WASHINGTON -- If Saddam Hussein ever breaks free of the international punishment imposed after his 1990 invasion of Kuwait, he will owe a debt of gratitude to Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei V. Lavrov.
Lavrov has choreographed what diplomats say is Russia's sustained challenge to United Nations inspectors whose job it is to find and destroy Iraq's chemical and biological arms and missiles. France, China and Russia, working through Lavrov's skill, have nudged the Security Council to ease pressure on Baghdad.
Shrewd, aggressive and charismatic, Lavrov personifies Russia's new sure-footedness in acting as a counterweight to U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf, the Aegean and the Balkans.
Whether he proves an ally, irritant or adversary, Lavrov will likely remain a force for U.S. officials to reckon with. Some diplomats speculate that he could end up as foreign minister.
"I'm not a fortune teller; I have not heard these rumors," Lavrov says.
Iraq has come close to satisfying the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency that it has disclosed the extent of its past nuclear weapons program. Lavrov predicts that, by October, the agency will shift from the active investigation phase to long-term monitoring, designed to ensure that Iraq doesn't try to restart the program.
But Baghdad is a long way from satisfying the U.N. Special Commission, which probes Iraq's chemical, biological and missile programs. Arms experts worry that a softer U.N. stance toward Baghdad might allow Hussein to keep hiding his weapons program, eventually threatening U.S. allies and troops.
Increasingly, however, the U.N. inspection team is under harsh scrutiny by Security Council members that want to see the inspections ended and an easing of the sanctions imposed on Iraq after its invasion of Kuwait and subsequent Persian Gulf war in 1991.
Much of this pressure comes from Lavrov. Trim and darkly handsome at 48, he cuts a matinee idol's figure among the graying diplomats at the United Nations, holding forth easily in rapid-fire, idiomatic English.
His real talent emerges behind closed doors, in interrogating officials and in detecting political agendas in U.N. resolutions and statements. At less tense moments, he's a skilled doodler.
As the Security Council held its regular review of Iraqi sanctions this month, the Russian envoy invoked a U.N. procedure to convene an unusual, separate meeting. There, two visiting Iraqi ministers made their case directly to council members. The session served to rebut the assertion of Richard Butler, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, that little progress had been made since fall in accounting for Iraq's dangerous weapons.
Coached by Lavrov, the Iraqi foreign and oil ministers "gave a sober, factual briefing," says a Western diplomat who was present. They disputed points Butler had raised before the council, including his fear that Iraq might still possess fuel for long-range missiles.
Two days later, Lavrov fired off a series of questions to Butler, challenging, among other things, his report that inspectors had found mustard gas in Iraqi ammunition shells, a finding that, in fact, was not new.
A Western diplomat who has followed Iraqi weapons says Lavrov is engaged in "a sustained attack" on the U.N. inspectors' "credibility, techniques, staff, including Butler, and the evidence."
Lavrov counters: "It's not my purpose to challenge UNSCOM. But when UNSCOM reports in a way which is not clear, I try to clarify things. When they say there is evidence that Iraq has not provided a full account of [its] biological bombs, we just ask UNSCOM to be a bit more specific." On "several occasions," he says, UNSCOM has based reports or questions "on wrong assumptions."
Nizar Hamdoon, Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, says he and Lavrov work cooperatively, usually meeting three or four times a week.
"He's always been following a technical, low-key approach, which he thinks can bring about better results," Hamdoon says.
Lavrov failed to persuade fellow council members to approve the appointment of a Russian deputy to Butler. But the U.N. team is expected to accept a Russian "political adviser," which diplomats view as an effort by Moscow to increase its influence over the inspectors.
"He's a master at negotiating text," says a senior Western diplomat, referring to the texts of resolutions and presidential statements, the two key ways the Security Council asserts its power.
Sergei Viktorovich Lavrov's steady, 26-year climb through the Soviet and Russian foreign service includes long experience with the United Nations. His earlier stint at the Soviet mission, from 1980 to 1981, coincided with a tumultuous period that began under Leonid I. Brezhnev and ended with Mikhail S. Gorbachev.
Lavrov welcomed Gorbachev's "perestroika," or restructuring. Speaking of the Brezhnev era in a 1987 conversation with Jeffrey Laurenti of the U.N. Association of the USA, he recalled: "Our job was to take speeches Brezhnev made and paste them into speeches our delegates would give to the U.N."
By the time Lavrov arrived back at the United Nations in September 1994, the Soviet Union was history, and Russia, after several years of cooperating with the United States, was chafing at its junior partner role.
Defying the West, Russia sided with its historic Serbian allies in Yugoslavia, cracked down on Chechen rebels and championed Iraq's resistance to international sanctions.
Though weaker than in the days of a Soviet superpower, Russia still wields a veto in the Security Council. As a result, its views must be accommodated when Washington wants the U.N. seal of approval.
With ready access to Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, Lavrov gets a speedy reply from Moscow when he needs it, but has latitude, colleagues say, to make tactical judgments on his own.
By no means is Lavrov implacably anti-American. John Bolton, the State Department's point man for U.N. affairs in the Bush administration, recalls that in the early 1990s, the two of them shared "nearly uniform views on every U.N. question."
Analysts assign various reasons for Russia's support for Iraq: a desire for increased influence in the Middle East, potential profits from Iraq's eventual ability to export oil freely, and a wish to counter American power.
"There is a feeling [in Moscow] that when the moment for American-Iraqi rapprochement comes, oil companies will jump right away and it's not a bad idea [for Russia] to be on the ground first," says Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Nixon Center, a think tank.
Russia is asserting itself more in other regions. It opposes U.S. plans to tighten sanctions against Serbia for its violent crackdown against ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. And despite U.S. protests, Russia is selling anti-aircraft missiles to Greek Cypriots, threatening Turkey's air supremacy on the island.
Susan Eisenhower, chairwoman of the Center for Political and Strategic Studies, summarized Russia's global view in a recent report: "Reformers and Communists alike worry about America's unilateral tendencies, seeing the U.S.-led expansion of NATO and Washington's readiness to use force against Iraq as indicators of America's desire to dominate."
Pub Date: 5/26/98