Threats, insults and the Kremlin’s «robots» — How Russian diplomacy «died» under Putin

Russian diplomats were once a key part of Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy strategy. But all that has now changed informs lifo.

In the years leading up to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian diplomats lost their power and their role was reduced to relaying the Kremlin’s aggressive rhetoric. In other words, Putin’s point of view.

BBC Russian asked former Western diplomats, as well as former members of the Kremlin and the White House, to find out how Russian diplomacy ultimately broke down under Putin.

The beginning of the end

In October 2021, US Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland held a meeting at the Russian Foreign Ministry in Moscow. The man across from her was Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, whom Nuland had known for decades and had always gotten along well.

Ryabkov’s American counterparts saw him as a practical, calm negotiator. Someone they could talk to even when relations between the two countries had soured. But this time things were different.

Ryabkov read Moscow’s official position from a piece of paper and resisted Nuland’s attempts to open the discussion. She was shocked, according to two people who discussed the incident with her. He described Ryabkov and one of his colleagues as «robots with papers» while the State Department declined to comment on the incident.

Outside the negotiating room, Russian diplomats used increasingly undiplomatic language. «We spit on western sanctions», «let me speak or you will hear what Russian Grad missiles are capable of», «idiots».

All this is talk of people who were in positions of power in the Russian Foreign Ministry in recent years.

A new cold war

It may be hard to imagine now, but Putin himself told the BBC in 2000 that “Russia is ready to cooperate with NATO until joining the alliance. I cannot imagine my country isolated from Europe.»

Then, early in his presidency, Vladimir Putin was keen to build Russia’s ties with the West, a former senior Kremlin official told the BBC. Russian diplomats were a key part of his team, helping resolve territorial disputes with China and Norway, leading talks on deeper cooperation with European countries and ensuring a peaceful transition after the revolution in Georgia.

But as Putin grew more powerful and experienced, he became increasingly convinced that he had all the answers and that diplomats were unnecessary , said Alexander Gabuev, director of the Carnegie Russia Eurasia Center, who lives in exile in Berlin.

The first signal that a new Cold War was beginning came in 2007 with a speech by Vladimir Putin at the Munich Security Conference. In a 30-minute speech, he accused Western countries of trying to build a unipolar world. Russian diplomats followed suit. A year later, when Russia invaded Georgia , Moscow’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, reportedly told his British counterpart, David Miliband, «Who are you to lecture me?»

However, Western officials still believed it was worth trying to work with Russia. In 2009, Lavrov and then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began a dialogue to restore relations between the two countries, and the US and Russia appeared to be building a new partnership, especially on security issues.

But it soon became clear to US officials that their Russian counterparts were simply parroting Putin’s growing anti-Western views, according to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to former US President Barack Obama.

Rhodes remembers Barack Obama having breakfast with Putin in 2009, accompanied by a traditional orchestra. Putin, he says, was more interested in presenting his view of the world than discussing the possibility of cooperation with the US. At the time, he had accused Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, of betraying Russia.

In 2011 the world saw the Arab Spring, US involvement in Libya and Russian street protests. The next year, in 2012, Putin decided that diplomacy was getting him nowhere, Rhodes says.

«On some issues — Ukraine in particular — I had the feeling that the diplomats didn’t have much influence,» Rhodes said.

For example, when Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, was appointed almost 20 years ago, he had an «international perspective and his own position», a former senior Kremlin official told the BBC. The Kremlin used to consult him even when it knew he might have a different view than Putin, according to Gabuev.

But when troops were sent to Ukraine in 2022 , Lavrov found out just hours before the war began, according to a Financial Times report.

Andrei Kelin, Moscow’s ambassador to the UK, rejects the idea that Russian diplomats have lost their influence . In an interview with the BBC, he refused to admit that either Moscow or individual diplomats bore any responsibility for the breakdown in relations with the West.

«We are not the ones who caused this disaster. We have problems with the Kiev regime. We can’t do anything about it,» he said while noting that the war in Ukraine is » a continuation of diplomacy by other means.»

Diplomacy as a spectacle

As foreign policy officials wielded less and less influence, they turned their attention to Russia. Maria Zakharova , who became the representative of the ministry in 2015, is a symbol of this new chapter, which Russia was opening.

«Before her, diplomats behaved like diplomats, speaking with sophisticated expressions,» says former Foreign Ministry official Boris Bondarev, who resigned in protest at the war.

But with Zakharova’s arrival, Foreign Office briefings became a spectacle. She often yelled at journalists who asked her difficult questions and responded to criticism from other countries with insults.

Her diplomatic colleagues followed the same path. Bondarev, who was in Geneva with Moscow’s UN mission, recalls a meeting where Russia blocked all proposed initiatives, prompting Swiss colleagues to protest.

“We said to them: Well, what’s the problem? We are a great power, and you are just Switzerland! That’s Russian diplomacy for you,» he said.

That approach was aimed at impressing Russians at home, however, according to Gabuev, a foreign policy analyst.

But an even more critical audience the diplomats were targeting was their own bosses. Official cables sent to Moscow after meetings with foreign counterparts focus on whether Russian diplomats were defending the country’s interests.

“We really put them in a difficult position! We heroically defended Russian interests and the West could do nothing and retreated!” they said then.

Bondarev recalls a dinner in Geneva in January 2022 when Ryabkov from the Foreign Ministry met American officials. US First Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman hoped to prevent the invasion of Ukraine through negotiations.

«It was awful,» Bondarev said. «The Americans were saying, ‘Let’s negotiate.’ And instead Ryabkov started shouting, «We need Ukraine! We’re not going anywhere without Ukraine! Pack up and go back to the 1997 NATO borders!» Sherman is an iron lady, but I think even her jaw dropped.»

Ryabkov was always very polite and it was very nice to talk to him but now he too was banging his fist on the table and talking nonsense. In recent years, however, the diplomatic tone has changed in other countries as well, albeit on a smaller scale.

A few years earlier, Japan’s UN human rights representative, Hideaki Ueda, demanded that foreign colleagues «shut up» at a meeting. Gavin Williamson used the same words against Russia when he was UK Defense Secretary while Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, last year called German Chancellor Olaf Scholz derogatory.

Hope for diplomacy?

After a year and a half of war, however, is there any hope that diplomacy could help end the fighting?

Most of the people the BBC spoke to think this is almost impossible. Typically, 95% of diplomats’ work is «informal meetings and coffee ,» Bondarev explains. Such contacts have declined significantly, he says. «There’s not much more to say.»

Sooner or later, though, the dialogue will have to happen, says RAND analyst Samuel Charapp. The only alternative to negotiations is «total victory,» and it is unlikely that either Kiev or Moscow will achieve that on the battlefield, he argues.

However, he does not expect talks to take place anytime soon. “Putin has changed dramatically during his tenure in terms of power. And frankly, I don’t know if he will be willing to participate (in talks) .’

Ukrainian authorities complain that Russia is once again giving ultimatums instead of compromises, such as demanding that Ukraine accept the annexation of occupied territories. Kiev has no intention of negotiating under such conditions, and its Western allies publicly support this decision.

Russia appears to rely on its military power, intelligence and geo-economic power for influence. Not in diplomacy.

In these disappointing circumstances, why are Russian diplomats not resigning?

«It’s a problem for everyone who has been stuck in their jobs for 10 to 20 years,» a former Kremlin official told the BBC. «There is no other life for them. It’s scary». Bondarev, a former diplomat, can do it. «If it wasn’t for the war, I probably would have stayed and endured it,» he says.

«The work is not so bad. You sit, you suffer a little and at night you go out.»

With information from the BBC