Kerry and Lavrov: The Odd Couple of the New Cold War

Russia’s foreign minister and the U.S. Secretary of State seem to have a lot in common, but does that help?

Alexander Nemenov/Reuters

MOSCOW — They’re two experienced pros: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. And they seem to have a lot in common, from their appearance to their intentions. They’re both are tall and skinny, elegant and polished. Both often look old and exhausted from constant travel, long hours of brainstorming, and high-profile political battles.

Diplomacy’s “dynamic duo,” according to some, and “the odd couple,” according to others, have met and strolled and talked together dozens of times in the last three years in Asia, in Europe, in the United States and in Russia. Their long faces and wise eyes appear to penetrate each other’s, tempting and irritating, as they continue the heavy lifting of the world’s problems. A few months ago, it was containing Iran’s nuclear program, more recently it’s been the challenge of Syrian peace talks.

The two are “on very good terms,” Lavrov said last month, “but that does not mean that we should smile from ear to ear and express joy during each and every meeting to please Russian, American, and other journalists.”

Russians seem to empathize with the two officials carrying, Atlas-like, the weight of the world on their slim shoulders. The Russian press is much easier on Kerry than it is on U.S. President Barack Obama. “It would not take our propaganda machine long to turn Kerry into a pedophile or a sadist, but Lavrov does not allow that, he values their good relationships,” Russian political analyst Dmitry Oreshkin told The Daily Beast.

Kerry’s gracious manners appeal to the Russians, and many noticed that the U.S. Secretary of State walked the streets of Moscow’s downtown and made contact with ordinary people.

The latest picture of Putin smiling at Kerry like an old pal appeared on hundreds of websites—as if a harbinger of spring after a winter of bitter isolation. After more than 3½ hours of talks with Putin last month, Kerry said there was progress in efforts to combat the Islamic State together. “We want the same outcomes, we see the same dangers, we understand the same challenges.”

Journalists ironized about the sudden thaw: “Remember Obama riling Russia by calling it ‘a regional power’? Now Kerry calls the U.S. and Russia ‘powerful nations.’ Putin will be smiling..,,” Steve Rosenberg, BBC correspondent in Moscow, tweeted recently.

Thank Kerry and Lavrov for such progress. They managed to remain cordial, even warm in their relations during some very frosty—almost Cold War frosty—times. And the crises for the two to try to defuse just keep multiplying.

Last week Kerry and Lavrov discussed on the phone peace terms for the wars in Ukraine, Syria and Nagorno-Karabakh. Although they disagreed about many major issues, including the conditions for a peace agreement in Ukraine, and the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, they still sat down to talk or called to talk on the phone, for hours. Last month Kerry traveled to Moscow for the third time in less than a year, still discussing the Syria and Ukraine conflicts with the Kremlin.

And then there was the provocative manner in which Russian Sukhoi Su-24 bombers flew within 30 feet over the USS Donald Cook. Kerry characterized the repeated flybys of Russian jets as “dangerous” and “provocative.” Russia’s Sputniknews said that what happened was “a minor incident.”

Kerry sounded threatening: the U.S. military could have shot down the Russian jets buzzing a U.S. warship. Moscow insisted that Russian pilots did not break any international rules and that the jets were not even armed. Last November Turkey shot down a Russian jet flying over its border. As direct consequences Russia and Turkey dove into what seemed like a new Cold War as thousands of people lost businesses both countries.

The two counterparts exchanged some ideas before Lavrov took Kerry to see President Vladimir Putin. As they spoke before cameras, with the golden vases of foreign ministry décor as background, Kerry congratulated Lavrov with his 66th birthday: “I hope it will bring you extra wisdom, in our conversation.” Kerry joked, “You look terrific for 39.”

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Lavrov half-grinned: “Thank you. But if wisdom is measured by the number of birthdays, I cannot catch up with you,” said Lavrov.

Lavrov has always been a tough negotiator. One year before Crimea’s annexation, in the spring of 2013, Lavrov was asked about achieved goals in Putin-era foreign policy. The head of the Russian MID cited the 19th-century diplomat Alexander Gorchakov, who managed “the restoration of the Russian influence in Europe after the defeat in the Crimean War, and he did it … without moving a gun. He did it exclusively through diplomacy,” he told Foreign Policy. The idea of repeating Gorchakov’s job obviously sounded as Lavrov’s own goal.

Who of the two has more independence in decision-making, Lavrov or Kerry? “Lavrov’s job is much harder, as he has no independence and just carries out Putin’s decisions—even if he disagreed with some of the moves, he did not have a choice,” Oreshkin told The Daily Beast.

In one of their latest phone conversations, Lavrov gave a short answer to Kerry regarding the military jets flying over the U.S. ship: The Russian ministry of defense had already given you their explanations. In other words, it was not Lavrov who made decisions for the Russian Army.

Critics of Russia’s foreign policy listed several major failures in the past few years: as a result of Crimea annexation Russia was punished with economic sanctions, spoiled relations with most Western countries and got kicked out of the G-8 club; the biggest post-Soviet neighbor Ukraine turned deeply anti-Russian during the war with Russia-backed rebels, which took the lives of more than 7,000 people; the failure in restoring spoiled relations with Turkey.

In 2013 and 2014 Lavrov was the most popular minister in the Russian media, but last year Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu moved him to second place.