Saturday, April 15, 2017

Another Case of the Forest and the Trees: Safronkov’s Behavior Perfectly Reflects Putin’s

Paul Goble

            Staunton, April 15 – Commentators Russian and Western have had a field day with the outrageously undiplomatic comments of Moscow’s representative in the UN Security Council, but in the latest example of an inability to see the forest for the trees, to focus on an individual case and to ignore or even downplay the way in which it is part and parcel of the whole.

            Vladimir Safronkov’s language is nothing original: He has simply repeated the kind of thing his bosses, Vladimir Putin and Sergey Lavrov, have been saying for years, but attacking him is easier because he is a mid-level official and is thus not the same as condemning Putin or Lavrov for the same thing. (Cf.

            Now, however, two Moscow commentators have focused on that problem, with Ilya Milshteyn addressing how Putin regime has recruited and thus corrupted those who work for it ( and Stanislav Kucher considering  how statements like Safronkov’s reflect their true nature (

            In his Grani article, Milshteyn points out that “in present-day Russia people make careers in various ways” but “there is one thing that unifies all the rules: In order to move up or at least not lose his place, the government employee must occupy himself with his own tasks. He simply is required to revolt against laws and rules.”

            Indeed, it has gotten to the point under Putin that the more such individuals violate the rules, the higher they can go, with siloviki making ever more absurd accusations, judges jailing the innocent, and the government “imitating stormy activity, whose meaning reduces to declaring God forbid that anything should ever be changed.”

            This tendency is perhaps especially obvious in the diplomatic realm where its participants regularly say one thing in order to conceal or promote something else, Milsheyn says.  But now, “the most significant of our diplomats are involved in directly the opposite way.” They ignore etiquette and diplomatic niceties, and they constitute “a national shame.”

            Foreign Minister Lavrov has set the tone, following his boss, and Lavrov’s subordinates from his press spokesperson Mariya Zakharova down, do the same.  Those who mimic his crudeness and outrageousness best are the ones who can expect to make the most rapid ascent up the career ladder.

            The “most talented” among them just now is Safronkov, the deputy permanent representative at the UN. With his recent remarks, he has distinguished himself as even more adept at following the Putin system than his predecessor Vitaly Churkin and ensured that he will be promoted to permanent representative or even higher in the future.

            Kommersant observer Kucher seconds that idea but traces the Russian “diplomatic” approach back further to late Soviet times.   When he enrolled in MGIMO, Russia’s diplomatic training center, in 1989, he saw such crudities that he realized that the country’s future diplomats were “little distinguished from their provincial coevals.”

            “You’ll remember the old joke about girls and diplomats,” he continues.  “If a diplomat says ‘yes,’ this means ‘perhaps;’ if he says ‘perhaps,’ this means ‘no.’ If, however, the diplomat says ‘no,’ then he is already not a diplomat.’  With a girl everything is just the reverse: ‘no’ means ‘perhaps,’ ‘perhaps means ‘yes,’ and ‘yes’ means that she isn’t a girl.”

            Putin has introduced a new trend, and Russian diplomats don’t speak or act like diplomats, Kucher says; and in one way, Kucher says, one can even be grateful for him: now Russian diplomats like the Russian president feel free to speak exactly as they think in an unvarnished way  – or more precisely how they assume the Kremlin leader does the same.

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