. His numerous meetings with US Secretary of State John Kerry were fruitless for Washington, yet successful for Moscow. As has long been hoped, Russia is operating on an equal footing with the United States.

In an analysis of foreign and security policy in recent years, a renowned Moscow body of experts has praised Russian diplomacy as being "truly masterful." Foreign policy has managed until now "to offset" the country's weak economic development.

An old school career diplomat

Russia's leading diplomat can look back on a long career. Born in March 1950, Lavrov belongs to the same generation as President Vladimir Putin. After studying at the elite Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO University) Lavrov made his way up the diplomatic career ladder from bottom to top.

UN Sicherheitsrat in New York zur Lage in Syrien, Aleppo (Getty Images/D. Angerer)

Russia is often criticized for misusing its veto power on the UN Security Council

Between 1994 and 2004 he was Russia's representative to the United Nations in New York. Putin then made him foreign minister and has been evidently very pleased with him to date. Lavrov has occupied Russia's top diplomatic post longer than any of his predecessors since the fall of the Soviet Union.

Lavrov enjoys a reputation as a highly professional diplomat, who is a tough defender of Russian interests. At the time he became foreign minister, Russia repeatedly used its power of veto on the UN Security Council, which was a practice that Moscow had moved away from in the 1990s.

Order of Merit from Putin

One of Lavrov's role models is Alexander Gorchakov, a foreign minister and chancellor in the 19th century Russian Empire. He once described Gorchakov as, "managing to restore Russian influence in Europe, after defeat in war, not with weapons but through diplomacy." Lavrov seems to view Russia's situation after the end of the Cold War in a similar light. He has been implementing Putin's policies, which are intended to elevate Moscow to a global power again.

However, as events in Ukraine and Syria have shown, the Kremlin is not only interested in diplomacy. Lavrov came face to face with Russia's reputation for non-diplomatic tactics during his appearance at the Munich Security Conference in 2015. When he brought up Crimea in a speech, saying that Russia had not done anything illegal, there was scattered laughter in the hall.

In 2015, when Lavrov turned 65, Putin honored him with an Order of Merit. It is not clearly known whether the foreign minister belongs to the President's inner circle. Some Russian media hold the view that Lavrov does not have any great influence over Putin's foreign policies and merely implements his wishes.

The undiplomatic diplomat

Unlike his Russian predecessors, or most foreign ministers in Western democracies, Lavrov tends to allow himself the occasional undiplomatic appearance. He caused laughter in Russia and bewilderment abroad at a press conference with his Saudi Arabian counterpart in Moscow in August 2015. The cameras recorded Lavrov listening to his guest and then suddenly muttering "idiots" in Russian and adding a vulgar swearword. It remained unclear who or what he meant.

In 2008, shortly after the Russian-Georgian war in South Ossetia, Lavrov is said to have abused his British colleague David Miliband over the phone, according to British media reports. The Russian foreign minister denied it and said that he had only quoted another colleague's statement about the Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Smoker, sportsman, poet

Lavrov is well-known to be a heavy smoker and his deep voice is apparently the result of his love of tobacco. In the 1990s, he is alleged to have picked an argument about the ban on smoking at the UN with then-secretary-general Kofi Annan.

Lavrov is also a passionate sportsman and poet. One of his poems became the official hymn of his former university, MGIMO. "Study - then drink passionately - all the way to the end," it says. In other words, one should never stumble and persistently pursue one's goals. This seems to be Lavrov's motto in life.