The writer is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former Russian diplomat
The Russian Embassy in the UK sparked outrage and fierce criticism recently when it tweeted that prisoners of war from Ukraine’s Azov battalion, who had defended the city of Mariupol right up until the bitter end, deserved “a humiliating death” by hanging. Following an avalanche of complaints, Twitter’s moderators decided to leave the tweet visible, as a kind of monument to the madness into which Russian diplomacy has descended.
Many international observers have been surprised by the hardening of the language used by Russian diplomats. But since the beginning of this war, and even before, Russian diplomacy has focused on one mission: to show that the Russian leader alone sees the world as it really is and is acting in the best way possible. Statements by Russian diplomats are increasingly targeted not at external audiences, but at the domestic one.
The phrase “allied forces”, for example, is regularly used by Kremlin propagandists to refer to the Russian army as it wages war in Ukraine. Using this expression is an attempt to equate modern-day Russia with both the Soviet Union, which fought Nazism alongside the allies during the second world war; and the US, which is able to gather broad coalitions for its military campaigns — even the most controversial ones, including the 2003 Iraq war. Yet contrary to the intentions of those who came up with it, this term emphasises once again that Russia is fighting in Ukraine alone, because by “allies”, they can only mean the self-proclaimed “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk.
Russia’s isolation can be considered a failure of Russian foreign policy, which now speaks only one language: that of propaganda. Russian diplomacy is no longer responsible for developing major foreign policy decisions together with the Kremlin. It is busy simply justifying President Vladimir Putin’s decisions. And this makes the ministry just another propaganda agency, whose main target is at home and whose messages must above all penetrate within the walls of the Kremlin. Hence the London embassy’s appalling tweet and, indeed, foreign minister Sergei Lavrov’s absurd assertion that Russia did not invade Ukraine.
As the radicalisation of senior Russian officials’ language gathers pace, a competition seems to be under way to see who can come up with the worst insult for Ukraine and the country’s friends in the west. This again is a way to curry favour with Putin and to show readiness to remain loyal to the end.
Against this backdrop, the silence of the more discreet officials starts to look suspicious to the vocal advocates of the invasion. Yet both serve Putin’s regime, playing a game of good cop, bad cop. The foreign ministry finds itself in the bad cop camp, if only because — unlike the government’s economic bloc — it directly deals with the hostile west, so it must demonstrate intransigence and loyalty.
This change is far from easy for diplomats, who are used to thinking of themselves as the sophisticated crème de la crème of public service. In mid-January, deputy foreign minister Sergei Ryabkov praised the popular Russian rapper Oxxxymiron, who has a following among critically minded Russians. After the outbreak of war, the rapper condemned the invasion, cancelled a series of sold-out concerts in Moscow and St Petersburg and left the country. Now the idea of him performing in Russia is unthinkable and Ryabkov can certainly no longer afford to express his fandom.
This new language of Russian diplomacy may be primarily addressed to the domestic audience but it also helps to gather a pool of sympathisers around the world — particularly among anti-western regimes and politicians in developing countries, as well as internal critics of western countries themselves.
Many of these people are indifferent to both Ukraine and Russia, but rejoice at the simple fact of Russia’s opposition to the west, even if it does take the form of a brutal war of aggression. These sympathisers are passive spectators, however, and have no intention of trading that role for that of true allies.
Russia is not as isolated as its opponents would like to see it, but it is fighting this war only with the support of diehard fans.
Just like the Russian economy, Russian diplomacy is trying to replace its ties with the west by switching to the domestic market and looking for audiences in other parts of the world — and with all the problems and shocks that such a switch entails.