As Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov’s job is to deliver his president’s messages to the world. In the past fortnight, he has pushed Vladimir Putin’s dystopian narrative to the brink: “We didn’t even attack Ukraine,” he said in Turkey; “the West is plotting a nuclear strike on Russia”; Ukraine is run by “neo-Nazis and drug addicts”; the Kremlin is engaged not in a bloody war but a “special military operation” to prevent genocide.
At the UN in Geneva last week, Moscow deployed Lavrov on video to baselessly rail against the West; hundreds of diplomats staged a walkout. A day later, he lashed out at “emotional” journalists and compared America to “Napoleon and Hitler”.
He is “largely out there to be rude to foreigners these days”, says one former high-level UK security adviser. “He’s very much his master’s voice.” (Of UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss Lavrov said: “The conversation we’re having turns out to be a bit like a deaf person talking to a blind person”.)
At the top of Russia’s foreign ministry for more than 50 years, Lavrov is a grizzled master of diplomacy who worked through the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the thaw with the West and back to square one again. He’s also thought to own hundreds of millions of dollars of property and other assets. “He’s one of the last deeply Soviet diplomatic figures”, says Ben Judah, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center.
Born in Tblisi, Georgia, 71 years ago, Lavrov is a product of the late Soviet empire. Sergey Kalantaryan, as he was then (he later dropped his Armenian father’s name in favour of Lavrova, his Russian mother’s), was picked out for the Moscow State Institute of International Relations the revered diplomatic finishing school at the heart of Russia, at 22. He speaks English, French, Sri Lanka’s Sinhala and Dhivehi, the official language of the Maldives. He is a flawless technocrat and boasts an astonishing memory. By 32, he had swapped Moscow for New York, as senior adviser to the USSR’s United Nations mission; by 42, he’d been named deputy foreign minister by Andrey Kozyrev, the only pro-Western foreign minister Russia has ever had.
Putin appointed Lavrov to the post of foreign minister in 2004 and there was a time when the West viewed him warmly as a man of principle and as an impressive operator. Former US secretary of state John Kerry and Lavrov bonded over a shared love of ice hockey. When he and Lavrov managed to finally wrap up marathon 13-hour talks on Syria, they celebrated by bringing journalists pizza and vodka. “The pizza is from the Americans, the vodka is from us,” Lavrov said. In New York he shared jokes and indiscretions with journalists — often with a whisky and a cigarette in hand, defying a smoking ban imposed by Kofi Annan, then secretary-general.
“Lavrov was a respected and effective Russian ambassador to the UN in the Nineties,” says retired diplomat Sir Kim Darroch, a close adviser to Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and David Cameron. “But over his two decades as Russian foreign minister he has become a reincarnation of Andrei Gromyko, the Soviet foreign minister of the Cold War. And his role now seems reduced to saying ‘No’ to foreigners, defending the indefensible, and trying to justify one of the most tragic and catastrophic decisions in history.”
Lavrov’s old boss, Kozyrev, was just as damning. “[He] used to have my back. Today, I would watch my back if he was behind me,” he tweeted the day after Russia’s invasion. According to a report from Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation (ACF) last year, entitled “Yachts, bribes and a mistress: What Minister Lavrov is hiding,” he has also reportedly grown rich on Putin’s pay roll.
Lavrov has been married to Maria Lavrova for 50 years and has a daughter, Ekaterina. But Navalny’s team allege that a second “unofficial wife”, actress and restaurateur Svetlana Polyakova, enjoys property in Russia and the UK worth about $13.6 million. Maria Pevchikh, head of the ACF’s investigative unit, pointed out that “Putin’s cronies often have two families at the same time.”
Glamorous “stepdaughter” Polina Kovaleva, 26, went to work for Gazprom, the Russian energy giant after gaining a first-class degree at Loughborough University and a master’s in economics and strategy at Imperial College London. She lives in a £4.4 million apartment just off Kensington High Street and loves to party. Daughter Ekaterina, now 40, grew up in New York, attended Columbia University, studying political science and completed a masters at the London School of Economics, before entering the art world. She is married to a Cambridge-educated Russian banker, Alexander Vinokurov, and they are thought to live in Moscow with their two children. Russia’s Foreign Ministry was approached for comment.
He used to have my back. Today, I would watch my back if he was behind me
“Lavrov knows all the tricks of wrong-footing a person he’s dealing with,” says one former security adviser. “He’s a sophisticated operator. He uses his size (he’s over six foot and heavy set) and aura to get you on your own.”
“Lavrov and Putin in rhetorical terms are very much on the same wavelength,” says Sergei Radchenko, a historian. “It’s part of the broader culture that we’ve seen flourish under Putin, a culture underpinned by fundamental cynicism and a very dark view of human nature; sarcastic and extremely cynical.” Most Russia watchers say it is clear Lavrov has “sold his soul to the devil”. “I’m not even sure he remembers what he was like when he was his own man,” one tells me.
But Lavrov has also aided and abetted a man who many call a war criminal. “My question to people who are much closer to the action is why hasn’t he just resigned?”, says Dr Ben Noble, associate professor of Russian politics at University College London. “Lavrov is now a decidedly secondary character, and has been for quite a while.”
He, like others, points to information that Lavrov is outside Putin’s inner circle; he was surprised by the war; has been crowded out by Sergei Shoigu (minister of defence), Valery Gerasimov (chief of the general staff), Alexander Bortnikov (director of the FSB). He has not been involved in peace negotiations. “There were rumours for years that he wanted to resign but he was not allowed”, says Andrei Soldatov, a Russian investigative journalist.
“There’s also the rumour that in 2016, after the interference in the US election several high level diplomats died unexpectedly, including Vitaly Churkin, and that was taken as a signal that it was probably not a good time to resign.
But a popular rumour in Moscow has it that’s why Lavrov started drinking. That he wanted to get out. That he’s not happy. “Just think about it”, says Soldatov. “Before 2016 he’d been profiled by the New York Times, and was praised as a very competent and experienced diplomat. Then suddenly he’s a pariah, and his reputation is completely destroyed.”
His life’s work was statesmanship. Now he spends his days justifying an attempt to wipe Russia’s nearest neighbour off the map.