Feature

Minister No

Sergei Lavrov and the blunt logic of Russian power.

In the mid-19th century, Russia was not doing well. It had just been humiliated in the Crimean War, and the other European great powers were busy intriguing about the tsarist empire's frontiers now that the Turks had stopped Russian expansion to the Black Sea. It was in response to these setbacks that Alexander Gorchakov, the prince who served as Russia's foreign minister, issued his famous diplomatic circular. "Russia is not sulking," he proclaimed. "She is composing herself."

By the late 1990s, that must have sounded like a perfect retort to a Russian nationalist whose country was on the ropes. Yevgeny Primakov, a crusty old product of the Soviet diplomatic corps elevated to foreign minister by an increasingly beleaguered President Boris Yeltsin, dusted off the tsarist history books and resurrected Gorchakov as a model for a new Russian diplomacy. He cited him in speeches, wrote a long article extolling Gorchakov's clever realpolitik maneuvers, and even installed his bust in the creaky grandeur of the Foreign Ministry, a Stalinist Gothic skyscraper filled with thousands of underemployed and barely paid bureaucrats still reeling from the Soviet Union's abrupt collapse a few years earlier and the Russian state's quick descent into financial crisis, international debt, and even, on its southern frontier, civil war. So what if we had a few setbacks, Primakov seemed to be saying; Russia can still be a great power. And to prove it: Here's our very own Bismarck.

It wasn't entirely a surprise then, when not quite an hour into my recent audience with the current Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, the 19th-century prince again made an appearance. I had asked the famously combative Lavrov what had changed in Russia's foreign policy since Vladimir Putin had returned to power in the Kremlin last year. I had in mind the angry recriminations between the United States and Russia once again making front-page headlines, the tit-for-tat new laws banning human rights-violating Russian officials from America -- and American citizens from adopting Russian babies. Or perhaps the tense negotiations over the bloody civil war in Syria, as the United States accused Russia of propping up Bashar al-Assad's murderous regime. Or the angry words exchanged near daily on subjects as diverse as missile defense, gay rights, and the arrest of the Putin-protesting punk band Pussy Riot.

But Lavrov, a diplomat since the Brezhnev era who has spent a lifetime haggling, blustering, scheming, and speechifying on behalf of the battered Russian state ("his religion," one top U.S. official told me), chose to go in a different direction, right back in history to Alexander Gorchakov. He cited the princely foreign minister as an example of the blunt style in Russian politics, as a reason for why Russia has absolutely no intention of following America's lead in the Arab world -- or, by extension, anywhere else. Gorchakov, Lavrov proudly noted, had managed "the restoration of the Russian influence in Europe after the defeat in the Crimean War, and he did it … without moving a gun. He did it exclusively through diplomacy."

When Lavrov did get around to the question at hand, of foreign policy in Putin's Russia, he offered a sharp lecture on how the Kremlin's boss had managed to make Russia great again after the indignities of the 1990s -- and, more to the point, how a great Russia can once again afford to have an "assertive" foreign policy:

As for the changes in the Russian foreign policy, yes, we have more domestic strength, if you wish. We have become stronger economically; we have been successfully resolving the social problems, raising the level of living -- the standards of living -- of the population. Yes, a lot is to be done. But the change is very much noticed. And we feel the change. And Russia feels more assertive -- not aggressive, but assertive. And we have been getting out of the situation where we found ourselves in the early '90s when the Soviet Union disappeared and the Russian Federation became what it is -- you know, with no borders, with no budget, no money, and with huge problems starting with lack of food and so on and so forth. It is a very different country now. And of course we can now pay more attention to looking after our legitimate interests in the areas where we were absent for quite some time after the demise of the Soviet Union.

The areas he mentioned? Africa, Latin America, Asia. In other words, pretty much the entire rest of the world. The message was clear if chilling to those who remember what the assertive foreign policy of the Soviet era looked like: Russia is not sulking, and she is just about done composing herself.

LAVROV, AT AGE 63, is already the longest-serving of Russia's post-Cold War foreign ministers. Hard-drinking, hard-charging, a relentless and smart negotiator who has by turns infuriated and impressed his many diplomatic interlocutors over the years, he has come, more than anyone perhaps aside from Putin himself, to personify Russia's return to the world stage.

Whatever you think of Lavrov personally -- "he's a complete asshole," one former official from George W. Bush's administration told me bluntly -- it's his relentless willingness to take on the United States globally, to challenge, whenever and wherever possible, America's view of itself as the indispensable power, that has earned him admirers among his often more tactful counterparts. "He's certainly got to be among the most effective foreign ministers in the world today," the foreign minister of another major emerging power told me not long ago.

This resurgent Russia may have far fewer diplomatic tools at its disposal than its Soviet predecessor, but Lavrov has figured out how to leverage them to maximum advantage, first as Russia's ambassador to the United Nations for a decade and, since 2004, as foreign minister. At the United Nations, "his two objectives were always the same: veto things for the greater glory of Russia and to take the Americans down whenever possible," recalled John Negroponte, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who served alongside him on the Security Council. It's still Lavrov's playbook now, back in the Stalinist skyscraper on Moscow's Garden Ring.

To the Americans with whom he has clashed, that makes Lavrov a sort of sophisticated Soviet retread in an Italian suit, an updated Mr. Nyet, as Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko was dubbed for the relish with which he frequently deployed the veto at the Security Council in the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and '80s. "He's a modern version of Mr. No, a latter-day Gromyko," said David Kramer, a former assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration and now head of the U.S. democracy-promotion group Freedom House. "Like Russians in general, he wants respect, so they look for ways to exercise the veto," agreed Kramer's onetime boss, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. "Unfortunately, Russia has no positive ways to exercise power right now, so it's negative," she told me.

But to many others, Lavrov's endless capacity for defying the Americans is exactly the point. Russia may have few true friends in its weakened, post-Soviet state -- long gone are the generous, regime-propping subsidies from Moscow, the sweetened arms sales and the spigots of aid for fellow travelers -- but there are many emerging powers who cheer (if often behind closed doors) Lavrov's willingness to defy the superpower, to poke and prod it with evidence of hypocrisy and self-righteousness. To simply say: No.

Both those who silently root for Russia and those who deplore the Kremlin's hard turn tend to see in Lavrov a global alternative to the American way. But he's not your grandfather's America-hater.

After Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee in last year's U.S. election, called Russia the "No. 1 geopolitical foe" of the United States, Lavrov publicly mocked such "Cold War black-and-white thinking" as "absurd." And when we met, Lavrov deftly fended off any suggestion of the United States as Russia's "adversary" -- this in spite of a brand-new Russian foreign-policy "concept," issued by Putin just weeks before, that proclaims the central role of Russia in the world as one of balancing. Against what, I asked Lavrov, are you balancing if not the United States? He did not answer.

His response came in different form later in the interview. "I don't believe in ideology in international relations," Lavrov said. "I started, you know, to work as a diplomat during the Soviet days, and in spite of ideology being very high on the Communist Party agenda, I can assure you that in practical terms we have always been trying to be pragmatic. And this is the case now."

It's certainly not a positive conception of the world; you will never hear a visionary speech from Lavrov or pleas for brotherhood, and he most decidedly does not wax poetic about anything (despite what a friend told me is his hobby of writing Russian verse). Clearly, he believes Americans are hopeless idealists, and he loves to tweak them about it, whether reminding them about the overblown initial hopes for the Arab Spring or jabbing them with evidence of how their interventions in the Middle East, from Iraq to Libya, have backfired.

But his primary mission is not America-bashing -- it is Russia-promoting. "He is Mr. Nyet in the eyes of Americans. But actually he's not Gromyko; he's not Primakov. It was wrong," a longtime Russian colleague of Lavrov's told me when we met in Moscow. "Lavrov's toughness comes from a very patriotic stance. He thinks there was lost time in the '90s.… He thought the '90s were humiliation for Russia, and his ambition is to restore the profile of Russia, its foreign policy."

In other words, being against America is a tactic for Lavrov, not a strategy. "If he has any moral compass, my Geiger counter hasn't clicked into it," said Negroponte. "His morality is the Russian state."

For the last two years, Lavrov has dramatically elevated his profile on the world stage. He has done so by almost single-handedly defying Western attempts to force some united action to stop Syria's deadly civil war. To Americans and Europeans appalled by the carnage -- there are already 70,000 dead and an estimated 3 million people driven from their homes -- Lavrov is a nasty if effective shill for the tyrannical Assad regime, a major Russian-arms customer representing the last vestige of Soviet power in the Middle East. By that reasoning, if Lavrov can be made to see Assad's case as hopeless, he can be made to give up on supporting him. But every Russian with whom I spoke for this article, from Lavrov himself to the most fervent political foes of the Putin government, had a different explanation: Lavrov's fight to block Western intervention in Syria is not about Syria but about Russia. It is about the principle that matters above all else to Lavrov and his boss in the Kremlin -- that Russia should be allowed to do whatever it wants on its own turf. Brutal crackdowns on protesters, crushing internal rebellions, anything it takes.

When we met, I asked Lavrov about why the Americans kept thinking they would change his position on Syria, coming back to him again and again with new proposals that he promptly rebuffed. After a few sentences of reflection, he pulled a small white piece of paper out of his pocket. It was a quote from Alexander Gorchakov that he had brought expressly to share with me. "Foreign intervention into the domestic matters is unacceptable," he read. "It is unacceptable to use force in international relations, especially by the countries who consider themselves leaders of civilization."

Boris Yelenin/AFP/GettyImages

SERGEI VIKTOROVICH LAVROV was born on March 21, 1950, in the twilight days of Stalin, a few years before Gromyko began his long run in the job of saying no. A classic product of the later Soviet era, he was born in Moscow to an Armenian father and ethnically Russian mother from Georgia, according to diplomatic sources. Although reported to be a bright physics student, he found his way to the prestigious Moscow State Institute of International Relations, known by its Russian initials MGIMO and still today the only academic pedigree acceptable for a top Russian diplomat. After graduating in 1972, his first assignment at the Foreign Ministry was obscure -- language training in Sinhala followed by several years working with the Russian ambassador to Sri Lanka -- but then in 1981 he was sent to the Soviet mission at the United Nations, where he would spend much of his career before being named foreign minister.

This was no gray apparatchik. At the United Nations, Lavrov was an outsized character who often dominated the Security Council with his cutting remarks, edgy humor, physically imposing build, and big personality. He was known for his enthusiastic smoking and love of fine scotch, as well as for heading off to Vermont to go skiing when the Turtle Bay schedule permitted. In the summers, he went white-water rafting. "He drank like a fish," recalled one Western ambassador who served on the Security Council at the same time. "He definitely drank well before noon." When the U.N. banned smoking in 2003, he staged his own protest, refusing to stop puffing while vehemently complaining that then-Secretary-General Kofi Annan "doesn't own this building." He was famous as well for his drawings: Colleagues, according to David Bosco's book, Five to Rule Them All, would snap up from his chair the doodles Lavrov loved to sketch during the interminable debates.

"He wears fine Italian clothes and loves good wine. The Middle East drove him crazy. When we were in Kuwait he would complain about the lack of alcohol. He smoked like a chimney," recalled another former senior U.S. official who spent many hours across the table from him. "He reminds you of what diplomats used to look like in the 19th century."

Andrei Kozyrev, who would go on to become post-Soviet Russia's first foreign minister, also remembers Lavrov well, as the secretary of the Komsomol -- the Communist Youth League -- for his class at MGIMO, a few years ahead of Kozyrev. It was a prestigious title, the first of many. "He was always a socializing guy," he recalled, "always very friendly."

I reached Kozyrev recently in retirement in Florida. Kozyrev had been tapped in 1991 by Yeltsin to run the ossified Foreign Ministry, and he was determined to give Russia a new foreign policy for a new democracy, allying with the West it was trying to emulate at home. Needless to say, it didn't stick. In 1996, with Yeltsin struggling for his political survival against a possible Communist return to power, he unceremoniously fired Kozyrev in favor of the more old-fashioned hard-liner Yevgeny Primakov. All that switching of gears made it a bewildering time for Russia's Soviet-trained diplomats: "I made a U-turn," Kozyrev said. "Then Primakov was another almost U-turn. It's like they [the career diplomats] are a very good professional driver, a chauffeur. Why should you give up driving if your passengers are changing directions? One wants to go to the west, one to the east."

Kozyrev laughed out loud when I told him that Lavrov had cited the 19th-century Prince Gorchakov as a model for today's Russian diplomacy. He recalled how Primakov had also tried to resurrect Gorchakov. "They all pretend they are doing realpolitik, but it's realpolitik of two centuries ago," he said. "That's the problem with Russia: The world has changed. Europe is not at war, and no one wants to negotiate with us. The world has changed, but Russia prefers to pretend it has not."

At the same time, Kozyrev was surprisingly complimentary of Lavrov. "At least it's a sophisticated choice," he said. He recalled comments in recent years by various Putin allies praising Stalin's foreign minister, Vyacheslav Molotov, author of the secret treaty with the Nazis carving up Eastern Europe. "It's better to pretend you follow Gorchakov than you follow Molotov," he said. "Lavrov is much better than that."

"Still," Kozyrev added, "he's a Soviet-breed diplomat. We were all brought up in the Soviet system, which professed a kind of ideological confrontation with the West." But for Kozyrev and many other Russians with whom I have spoken, this reflexive saber rattling is not in fact about the United States so much as it is about regime survival. "They are not looking for a real 'war' of confrontation with the West. It is domestically driven," he said, and as he made the point, it was hard not to think of the tens of thousands of protesters in the streets of Moscow after Putin announced his return to the Kremlin in the fall of 2011, of the ongoing legal crackdown against the movement's leaders, and of the frequent Russian government efforts -- by Putin, Lavrov, and many others -- to blame the demonstrations on the hidden hand of the United States. "In Russian foreign policy, nationalism -- patriotism -- is defined as opposition to the West. It was also an internal political instrument for the Soviet elite. It compensates for their lack of political legitimacy."

At least, he concluded, somewhat awkwardly, "Lavrov is able to present this ugly foreign policy in the most civilized way to the West."

EPA/GRIGORY DUKOR/POOL

ONCE, AT THE END of a long evening of diplomatic niceties, Condoleezza Rice listened as Lavrov reminisced about the night the Soviet Union broke up -- Dec. 25, 1991, when Mikhail Gorbachev abruptly resigned and just like that 15 separate states were born. "He said he didn't know what country he represented anymore," recalled the former U.S. secretary of state. To Rice, this sense of angst and dislocation, of a patriot bereft, was "a way to explain Sergei: He was intensely pro-Russian. And Russia was trying to find out where it fit after the Soviet Union."

Lavrov had started off well -- then clashed intensively -- with both Rice and her successor, Hillary Clinton. To aides who observed their interactions up close, that was not surprising. Coming from the macho, virtually all-male upper echelons of the Russian system, Lavrov did not strike his American interlocutors as adept at dealing with women. And neither Rice nor Clinton had much interest in his Mad Men-like pursuits -- scotch, hunting, and the like.

Lavrov had a particular knack for infuriating Rice: He had "perfected the art of irritating Rice," wrote Glenn Kessler, who covered her for the Washington Post. "He knew how to push her buttons to get her annoyed," said Kramer, Rice's former assistant secretary. "He knew exactly which ones to push."

In her memoir, No Higher Honor, Rice wrote that she and Lavrov initially "developed a good relationship, slightly formal and sometimes contentious. He was, like me, a natural debater who didn't mind verbal combat." Later in her tenure, however, she increasingly came to see him as a bully, out not only to project a new Russian assertiveness on the world stage but to do so whenever possible at U.S. expense. Once, their closed-door sparring over dinner at a G-8 summit meeting in 2006 was accidentally broadcast on a closed circuit to all the reporters in her traveling entourage. Amid the clinking of glasses and the sounds of cutlery, Rice and Lavrov could be heard clashing over Iraq. At one point Lavrov told Rice he couldn't back a new aid program. She pointed out testily that the Iraqis themselves and the U.N. had endorsed it, "but if that's how Russia sees it, that's fine." She was particularly appalled when he took after her deputy, veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns, at another dinner in 2006. After Lavrov "had taken the unusual step of chastising Nick," Rice recounted in her book, the evening's host, British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, leapt to Burns's defense. "I don't take kindly to ministers assaulting other people's [lower-ranking] officials at my dinner table," Rice quoted her as saying.

The final straw came during Russia's invasion of Georgia in the summer of 2008. The small former Soviet republic in the South Caucasus had become a sore point in U.S. relations with Russia as it leaned openly toward the West under its firebrand young reformist leader, Mikheil Saakashvili, and Putin in particular was infuriated by perceived American meddling in what he still considered to be the Russian sphere of influence. As Saakashvili openly talked of joining NATO and tensions in two Georgian breakaway provinces under Russian protection escalated, the Russians determined that enough was enough and invaded under the pretext of coming to the defense of South Ossetia, one of the territories.

When the Russian troops entered Georgia that August (after the Georgians started shooting first), Lavrov was certainly not quoting any 19th-century statesmen about the unacceptability of force in international relations. He quickly reached Rice by telephone on vacation at the Greenbrier Hotel, but said little beyond "a stream of invectives," as she recalled it in her book. On the second call, he had three demands. The first two had mostly to do with ceasing hostilities, and Rice was fine with them. "The other demand," she quoted Lavrov as saying, "is just between us. Misha Saakashvili has to go." Rice threw a fit:

"Sergei, the secretary of state of the United States does not have a conversation with the Russian foreign minister about overthrowing a democratically elected president," I said. "The third condition has just become public because I'm going to call everyone I can and tell them that Russia is demanding the overthrow of the Georgian president."

"I said it was between us," he repeated.… The whole thing had an air of the Soviet period, when Moscow had controlled the fate of leaders throughout Eastern Europe. I was certainly not going to be party to a return to those days.

Rice was not the only Western leader angered by Lavrov during the crisis. At one point, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had flown to Moscow in a round of shuttle diplomacy to try to secure a cease-fire. According to an internal State Department cable later made public by WikiLeaks, Sarkozy flew into a rage at Lavrov, concerned that Russia was scuttling the cease-fire. "Sarkozy caught the Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov by the lapel of his jacket, and called him a liar," the cable said. "Sarkozy seems to have warned Russia that its position as a 'major power' had been seriously damaged by its refusal to respect its obligations."

By the time Clinton was sworn in as secretary of state the next January, the politics had shifted again, and the Georgia war notwithstanding, new U.S. President Barack Obama had loudly proclaimed his intention to "reset" relations with Russia from the Bush-era deep freeze. To the astonishment of Rice's embittered Russia hands, Clinton even held a gag photo op with Lavrov in which she handed him a green box tied with red ribbon; inside was a large "reset" button to signal the change in policy. Lavrov gamely played along for the cameras even though the Americans had botched the Russian word and given him something that said "peregruzka" -- "overcharged" -- instead of "perezagruzka," the correct word for "reset." (The headline in the Russian newspaper Kommersant the next day: "Sergei Lavrov and Hillary Clinton push the wrong button.")

Despite the bad omen, the reset policy held for a time, and the Americans at least perceived Lavrov to be, as one of its architects said later, "fully on board." With Putin term-limited out of the Kremlin and running things from a temporary perch as the Russian prime minister, Obama had a friendlier interlocutor in the form of the iPad-wielding young modernizer Dmitry Medvedev, installed by Putin to keep his seat warm in the presidency. Lavrov still ruled at the Foreign Ministry, and like the chauffeur of Andrei Kozyrev's analogy, he smoothly steered the car where Medvedev seemed to want to take it. That meant negotiating a new nuclear arms reduction treaty with the United States, signing off on an agreement to open a crucial route through Russia and former Soviet Central Asia into Afghanistan to supply U.S. troops fighting in Afghanistan, and a much more amiable surround sound to the relationship.

By the spring of 2011, when the Arab Spring revolutions had broken out and Muammar al-Qaddafi was threatening to crush the rebellious city of Benghazi, Russia even went so far as to abstain on, rather than veto, a U.S.-brokered resolution at the U.N. Security Council authorizing a no-fly zone to protect Libyan civilians. But the resolution proved to be the high-water mark of the reset, not a turning point.

Ever since, Lavrov has been furiously accusing the Americans of a bait-and-switch (just as furiously denied by them): He insists that Russia never gave its permission for the Qaddafi-toppling Western military intervention that followed. A few months later, in September 2011, Putin announced his return to the Kremlin, and Lavrov adjusted the car course again. To this day, U.S. officials with whom I spoke disagree about what happened with Lavrov on Libya: Had he been caught between Medvedev and Putin, trying to please the boss only to find out the other boss was mad? Or had he objected behind the scenes and been overruled? "One thing's for sure," a senior U.S. official reflected, "Sergei Lavrov knows how to use the Russian veto when he wants to."

Whatever happened, Lavrov soon made Syria his cause. This time, there would be no Western intervention sanctioned by the United Nations. At least not if he could help it.

Along with the harder line came the inevitable souring of relations with Clinton. "Over time it just stopped working," the senior U.S. official said. "It was part personal, part substance. For her it was Syria. He just would not engage and stuck to the talking points."

Not long before I met with Lavrov, I asked another senior Obama administration official to describe U.S.-Russia interactions on Syria, which by this point amounted to almost two full years of agonizingly repetitive -- and notably ineffective -- efforts to talk about a problem on which neither side was budging. The United States was still publicly insisting that Assad would have to leave as part of any settlement and continued, clearly in vain by this point, to think it was trying to persuade the Russians to get on board with some collective action at the U.N. Security Council. Lavrov was not buying it, and Clinton herself was very skeptical, though she would say things to aides like: Well, if there's even a 3 percent chance of this working, we should try. "The meetings on Syria with Lavrov are all about the same," the official told me. "We say, 'Look: The writing's on the wall. He [Assad] has to go; you're dragging this out.' He says, 'It's not up to us. It's not our call. You're creating a civil war, giving the country to the extremists.'"

And this is in fact more or less precisely what Lavrov said to me when the subject came up.

At their meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in the fall of 2011, Clinton surprised Lavrov by interrupting him as he read through his standard-issue talking points -- a favorite Lavrov tactic that involves his coming to almost every high-level meeting with cards filled with points to raise that run the gamut of importance from grave matters of war and peace to complaining about Americans not buying enough Russian AK-47s for the Afghan army. "No matter what, he's just going to work through his 27 points. He'll do a complaint about [arrested Russian arms dealer] Viktor Bout right next to Syria," the official said.

Clinton had had enough.

"Sergei," she interrupted him. "What about Syria?"

But the meeting produced no breakthrough; it only accelerated their increasing divide. Meanwhile, Putin and Lavrov took to blaming Clinton publicly for the election-related turmoil in the streets of Moscow; for her part, Clinton warned Russia sternly not to attempt to "re-Sovietize" its neighbors. When the opposition cried foul after the December 2011 parliamentary elections and Clinton labeled them "neither free nor fair," that was the final straw. "In their view, she is this neocon of the Obama administration," said one top official. "They wanted to discredit her, and they were just elated when she left."

The low point came last December, during Clinton's final days in office, when the U.S. Congress passed the Magnitsky Act. Named for 37-year-old lawyer Sergei Magnitsky, who died in jail after investigating what he claimed was a massive fraud on the part of Russian bureaucrats, the law established a blacklist for entry to the United States of Russian officials accused of human rights violations. A furious Putin cleared the way for a retaliatory measure in the Russian Duma, barring Americans from adopting Russian children. Putin's response was so fast and angry that Lavrov apparently did not get the message quickly enough and reiterated his previous opposition to the law, since it contradicted an agreement on adoptions he had spent many months painstakingly working out with the State Department. It was the first time anyone could remember Lavrov publicly disagreeing with Putin. He soon got with the program, however.

By the time we spoke, he was back to being the hardheaded chauffeur; Putin was directing the car and he would steer where ordered, even if it meant retaliating against small children in defense of corrupt bureaucrats. There would be no softhearted remarks about the poor Russian orphans. "This is not our choice," he lectured me, "but this is the law of the politics. You always reciprocate. Positively, negatively, but this is something which you cannot change. It was not invented by us. It is the law of international relations."

Soon after the Magnitsky-related tit for tat, Clinton's successor, John Kerry, was sworn into office, and the cycle began again. Right away, he was being lauded in the Russian media; here was a man Russia could do business with. Alexei Pushkov, chairman of the Duma's international relations committee, said Kerry and Lavrov were practically soul mates, "professional pragmatists" who would get along splendidly. When I asked Lavrov about that description, he nodded vigorously in agreement. Then he added, "John Kerry is a professional. He is pragmatic. And this is a very important quality for a diplomat and especially for a secretary of state."

But it wouldn't be easy. After a North Korean nuclear test during one of his first weeks on the job, Kerry placed calls to all his counterparts who deal with the North Korea issue. Lavrov was the only one who couldn't be reached. When they eventually connected by phone, it was five days later. Negroponte laughed about this when we spoke. "We could never reach Lavrov when we needed to, either."

Salah Malkawi/Getty Images

Haraz N. Ghanbari/Pool via AFP/Getty Images

AT THE END OF OUR INTERVIEW, I asked Lavrov what seemed to be a couple of throwaway questions about his biography, two softballs. Why had he decided to study an obscure language like Sinhala at the beginning of his diplomatic career? And why did he choose white-water rafting of all sports for his recreation?

The reaction was not what I expected. A flash of anger went across his composed face, and he stood up abruptly from his chair, switching from fluent English to Russian as he shouted across the table at Alexander Lukashevich, head of the Foreign Ministry's press service: Why didn't you tell me what time it is. It was not a question but a demand. To me, he said curtly, also in Russian: "No, I'm not doing that. I'm not answering these." He pulled his microphone off his jacket and started to leave -- then turned back briefly, shook my hand, and stalked out of the room without another word.

We were left alone in the threadbare splendor of his ministerial conference room, with its vaguely imperial yellow wallpaper and small oil paintings of pre-revolutionary Russia. The hallways on the seventh floor where Lavrov has his office are lined with fraying carpets and on the walls are portraits of all the Russian foreign ministers. Gorchakov is there with the rest of the tsarist officials and, on the other side of the corridor, the Soviets, starting with Trotsky and going on to Molotov, Gromyko, and the rest. Soon, I was told, the increasingly run-down skyscraper, built by prisoners after World War II as a sort of monument to Stalin's triumph, is scheduled to have a major renovation.

I asked Lukashevich why Lavrov had stayed on for so long as foreign minister, even re-upping for a new term when Putin returned to the presidency last year despite persistent rumors he would retire. At nine years and counting, he is by far the longest-serving of Russia's post-Soviet foreign ministers. "He's perfect," Lukashevich said simply. "He's the perfect man for the job."

Illustration by Piotr Lesniak for FP

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