26 February 2017

Who Will Be the New Messengers of the Kremlin?

It can be hard to empathise with the messengers of the regime that annexed Crimea and threw Eastern Ukraine into a conflict that has cost thousands of lives, and displaced more than 1 million people – let alone those who defended the Kremlin's bombing of Aleppo.

But two new, thoughtful pieces of analysis – without justifying either the actions of Vladimir Putin's Russia or glibly saying "Don't Shoot the Messenger" – pose the important question. Who will follow Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Ambassador to the United Nations who passed away this week? Likewise, who will succeed Sergey Lavrov, Putin's Foreign Minister who since the annexation of Crimea has seemed to be less and less convinced of the words of justification he seems compelled to utter?

Samantha Power, who for the past four years was the Obama Administration's counterpart to Churkin at the UN, writing in the New York Times, makes a strong case for continuing close engagement with figures such as Churkin (although we don't yet know who will be his successor) – not least on the basis that he would often spend days trying to find a compromise on resolutions at the UN over Syria and other issues, only to have his hard work rejected by Moscow, compelling him to exercise the Russian veto in the Security Council.

Just on the eve of Churkin's death, Mark Galeotti, writing for bne IntelliNews, raised a similar question, but about the other top diplomat of Russia – Foreign Minister Lavrov. Lavrov "has essentially been excluded from the inner circle setting foreign policy and is instead relegated to the role of articulating and defending an increasingly untenable and incredible official line," writes Galeotti. Real authority "has passed to 'adhocrats', figures made presidential plenipotentiaries regardless of their official role," he writes. There have long been rumours that Lavrov wants to retire, writes Galeotti, but "the wider implications are worrying," he writes. "FSB security briefings appear to have more weight than ambassadorial cables. The result is an impoverishment of policy."

With the development in the first month of the Trump Administration that senior military staff were no longer core members of the US National Security Council, while Trump's Chief Strategist, ex-Breitbart News Chair, Steve Bannon, would be there, we were facing the prospect of "policy-setters" shaping the US security agenda without heeding the advice and reality check of military and security professionals. At least in the US, with the departure of Trump's initial appointee Michael Flynn, we now have in incoming US National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster a figure who is clearly not buying Bannon's populist agenda. In fact, the US foreign policy team (except the President himself) is beginning to look credible and professional – unlike his domestic policy team.

We now await Putin's choice for successor to Churkin, and in time, to Lavrov...

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