Threats, insults, and Kremlin ‘robots’: How Russian diplomacy died under Putin

Russia’s diplomats were once a key part of President Putin’s foreign policy strategy. But that has all changed.

In the years leading up to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, diplomats lost their authority, their role reduced to echoing the Kremlin’s aggressive rhetoric.

BBC Russian asks former diplomats, as well as ex-Kremlin and White House insiders, how Russian diplomacy broke down.

Short presentational grey line

In October 2021, US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland went to a meeting at the Russian foreign ministry in Moscow. The man across the table was Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, who Ms Nuland had known for decades and always got along with.

Mr Rybakov’s American counterparts saw him as a practical, calm negotiator – someone they could talk to even as the two countries’ relationship frayed.

This time, things were different.

Mr Ryabkov read Moscow’s official position from a piece of paper and resisted Ms Nuland’s attempts to start a discussion. Ms Nuland was shocked, according to two people who discussed the incident with her.

She described Mr Ryabkov and one of his colleagues as “robots with papers”, the people said (the State Department declined to comment on the incident).

And outside the negotiating room, Russian diplomats were using increasingly undiplomatic language.

Victoria Nuland

“We spit on Western sanctions.”

“Let me speak. Otherwise, you will really hear what Russian Grad missiles are capable of.”

“Morons” – preceded by an expletive.

These are all quotes from people in positions of authority at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in recent years.

How did we get here?

A new Cold War

It might be hard to imagine now, but Mr Putin himself told the BBC back in 2000 that “Russia is ready to co-operate with Nato… right up to joining the alliance”.

“I cannot imagine my country isolated from Europe,” he added.

Back then, early in his presidency, Mr Putin was eager to build ties with the West, a former senior Kremlin official told the BBC.

Russian diplomats were a key part of Mr Putin’s team, helping resolve territorial disputes with China and Norway, leading talks on deeper co-operation with European countries, and ensuring a peaceful transition after a revolution in Georgia.

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

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The first signal that a new Cold War was beginning came in 2007 with a speech Mr Putin made to the Munich Security Conference.

In a 30-minute diatribe, he accused Western countries of attempting to build a unipolar world. Russia’s diplomats followed his lead. A year later, when Russia invaded Georgia, Moscow’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reportedly swore at his UK counterpart, David Miliband, asking: “Who are you to lecture me?”

Western officials still thought it was worth trying to work with Russia. In 2009, Mr Lavrov and the then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pressed a giant red “reset button” in relations, and the two countries seemed to be building co-operation – especially on security issues.

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

Ben Rhodes (L) Obama and Denis McDonough (R)

Mr Rhodes recalls President Obama having breakfast with Mr Putin in 2009, accompanied by a folk orchestra. He says Mr Putin was more interested in presenting his view of the world than discussing co-operation and that the Russian leader blamed Mr Obama’s predecessor, George W Bush, for betraying Russia.

As the Arab Spring, the US involvement in Libya, and the Russian street protests unfolded in 2011 and 2012, Mr Putin decided that diplomacy wouldn’t get him anywhere, Mr Rhodes says.

“On certain issues – Ukraine in particular – I did not get the sense that [diplomats] had much influence at all,” says Mr Rhodes.

As an example, when Mr Lavrov, the foreign minister, was appointed nearly 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 to Mr Putin, says Mr Gabuev.

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

Obama and Putin meet in 2009

Andrei Kelin, Moscow’s ambassador to the UK, rejects the idea that Russian diplomats have lost their influence. He has worked on relations with Western countries throughout his diplomatic career.

In an interview with the BBC, he refused to concede that either Moscow or individual diplomats bear any responsibility for the collapse of relations with the West.

“We are not the ones doing the destroying,” he said. “We have problems with the Kyiv regime. There is nothing we can do about it.”

He says war in Ukraine is “a continuation of diplomacy by other means”.

Diplomacy as a spectacle

As foreign policy officials became less and less influential, they turned their attention back to Russia. Maria Zakharova, who became the ministry’s spokesperson in 2015, is a symbol of this new chapter.

“Before her, diplomats behaved like diplomats, speaking in refined expressions,” says former foreign ministry official Boris Bondarev, who resigned in protest over the war.

But with Ms Zakharova’s arrival, foreign ministry briefings became a spectacle. Ms Zakharova often yelled at reporters who asked her difficult questions and responded to criticism from other countries with insults.

Maria Zakharova

Her diplomatic colleagues were going the same way. Mr Bondarev, who used to work for Moscow’s mission to the UN in Geneva, recalls one meeting where Russia blocked all proposed initiatives, prompting colleagues from Switzerland to complain.

“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 says.

This approach was aimed at impressing Russians back home, says Mr Gabuev, the foreign policy analyst.

But an even more crucial target audience for diplomats is their own bosses, according to Mr Bondarev. Official telegrams sent to Moscow after foreign meetings are focussed on how passionately diplomats defended the country’s interests, he explains.

A typical message, according to him, would be something like: “We really gave them a hard time! We heroically defended Russian interests, and the Westerners couldn’t do anything and backed down!”

If everyone writes about “putting Westerners in their place” and you write that you “achieved consensus”, you will be looked at with disdain, he says.

Boris Bondarev

Mr Bondarev recalls a dinner in Geneva in January 2022 when Mr Ryabkov, from the foreign ministry, met US officials. US First Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman hoped to avert the invasion of Ukraine through 11th-hour negotiations.

“It was awful,” says Mr Bondarev. “The Americans were like, ‘Let’s negotiate.’ And instead Ryabkov starts shouting, ‘We need Ukraine! We won’t go anywhere without Ukraine! Take all your stuff and go back to the 1997 [Nato] borders!’ Sherman is an iron lady, but I think even her jaw dropped at this.

“[Ryabkov] was always very polite and really nice to talk to. And now he’s banging his fist on the table and talking nonsense.”

It should be noted that, in recent years, the diplomatic tone has changed in other countries too, albeit on a smaller scale.

A few years earlier, Japan’s representative for human rights at the UN, Hideaki Ueda, demanded that foreign colleagues “shut up” at a meeting. Gavin Williamson used the same words against Russia when he was the UK defence secretary. And Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany, Andriy Melnyk, last year referred to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz as an “offended liver sausage”.

The US can’t snap their fingers and end this war

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

Most of the people the BBC spoke to think it is highly unlikely. Usually, 95% of diplomats’ work is “unofficial meetings and having coffee”, explains Mr Bondarev. Such contacts have greatly declined, he says – there is no longer much to talk about.

Ambassador Kelin has been banned from entering the UK Parliament. At one point, he says, the Russian embassy in London was almost left without gas and electricity, and insurance companies refused to insure the mission’s cars.

Putin with Lavrov

Sooner or later, dialogue will have to happen, says RAND analyst Samuel Charap. The only alternative to negotiations is “absolute victory”, and it’s unlikely either Kyiv or Moscow could achieve this on the battlefield, he argues.

But he does not expect talks to happen soon. “Putin has changed pretty dramatically over the course of his term in power,” he says. “And frankly, I don’t know whether he’s going to be willing to engage.”

The Ukrainian authorities complain that Russia is once again offering ultimatums instead of compromises, such as demanding that Ukraine accepts the annexation of occupied territories. Kyiv has no intention to negotiate under such conditions, and its Western allies publicly support this decision.

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Russia seems set on relying on its military machine, intelligence services and geo-economic power for influence – rather than diplomacy.

In these dispiriting circumstances, why aren’t Russian diplomats simply voting with their feet and resigning from the foreign service altogether?

“It’s a problem for everyone who’s been stuck in their positions for 10 to 20 years,” a former Kremlin employee told the BBC. “There’s no other life for you. It’s terrifying.”

Mr Bondarev, the former diplomat, can relate to that. “If it hadn’t been for the war, I probably would have stayed and put up with it,” he says.

“The job isn’t so bad. You sit, suffer a bit and in the evening you go out.”

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