Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov excels in dark art of propaganda

Sharp edge of reality fails to jolt top Moscow diplomat out of stride, despite nuisance facts

The face-to-face meeting between Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba was largely a depressing rehearsal of two conflicting narratives, but perhaps most revealing for what it showed about Russia’s siege mentality and consummate ability to relabel objective truths as western lies.

The meeting was also notable for the Ukrainians starting to develop an argument that they are prepared for an alternative to Nato membership, so long as the country is given security and economic guarantees underwritten by the west and Russia.

Kuleba stressed in an interview with the Turkish public broadcaster TRT that Ukraine was unwilling to give up the possibility of Nato membership yet, but could see these guarantees as either an alternative or a staging post to Nato.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy admitted he had gone colder on Nato in recent weeks given its refusal to use its collective strength to help his country.


Moscow’s ‘approach’

Lavrov said these remarks “showed there were some signs that the Ukrainian president Zelenskiy is starting to understand our approach”. But it is hard to envisage what credible security guarantees Moscow could give any western government – early on at his press conference, Lavrov said “Russia has no plans to attack other countries, we have not even attacked Ukraine”.

He later justified the attack on Mariupol’s maternity hospital by saying Russia had warned at the UN days earlier that the hospital had been taken over by Azov battalion, a right-wing, neo-Nazi militia battalion initially formed after the invasion of Crimea in 2014.

“All the mothers that were about to give birth were chased out of there,” he claimed. “It is not the first time we see pathetic outcries concerning so-called atrocities perpetrated by the Russian military. Unfortunately the other side is never looked at.”

He then became irritated when western journalists, who he regards as state propagandists, tried to point out there were pictures of children killed at the hospital. “Oh, this is the third time I’ve had to speak on the maternity and children hospital,” he said. “And you’re just not listening. And nobody will say that three days ago at the security council of the United Nations we explained what happened with that ward.”

Lavrov showed a surprising desire to speed up the decoupling of the Russian economy from the west. He said Vladimir Putin was taking care of the Russian economy, and that measures would be taken to ensure “no Uncle Sams” destroyed it.

“This time I assure you we will come out of this crisis with a healthier mentality and consciousness since we will not have illusions that the west can be a reliable partner,” he said. Private property and the presumption of innocence had both been violated, he said.

“We will not cultivate the illusions that the West, when it talks about its values, or belief in this. We will overcome adversity, and we will do everything to no longer depend on the West in any strategic sectors of our life that are of decisive importance for our people.”

As to the prospects of further talks, Lavrov did not rule out a meeting between Putin and Zelenskiy at some point – but only if it was not talks for their own sake. He said the talks happening in Belarus were the primary diplomatic track.

Kuleba, for his part, said it felt like Lavrov had not come to negotiate on the issues he had raised, such as a 24-hour ceasefire, saying the true decision makers were elsewhere.

It was noticeable that Lavrov was happiest acting as a propagandist rather than a negotiator, discussing various Russian conspiracy theories, such as Ukraine’s plans to build a new Nazi state, banning of the Russian language and Orthodox Church, secret presence of US military biological weapon sites inside Ukraine and the equally secret plans Russia had unearthed showing Ukraine had planned to invade Russia.

Whether Lavrov, decades into this job, any longer really believes any of this hermetically sealed Russian account of the world is hard to tell, but it makes for an unforgiving interlocutor.

Going to fight in Ukraine

Meanwhile, British prime minister Boris Johnson has said British soldiers who travel to Ukraine to fight can expect to be court-martialled. And he added that civilians should also avoid going there to fight.

When asked about reports that a 19-year-old from Warrington with no military experience had travelled to the country to the resistance, the PM said that while he could comprehend why people wanted to help, they should remain in the UK.

“I think many people, many people in our armed forces, will sympathise because I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a clear distinction in international affairs between right and wrong and . . . what President Putin is doing to people in Ukraine.

“But we have very clear laws in this country. You shouldn’t go to Ukraine, and I’m afraid people going from our armed services, as the chief of the defence staff made clear the other day, will face court-martial.”

A small number of serving British personnel are believed to have gone absent without leave to join the resistance, while veterans and Britons without combat experience have also travelled to Ukraine. Ministry of defence officials have banned all service personnel from travelling to Ukraine “until further notice”, and warned they will face prosecution if they do. – Guardian