The Erosion of Russian Diplomacy under Putin’s Regime

The once influential role of Russia’s diplomats in shaping foreign policy has deteriorated over the years under President Putin’s leadership. Former diplomats, as well as insiders from both the Kremlin and White House, shed light on how Russian diplomacy has broken down and the impact it has had on international relations.

The decline of Russian diplomacy became evident in 2021 when US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland met with Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov. Ryabkov, who was previously known for his practical and calm negotiating style, surprised Nuland by rigidly sticking to Moscow’s official position and rejecting any discussion. Nuland described Ryabkov and his colleagues as “robots with papers,” highlighting the lack of flexibility and dialogue from Russian diplomats. This incident, along with the increasing use of undiplomatic language by Russian officials, reflects the deterioration of Russia’s diplomatic approach.

It’s essential to understand how Russian diplomacy evolved under Putin’s leadership. Initially, Putin expressed willingness to cooperate with NATO and foster ties with Western countries. Russian diplomats played crucial roles in resolving territorial disputes, leading talks on cooperation with European nations, and facilitating peaceful transitions in the aftermath of the Georgian revolution. However, as Putin grew more powerful and convinced of his own answers, he began to view diplomats as unnecessary, leading to their decreased authority and influence.

The turning point for Russian diplomacy was Putin’s 2007 speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which he accused Western countries of attempting to construct a unipolar world. Russian diplomats followed suit, echoing Putin’s anti-Western views. Despite attempts at cooperation, such as the “reset button” moment in 2009 between Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and then-US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, US officials soon realized that their Russian counterparts were merely parroting Putin’s stance. Diplomats found themselves sidelined in critical issues like the Ukrainian crisis, where their influence was minimal.

The diminishing influence of Russian diplomats can be seen in the case of Lavrov himself. Once an important figure consulted even when differing from Putin, Lavrov reportedly only learned about the decision to send troops into Ukraine a few hours before the conflict began. This lack of communication from the Kremlin highlights the sidelining of traditional diplomatic channels.

Ambassador Andrei Kelin of Moscow’s UK embassy denies that Russian diplomats have lost influence, emphasizing their work in maintaining relations with Western countries. However, his refusal to accept any responsibility for the deteriorating relations indicates a disconnect with reality. Kelin sees the war in Ukraine as a continuation of diplomacy, further underscoring Russia’s uncompromising stance.

The shift towards a more aggressive diplomatic tone can also be observed in other countries to a lesser extent. Japan’s representative for human rights at the UN and Ukraine’s ambassador to Germany have resorted to undiplomatic language, mirroring Russia’s approach. However, the aggressive tactics are primarily aimed at impressing a domestic audience and proving loyalty to the Kremlin.

The decline of Russian diplomacy raises questions about the potential for diplomatic solutions to end the conflict in Ukraine. Many experts remain skeptical, citing the decline in unofficial meetings and diminished communication channels as significant obstacles. Ambassador Kelin’s ban from the UK Parliament and the various challenges faced by the Russian embassy in London further highlight the strained relations and lack of trust.

Despite the grim circumstances, some experts argue that dialogue is still necessary. The alternative of absolute victory on the battlefield is unlikely for both Kyiv and Moscow. RAND analyst Samuel Charap suggests that Putin’s changing approach and his willingness to engage remain uncertain. The Ukrainian authorities, supported by their Western allies, have expressed their unwillingness to negotiate under Russia’s ultimatums.

Nevertheless, Russia seems to rely more on its military might, intelligence services, and geo-economic influence rather than diplomatic engagement. The erosion of Russian diplomacy under Putin’s regime reflects a widening gap between Russia and the West, making it increasingly difficult to envision a resolution through traditional diplomatic means.

The dispiriting circumstances faced by Russian diplomats and the lack of alternatives contribute to their hesitancy to resign. The job may not be ideal, but the fear of losing their livelihood and the absence of other viable options discourage them from leaving the foreign service.

As the deterioration of Russian diplomacy continues, the international community must remain cautious of the implications. The strained relations between Russia and the West have far-reaching consequences that extend beyond the Ukrainian conflict. The erosion of diplomacy hampers the potential for peaceful resolutions and increases the risk of further escalation in international tensions.