Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s speech in Munich provoked almost diametrically opposite reactions in Russia and the West. But all may not be lost  here’s why.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov held talks with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during the 2015 Munich Security Conference. Photo: Russia's Foreign Ministry /

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov arrived at the Munich Security Conference in his usual role as public advocate of Russian foreign policy. The role has been in demand of late, and few could cope better than Lavrov. A diplomat of the old school, he knows how to formulate a response to harsh, and at times insulting, lines of questioning, and how to turn opponents’ arguments against them.

As foreign minister, Lavrov has been in government longer than most of his colleagues, and in the eyes of many Russians, even opponents of the current government, he is a veritable god of diplomacy, the living embodiment of how to look, speak and act as Russia’s top representative abroad.

In the Russian system of foreign policy-making, the role of foreign minister is highly instrumental. But since policy content is framed by the president, and given the circumstances of the preceding days (the unfinished top-level talks between Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France), in Munich Lavrov was hardly in a position to share anything genuinely innovative or groundbreaking.

Most notable in the Russian foreign minister’s speech was the almost complete lack of specific proposals on resolving the Ukraine crisis and the problems in Russia’s relations with the West. Lavrov confined himself to a traditional restatement of the grievances that Moscow has accumulated since the 1990s, while his utterances on the need for direct talks between Kiev and the self-proclaimed republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, or a return to the Helsinki Accords of forty years ago, in the current climate can hardly be considered serious initiatives worthy of practical discussion.

Yet Lavrov’s speech provoked near diametrically opposite reactions in Russia and the West. The audience in Munich seemed to ridicule the speech, while Russian viewers rated it highly, especially Lavrov’s calm and dignified response to some derisive remarks from the floor. And most likely this assessment is not merely part of the growing trend to appraise the actions of politicians and diplomats solely on the “friend or foe” criterion.

Public notions in Russia and the West on the meaning and purpose of diplomacy and the laws of political rhetoric differ quite significantly.

One of the main reasons for this is the ideological disillusionment that Russians experienced as a result of the collapse of the “Soviet project.” The Western values that arrived in Russia post-1991 failed to strike root not because democracy, freedom and human rights are repulsive and alien to the Russian consciousness, but due to deep pessimism about the efficacy of any ideology, especially one that is imported.

As a result, Russian politicians, both at home and abroad, gradually came to adopt a pragmatic and at times undisguised cynicism that best reflected the expectations and world outlook of the Russian people. Attempts by foreign politicians and diplomats to explain their actions as the desire to build a better, safer world were rubbished as a pie in the sky, totally at odds with the brutal realities of contemporary international relations. These same Western leaders constantly chided Moscow in an effort to protect their own national interests at Russia’s expense, sheltering behind silver-tongued phrases about upholding freedom and democracy.

It has long been observed that the cynic who rejects ideology has only one recourse in seeking to vindicate his actions: to announce that everyone around is equally cynical. Russia in the post-Soviet period has inevitably arrived at this method to justify its foreign policy.

However, even if one is immune to ideology, in politics there is still no avoiding the requirement to outline a basic set of moral principles. At the core of these principles, which Russians overfed and disillusioned with ideology did not reject, were dignity and justice — concepts rooted in the national consciousness far deeper than any political theorems. As a result, relations between Russia and the West came to be seen by the wider Russian audience as a kind of existential struggle for truth, which was being subjected to an unmotivated onslaught.

Lavrov’s speech in Munich was applauded by the Russian public because it was constructed in full compliance with this canon. His words can be distilled to a simple truth heard many times before from the lips of President Putin, namely that the West has behaved improperly in trying to ensure its own security at the expense of Russia (belittling her great power status), and that having suffered long and hard, Russia now intends to deliver a decisive rebuff (to restore justice).

It is interesting to observe that, after reaching this point in the logical chain of cause and effect, instead of defining and assessing the nature of this “decisive rebuff,” Russia’s political orators (Lavrov, Putin and all who argue in a similar vein) recount the circumstances of the Ukraine crisis: the threat of ultra-nationalism, the movement for self-determination among residents of the Donbas region and Crimea, their opposition to the emerging threats.

As it turns out, it is not that Russia has delivered a rebuff to anyone, but simply that Western politicians have begun to feel, quite literally, “the earth burning under their feet” as a result of their insidious designs on Russia’s neighbor Ukraine. And it is not Russian aggression, but the glaring illegitimacy of the actions of the leaders of Maidan and their Western backers that is the real cause of the terrible tragedy in eastern Ukraine.

The complexity and poor prospects of the discussion unfolding today between Russia and the West lie squarely in the fact that neither of the parties can or wants to stoop to the ideological level of the other. The West is disgusted by Russian cynicism, the word games about the presence or absence of Russian troops in Ukraine, and the Kremlin’s desire to debate the issue in the “improper” terms of spheres of influence and buffer zones.

Moscow, for its part, is sickened by Western hypocrisy and its desire to present the confrontation as a struggle between civilization and barbarism, between the sinister ghosts of the past and the bright, progressive present.

The events of recent days suggest that the political leaders of Russia and the West, while remaining in the clutches of assimilated ideological (or anti-ideological) approaches, are nevertheless trying to grope their way towards a way out of the impasse.

Whereas the Munich conference seemed to be dominated by supporters of Western ideology, in which environment only the talent and experience of Lavrov allowed the Russian delegation to save a semblance of face, the top-level talks being held behind closed doors in Kiev and Moscow are a tribute to Putin’s pragmatism and a demonstration of the readiness of the French and German leaders to frame the conversation in political language that is intelligible and close to the Kremlin.

What will be the upshot? Whether or not the cancer of the Ukraine crisis will ultimately spread to the entire system of international relations remains unclear. But it is important to note (as reiterated by speakers in Munich) that the nature of the modern debate between Russia and the West does not point to any underlying antagonisms inherent in the fundamental discrepancies between the two civilizations. It pertains only to the different phases of ideological development — the persisting post-Soviet syndrome on one side, and the political and socio-cultural superiority complex on the other.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.