The Perpetually Misunderstood Sergei Lavrov

May 17, 2013
Foreign Minister of Russia Sergei Lavrov. Photo: AP

Within the space of the last 24 hours, the New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have shed more light on the steady and unchanged nature of the Russian-Syrian military relationship.

First, the Times reported that Russia has sent advanced Yakhont anti-ship missiles to Syria “outfitted with an advanced radar that makes them more effective” and provides Damascus with “a formidable weapon to counter any effort by international forces to reinforce Syrian opposition fighters by imposing a naval embargo, establishing a no-fly zone or carrying out limited airstrikes.” (Two weeks ago, the Israeli Air Force destroyed presumably less-advanced versions of the Yakhont systems in a series of bombing sorties on Damascus.)

Next, the Journal reported that Russia has sent a dozen warships to the Mediterranean, close to its leased naval base (really more of a naval service station) at the Syrian port of Tartus, and that it is “moving more quickly than previously thought to deliver S-300 surface-to-air defense systems to Syria.”

Although it was reported last week that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had acceded to U.S. and Israeli pressure not to sell the S-300s to Syria — news of their imminent delivery was leaked to the Journal by Israeli intelligence officials — he in fact did no such thing. His statements were as clear and consistent as they have been since the start of the Syrian conflict.

Lavrov always maintains that Russia intends to fulfill all “outstanding” contracts signed with the Assad regime, in accordance with “international law.” He provides no details as to what those contracts stipulate, or what materiel is queued-up for delivery, but the implication he draws is that everything from attack helicopter spare parts to S-300s may be on offer. It doesn’t matter what new diplomatic initiatives are being concocted, these deals will not be reneged or re-negotiated.

“Missile defense systems are delivered to protect the country that buys them from air strikes,” Lavorv affirmed in an interview with the Lebanese television channel al-Mayadeen. “But these contracts were signed long before air strikes on Syria were launched last year and now.”

These disclosures, while predictable, are nevertheless embarrassing to Secretary of State John Kerry, who returned from Moscow a week ago optimistic that the United States and Russia were finally getting somewhere on resolving the two-year-old Syria crisis. As Kerry and Lavrov announced at their smiling, palm-slapping joint press conference, a major summit is scheduled to take place in the coming weeks based on the year-old Geneva protocol. That UN-brokered communique, itself premised on the six-point plan conceived by former UN Syria envoy Kofi Annan (remember him?), has meant different things to the Washington and Moscow — particularly as it concerns the political fate of Bashar al-Assad. For now, however, divergent interpretations are to be sidelined in favor of bilateral comity. At the conference, the Americans will try to produce the Syrian opposition in the form of the politically-focused Syrian National Coalition and the militarily-focused Supreme Military Command, and the Russians will try to produce the Assad regime. All, some, or none may ultimately show, while Iran’s RSVP has suddenly become another pressing matter of geopolitical contention.

Meanwhile, it’s impossible not to feel just a tiny bit sorry for Sergei Lavrov, the perpetually misunderstood diplomat.

“I do not understand why the media is trying to sensationalize this,” the po-faced foreign minister said during a press conference today with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon. He simply cannot grasp how much more plangently he must state the truth about Russia’s foreign policy orientation, or why members of the Obama administration or the international press corps choose to render that orientation as some kind of dirty-crook-made-you-look piece of cunning statecraft, or susceptible to barter.

When Lavrov says x, he is not kidding or posturing or waiting for someone to come along and offer him an inducement to get him to do y. Reassuring Russia that it will get to keep its port at Tartous after Assad is out of power is a very nice gesture, but Russia intends to keep its port anyway by ensuring Assad never leaves power.

Perhaps fearing the next round of bemused media interrogation, Lavrov further elaborated to al-Mayadeen that the Kremlin’s Syria policy is not contingent on separate U.S.-Russian debates over missile defense in Eastern Europe, nuclear disarmament worldwide, or northern distribution networks to Afghanistan.

Poor thing.  I’m sure someone in the White House will disagree with him and try all over again to get Lavrov to change his mind.