The Decline of Sergey “horse face” Lavrov


In this Newsweek photo illustration, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pictured in February 9, 2023, during an official visit to Sudan. Lavrov has always been outside Putin’s inner circle, analysts tell Newsweek.NEWSWEEK; SOURCE PHOTO BY ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
  • Lavrov is the face of a neutered Russian diplomatic service, which has been shunted aside by Putin’s favored allies from military and security backgrounds, experts told Newsweek.
  • Lavrov is not a part of Putin’s inner circle, but he enjoys the privilege that comes with his position in Russia’s elite.
  • Despite longstanding rumors that he wants out, Lavrov has remained in his post as Russian troops press the fight in Ukraine.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is fumbling through his career nadir, experts have told Newsweek.

The 73-year-old’s gradual transformation from diplomatic heavyweight to Kremlin bullhorn has been accelerated by President Vladimir Putin‘s disastrous war on Ukraine, a conflict that has set Lavrov—long considered a shrewd and effective operator—up for an ignominious end to a 50-year diplomatic career.

Lavrov is the stoic face of a neutered Russia diplomatic service, which, since Putin’s rise to power, has slowly seen policy for the most important and rewarding briefs awarded to the president’s inner circle; the “siloviki” military and security men who encouraged Putin’s drift to the belligerency that has set Moscow on a collision path with the West.

A trusted pair of hands, Lavrov has always been outside Putin’s inner circle. Still, Russia’s longest-serving foreign minister since the fall of the Soviet Union has enjoyed the trappings of life among the country’s new nobility, as have his jet-setting wife, daughter, alleged mistress and her daughter.

Despite persistent rumors that the Moscow-born envoy has long wanted out, Lavrov has remained in his post. While Russian troops fight and die in the fields of Ukraine, Lavrov is fighting his own losing battle to be taken seriously abroad.

“In some ways one could call him a prisoner of the system now, although it’s hard to feel any particular sympathy for someone in his position,” Mark Galeotti, the author of Putin’s Wars: From Chechnya to Ukraine, told Newsweek.

“On one level, the job of a diplomat is to lie for your country,” Galeotti continued. “However, how you lie and when you lie means a great deal; it affects the kind of price you pay. And the thing about Lavrov is precisely that with the things he’s had to do. He has paid a terrible price in terms of his credibility.”

“A man who, in his time, was an absolute titan of international diplomacy has now become—in some ways—a laughingstock,” Galeotti said. “Not to everyone, we shouldn’t overplay it. Lavrov is still wily and canny and can be a fairly charming operator. But still, he’s just a shadow of the Lavrov that once was.”

“He’s little more than the poor guy who follows the elephant with a dustpan and brush to clear up afterwards,” Galeotti said. “He doesn’t get to define the direction the elephant moves in.”

‘Damage Control’

Putin’s obsessive centralization of power has left Lavrov and the Foreign Ministry much diminished. Foreign policy has been fragmented between various Kremlin factions, Galeotti said, with Moscow’s direction more influenced by Putin’s main foreign adviser Yuri Ushakov than by Moscow’s chief diplomat.

“It’s the Defense Ministry that runs policy towards Syria, for example,” Galeotti said. “It’s Rosneft that runs policy towards Venezuela because of the importance of oil, and therefore [Rosneft CEO] Igor Sechin is critical. [Security Council Secretary Nikolai] Patrushev is essentially dominant over policy towards the Balkans. And in some ways, what’s left goes to meet the Foreign Ministry. For example, Afghanistan.”

Newsweek has contacted the Russian Foreign Ministry by email to request comment.

Lavrov is thought to have been left out of the decision-making process that spawned Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Alex Kokcharov, a risk analyst specializing in Russia and Ukraine, told Newsweek that Lavrov’s role is “damage control for what’s already been decided, even if it’s been decided against his advice.”

Being sidelined in such a fashion is not new for Lavrov. The foreign minister was also not involved in the plan and decision to annex Crimea in 2014, experts told Newsweek.

Vladimir Putin and Sergei Lavrov in Geneva
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is pictured next to Russian President Vladimir Putin as they wait for the U.S.-Russia summit at the Villa La Grange, in Geneva on June 16, 2021.BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

But while Putin sidestepped allegations that the “little green men” seizing sensitive sites on the peninsula were Russian troops, “Lavrov was one of the people who was essentially forced to hurl himself on that particular narrative grenade and flat out deny that they were Russian troops,” Galeotti said.

February’s invasion was supposed to be easy. But more than a year later, Russia is struggling to salvage any kind of success from its Ukraine quagmire and is framing its military gambit as a confrontation with the entire NATO-European Union sphere.

Lavrov has said Russia was already “de facto” at war with the West, and that the deepening conflict in Ukraine was part of an inevitable shift from American hegemony to true global multipolarity. This is a particularly important plank in Moscow’s appeal to the “global south,” where attitudes to the invasion of Ukraine range from apathetic to sympathetic to opportunistic.

Oleg Ignatov, nonprofit Crisis Group’s senior Russia analyst, told Newsweek that Lavrov’s ministry has become little more than “the press service of the Kremlin.”

But the veteran envoy still has some value in his reduced role. “Lavrov is still very good at what he does, let’s be honest, even when it comes to just simply being able to lie with a straight face,” Galeotti said. “Lavrov still plays well in the ‘global south.'”

Prisoner or Player?

Despite reported opposition to the ongoing war among Russia’s political and business elite, few are brave enough to break with Putin. Lavrov is rumored to have wanted to resign for years, with reports and experts suggesting he has repeatedly been blocked by Putin from doing so.

“Lavrov is not young—he’s 73—and his job is not very easy; constant travels, constant flights, jet lag, a lot of meetings, he has to examine a lot of documents,” Boris Bondarev, a former Russian diplomatic official at Moscow’s United Nations mission in Geneva, told Newsweek.

“It’s not an easy task,” said Bondarev, who resigned from his role in May 2022 in protest of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Still, the foreign minister shows no sign of leaving. “I’ve heard these rumors that he was tired and that he wanted to resign for many, many years,” Bondarev said. “Never has anything come out of this. So, I would say that all of these rumors are rumors.”

“He’s not an unwilling passenger. A true unwilling passenger would abandon the ship.”

Ignatov said Lavrov’s long stint indicates his priorities. “Lavrov is very loyal,” he said. “If he wanted to resign, he would resign […] Maybe he’s not satisfied with the war, maybe he didn’t expect this war. But I think Lavrov has many things in common with Putin. He has almost the same cynical vision about foreign policy and about politics in general.”

Relinquishing power in Russia is fraught with dangers. All those at the top are reportedly enmeshed with the kleptocratic corruption that drives and defines Putinism. And with the legal system so tightly bound to the Kremlin, there is no recourse for those who fall foul of Putin.

Retiring without permission “would be a direct challenge to ‘the boss.'” Galeotti said. “And that, in the current situation, is an unwise thing to do.”

Kokcharov said Putin and his allies have a “sufficient amount of ‘kompromat'” against Lavrov. “That’s the reason why all these corruption crimes are so well tolerated within the Russian system: they create the hook with which to threaten all these officials with prosecution if they stop being loyal.” Kompromat refers to the practice of amassing embarrassing or confounding information—fabricated or not—to be eventually used to against someone.

Lavrov would also be giving up a luxurious lifestyle, with which he is well rewarded for his unflinching public loyalty to Putin. “There are a lot of perks with this job,” Bondarev said. “People very quickly get used to all these advantages and privileges which follow with ministerial positions. I think it’s not very easy to abandon this.”

Diplomats walk out of Sergei Lavrov address
Ambassadors and diplomats walk out during an on-screen address by Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov at the 49th session of the UN Human Rights Council at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, on March 1, 2022.SALVATORE DI NOLFI/POOL/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Tied to Putinism

So long at the top also breeds self-importance. “When you are a minister for almost 20 years, you get used to thinking you are the best man to do this job, and whoever comes next after you may not be fit for the job,” Bondarev said.

“You cannot just leave. You must continue to press forward. I don’t think he was very happy about this war. I think no serious figures in the MFA [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] were really happy about this. Maybe only some morons.”

Like all the other unsettled elites outside of Putin’s immediate, and increasingly hawkish, inner circle, “he really believes that he can prevent the worst things [from happening,” Ignatov said. “They all think like this; they think they are indispensable.”

Lavrov’s fate is inextricably tied to Putin. “The only way out is if he develops a really bad health condition and he needs to step down and retire,” Kokcharov said.

The president still values Lavrov’s “capability and continuity” and “hates the idea of any major reshuffles at the top of his system,” Galeotti said. “And probably even more so now.”

“This is one of the main reasons for the increasingly gerontocratic nature of the Russian system; Putin doesn’t want to have to break in a new man.”

“It may be embarrassing and irksome, and he may well much rather be off doing whatever he wants to do in his retirement,” Galeotti said. “But the point is, what’s he going to do? He doesn’t have the muscle to be able to think in terms of being a senior figure in some kind of post-Putin Russia.

“I think actually that the end of the Putin regime would simply bring him blessed relief and allow him to leave the political scene.”


  1. “I think actually that the end of the Putin regime would simply bring him blessed relief and allow him to leave the political scene.”

    How in the hell does the author think that this war criminal will end his days in blessed relief? After the destruction of Vlad and his evil regime, the horse will either go to prison, or the Ukrainians will kill him.

    At any rate, this creature was never a real diplomat. He has been in charge of vomiting cheap ruskie propaganda bilge for years.

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