James Bruno writes: Working the Afghanistan account at the State Department in the late 1980s, I occasionally met the Russian muckraking journalist Artyom Borovik. Before he joined the vanguard of those agitating for change during glasnost, he had served as a Soviet diplomat. The son of a Novosti journalist posted to New York, Borovik spoke nearly unaccented English and excellent Spanish. He was as comfortable in an Afghan tea house as he was at a Manhattan Starbucks. Borovik, in short, was the cream of the crop of Russian youth from which the Foreign Ministry traditionally recruits its diplomats: urbane, multilingual, with elite educations and the skills to deftly navigate foreign societies.
Borovik died in 2000 in a still-unsolved Moscow plane accident days after producing a scathing article about an ascendant Russian politician, Vladimir Putin, who was about to become president. Borovik quoted Putin in an article as saying, “There are three ways to influence people: blackmail, vodka, and the threat to kill.”
Whether or not Putin has expanded his tools of persuasion, he’s got good help in the influence department. In the lead-up to four-way talks over Ukraine and Secretary of State Kerry’s consultations with European leaders this week, Russian ambassadors are using their many close connections with continental elites to press Putin’s case, to seek to stifle or limit economic sanctions and to foster divisions between Washington and its allies. In most cases these Russian envoys have spent the bulk of their diplomatic careers dealing with the countries to which they are posted and have extensive decades-long contacts with whom they can speak, often in the latters’ native languages. This gives them a decided edge.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is fairly typical. A graduate of the prestigious Moscow Institute for International Relations (known by its Russian acronym, MGIMO) and 42-year Foreign Ministry veteran, Lavrov speaks fluent English as well as Sinhalese, Dhiveli and French. A former U.S. ambassador who had dealt with Lavrov at the United Nations described him to me as disciplined, witty and charming, a diplomat so skilled “he runs rings around us in the multilateral sphere.”
Russia has always taken diplomacy and its diplomats seriously. America, on the other hand, does not. Of this country’s 28 diplomatic missions in NATO capitals (of which 26 are either currently filled by an ambassador or have nominees waiting to be confirmed), 16 are, or will be, headed by political appointees; only one ambassador to a major NATO ally, Turkey, is a career diplomat. Fourteen ambassadors got their jobs in return for raising big money for President Obama’s election campaigns, or worked as his aides. A conservative estimate of personal and bundled donations by these fundraisers is $20 million (based on figures from the New York Times, Federal Election Commission and AllGov). The U.S. ambassador to Belgium, a former Microsoft executive, bundled more than $4.3 million. [Continue reading…]