Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov just might have met his match.
Standing next to Annalena Baerbock, his new German counterpart, at a news conference in Moscow on Tuesday, Lavrov, the éminence grise of world diplomacy, seemed, well, a bit gray, a bit grumbly, and a tad more tiresome than his usually fearsome self.
Lavrov, who next month will complete his 18th year as Russia’s top diplomat, and shortly after will celebrate his 72nd birthday, used the news conference to reiterate Moscow’s many gripes against Germany, the EU and the West in general.
Meanwhile, Baerbock, who was making her first visit to the Russian capital as foreign minister from the Green party in Germany’s new governing coalition, maintained steely composure throughout the encounter as she accused Russia of refusing to adhere to common rules, and challenged Lavrov on the jailing of the political opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and the shuttering of Memorial, a venerable human rights organization.
If she was at all intimidated by her far more seasoned and senior host, Baerbock did not let on.
Her opening statement lasted nearly a minute longer than Lavrov’s, and she closed her prepared remarks by delivering a bit of a lecture about the obligations of public officials to maintain peace and security for their citizens, an unmistakable poking at Russia for threatening further war against Ukraine.
“We, who bear political responsibility, have no more important duty than to protect our people — especially from war and violence,” she said. “I am convinced that we can achieve this best through successful talks, not against each other but with each other.”
It was just under a year ago that Lavrov used a similar news conference in Moscow to brutalize and humiliate the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, calling the EU an “unreliable partner” while they were standing together, and leaking news of the expulsion of three EU diplomats from Russia, catching Borrell completely off-guard.
On Tuesday, with the current tensions sharply raising the stakes, there could hardly have been a more striking contrast.
If a year ago, Borrell had seemed unsettled and off-balance, this time it was Lavrov who seemed a bit weary. Arriving at the lectern, he gave an audible sigh and flashed a forced smile before launching into a litany of familiar gripes.
He complained about the “unproductive politicization” of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany, and about accusations of discrimination against the German-language affiliate of the Kremlin-owned RT television station, which was taken off the air in December after German authorities said it did not have a proper broadcasting license.
Lavrov decried the “anti-Russian line” of Brussels, accused the “Kyiv regime” of “sabotaging” the Minsk 2 peace accords, and insisted — rather unconvincingly — that Moscow was not in any way responsible for recent fears of a military attack on Ukraine, even though Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned personally of a “military-technical” response if the West does not meet Moscow’s demands for security guarantees.
“We do not threaten anyone,” Lavrov said at Tuesday’s news conference. “But we hear threats against us.”
Baerbock, who at 41 is more than 30 years Lavrov’s junior, did not flinch. At some points, she appeared to suggest that the repetitiveness of Russia’s demands was getting boring even as she maintained a tone of respect, and reiterated Germany’s willingness to negotiate, as well as its desire to rev up the so-called Normandy Format meetings consisting of Germany, France, Ukraine and Russia aimed at implementing the Minsk 2 peace accords.
“Russia has demanded security guarantees, and this has just been made clear once again,” she said. “We are ready for a serious dialogue on mutual agreements and steps that will bring more security to everyone in Europe. Security for the people in Riga, security for the people in Bucharest, security for the people in Berlin, security for the people in St. Petersburg.”
Baerbock was also firm in insisting that Moscow was responsible for the recent security tensions and destabilization of relations.
“I came with a thick discussion folder,” she said. “It is thick because there is a whole range of topics where we have major, sometimes fundamental, differences of opinion. But it is also thick because there are so many issues where we see opportunities for more cooperation.”
At several points, she stressed that Germany was a trading nation that relied on stability to do business.
“We have an even more fundamental interest in maintaining the European peace order, in which equal and binding rules apply to all, and on which all could rely,” she said. “There will be no security in our common house of Europe if there are not common rules on which all can always refer to and rely on — be it in the exchange of economy, be it in the exchange of culture, be it in friendships, be it in families or even in the exchange of our two countries.”
In response to Lavrov’s assertions that Russia was not threatening conflict, Baerbock noted that there were 100,000 Russian soldiers mobilized on the Ukrainian border “for no understandable reason.”
“It’s hard not to see this as a threat,” she said.
During a question and answer session, Lavrov continued his drumbeat of complaints, accusing NATO of “double standards” by saying its troop deployments in Eastern Europe were no business of Russia’s, while criticizing Russia’s deployments of troops within its own borders.
But NATO’s troop presence is minuscule compared to Russia’s mobilization on the Ukraine border, and some of the alliance’s deployments — 6,000 troops across four countries as part of a new “forward presence” — were initiated only in response to Russia’s invasion and annexation of Crimea in 2014.
Lavrov also repeated his insistence that it was up to the West to address Moscow’s security demands, which were laid out in two proposed treaties put forward to the U.S. and NATO last month. “We are now awaiting answers as we were promised to these proposals in order to continue negotiations,” he said.
Baerbock did not repeat a common recent talking point of U.S. and NATO leaders — that some of Russia’s demands, including a requested guarantee that Ukraine and Georgia will never join the alliance, are “non-starters.”
Instead, she calmly gave succinct, pointed answers. And when Russian journalists used a final question to push the complaint of alleged discrimination against RT, she seized the last word. “In our country, freedom of the press means that there is no state interference in this area,” Baerbock said. “We have a clear constitution, which prohibits state broadcasting in Germany, regardless of whether the state is called Germany, the U.S. or Russia.”
With that, she gathered up her notes, put on her face mask, and walked toward Lavrov who appeared to expect some thanks or salutatory gesture. Instead, she strode past him with barely a glance, turned and went out the door.