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Putin's self-isolation: Lavrov attends the G20

Roman Goncharenko
September 8, 2023

After declining to attend the BRICS summit in South Africa, Vladimir Putin is also giving the G20 in India a miss. Once again, he has sent his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in his place. Why is this?

Headshot of Putin in the foreground, with Lavrov and a Russian flag just behind him, both out of focus.
Russian president Vladimir Putin with his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, in 2016Image: Reuters/S. Karpukhin

Russia does not have a vice-president, but it appears that its foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is taking on a similar role — at least where foreign policy is concerned. At the G20 summit in India this weekend (September 9—10), Russia will be represented not by President Vladimir Putin but by his chief diplomat. Lavrov also deputized for the Russian leader at the BRICS summit in South Africa a few weeks ago.

Observers suspect the main reason Putin did not fly to South Africa was that he was afraid he would be arrested. In March of this year, the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague issued an arrest warrant for the Russian leader on suspicion of organizing the illegal deportation of children in Russia's war against Ukraine.

The Kremlin rejects these accusations, and does not recognize the ICC's jurisdiction. South Africa does, however, meaning that it is obliged to arrest and extradite anyone on its territory for whom an ICC warrant has been issued.

'India is classified as not safe'

In an interview with DW, Felix Riefer, a Russia expert and the author of a book about Russian foreign policy, also cited the ICC arrest warrant as the main reason why Putin had declined to travel to South Africa. This does not necessarily explain his absence from the G20 summit, though, as India has not recognized the jurisdiction of the court in The Hague. 

Lavrov in a dark suit, about to descend the stairs from an aircraft. A female flight attendant is standing to one side.
Foreign minister Lavrov stood in for President Putin at the BRICS summit in Johannesburg in August 2023Image: Jacoline Schoonees/DIRCO via REUTERS

And yet: "India is classified [by Russia] as not safe," Riefer said.

He explains that, although Russia has had good relations with India going back to Soviet times, the government in New Delhi also cooperates "with the West, including with the US and on the supply of arms."

South Africa and India are not the only countries President Putin has not wanted to travel to in recent months. It was reported in the media that he was expected to visit Turkey in August, but the meeting with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, ultimately took place elsewhere: Putin received him at home in the Russian city of Sochi.

With this in mind, some observers believe that security concerns may be the reason why the Russian president has not wanted to fly to countries he may consider unsafe.

Some link this to the recent death of Yevgeny Prigozhin, the head of the Wagner mercenary group, in a plane crash in Russia. Felix Riefer regards this as "speculation." However, he points out that the only country Putin is apparently planning to visit in the near future is China, in October.

The last time Putin attended the BRICS and G20 summits in person was in 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. His last face-to-face meeting with US President Joe Biden was in June 2021, in Geneva. In the autumn of 2021, both Putin and the Chinese head of state, Xi Jinping, only attended the G20 summit by videolink. Both are now absent from the summit in India.

India set to host summit of G20 leaders in Delhi

'Lavrov is Putin's executive assistant'

Does Putin's self-isolation, whether enforced or voluntary, mean that the role of Foreign Minister Lavrov on the international stage has been strengthened?

73-year-old Lavrov is one of Putin's closest allies. In 2024 he will celebrate his 20-year anniversary as foreign minister — a record for any minister under Putin.

John Sullivan, a former US ambassador to Russia, told Foreign Policy magazine in January 2023 that Putin valued Lavrov because he was so "effective […] very, very polished, extremely smart, very experienced."

Riefer comments that, prior to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov was also appreciated by the West. However, he sees the Russian foreign minister as having "compromised" his reputation by defending "the Russian regime's politics of realignment."

Riefer does not believe that Lavrov is being assigned the role of Putin's deputy on foreign policy.

"Lavrov has absolutely no say in Russian foreign policy; he has to wait for directives from Putin," he says. There will not be an "independent Russian foreign policy."

According to Riefer, Lavrov was not privy to the plans for the war on Ukraine. Researchers for the Financial Times newspaper were told that the Russian foreign minister was informed only a few hours before the start of the invasion on February 24, 2022.

Close-up of Rüdiger von Fritsch, flanked by Vladimir Putin on his left and Sergey Lavrov on his right. All three are facing to the left of the photo, and only von Fritsch is in focus.
Rüdiger von Fritsch (center) was Germany's ambassador to Moscow from 2014 to 2019Image: Yuri Kadobnov/AFP/dpa/picture alliance

Rüdiger von Fritsch, a former German ambassador to Moscow, makes a similar assessment of the foreign minister's role.

"Lavrov was and remains Putin's administrative assistant," the diplomat told DW. "Talented, clever, but lacking the stature of someone like Gromyko [foreign minister of the USSR from 1957 to 1985]."

Russia expert Riefer believes Putin's abstinence with regard to foreign trips will indeed have negative consequences for Russian foreign policy.

"This isolates Russia further still, and it will depend on how much scope Lavrov is given in negotiations," he says.

Overall, Riefer describes it as a "sign of the weakness" of Russian leadership — and also of the influence exerted by international institutions like the ICC in The Hague, which have traditionally been seen as "relatively powerless."

This article has been translated from German.