Remembering Vitaly Churkin, Russia's Extraordinary Diplomat

Vitaly Churkin served his country for more than four decades, fiercely defending its interests, but with elegance and a calibrated touch of sarcasm.

The world of multilateral diplomacy was shocked on Monday morning, February 20. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador and permanent representative to the United Nations passed away after suffering a cardiac arrest in the Russian Mission on East 67th Street.

Addressing the Security Council on February 21, 2017, this is what UNSG Antonio Guterres had to say:

“I do believe that Vitaly Churkin was not only an outstanding diplomat, but an extraordinary human being, and a unique combination of intelligence, knowledge, firmness in expressing his own beliefs, but also a remarkable sense of humour and an enormous warmth that would make us all feel a natural tendency to become friends”.

I first met Ambassador Churkin in mid May 2009, a few days after arriving in New York and presenting my credentials to the Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. I last met him when I hosted a dinner to bid farewell to Brazilian ambassador Antonio Patriota in October 2016.  He sat through an extended two hour long sit down dinner and engaged in the banter and the culinary treat provided by the celebrated Indian chef Hemant Mathur.

In the intervening period of seven years, we became friends, both at professional and personal levels.  I felt duty bound to send him the draft manuscript of my book, Perilous Interventions, prior to publication. I did so because whilst several of its self-contained chapters bear eloquent testimony to the fact that Vitaly’s was one of the few sane, pragmatic and constructive voices during the Security Council’s handling of developments in Libya, Yemen and some other conflict spots, the Russian position in relation to developments in Syria and more particularly Crimea/Ukraine had come in for sharp criticism in my narration of unfolding events.

I did not, therefore, expect him to endorse the book.  I sent it to him only because I wanted him to see it before publication.  I was pleasantly surprised, however, that his office sent word to my young research assistant Anubhav Roy that we should include the following in the section on advance praise of Perilous Interventions:

 “When Hardeep was on the Council, I used to say that speaking after him was like playing the harmonica after a full symphony orchestra. He is as forceful and analytical in this book as he was then.”
– Vitaly Churkin, Permanent Representative of Russia to the UN.

The International Association of Permanent Representatives (IAPR) now has a WhatsApp Group. This is a restricted platform on which serving and former PRs to the UN network and share their impressions. This is what I wrote on hearing the very sad news of Vitaly’s untimely demise:

“Indeed, a day of mourning for the multilateral enterprise. One of its strongest pillars, a voice of sanity and reason has been snatched from our midst.  His contribution will continue to be recorded in gilt edged letters in the discourse of international peace and security, his brilliance will be recalled by succeeding generations.  RIP, my friend, Yours was a life truly well lived.  Our heartfelt condolences to Irina Churkina and their two children Maxim and Anastasia.”

I have been in the world of diplomacy for nearly four and a half decades on my own steam and about two decades prior to that as a foreign ministry child.  I have seen a lot of good professionals in action.  No matter what yardstick is employed to judge – professional and personal qualities, intellectual depth and agility, understanding, integrity and a capacity to take risks in the search of constructive solutions, all individually and collectively – Vitaly possessed these qualities in abundance. Choices present themselves to policy makers not in easily discernible shades of good and bad.  Most often they present themselves in terms of a variety of escalating ‘lousy’ choices. The professional makes his or her mark not when he has a good brief or presents a country that everyone loves. Most often the converse provides the perspective.

Vitaly Churkin spent more than four decades in diplomatic life. He made his mark in the service of his nation during the Soviet era. A talented child actor and interpreter, he served for nearly two decades as Ambassador, including to Belgium and Canada, before coming to New York as PR in 2006.

He fiercely defended his country’s interests and unhesitatingly focused and pointed the mirror on the misdeeds of other countries, when confronted or even otherwise. He did so, however, with elegance and calibrated, proportionate and often biting, sarcasm and wit.

The following from page 70 of Perilous Interventions is worth recalling. The context was the run up to Resolution 1970 on Libya in February 2011 in the Security Council.

 The atmosphere was tense as the Security Council met at the level of PRs around the horse-shoe table inside the UN building in New York.  The exchanges became acrimonious. On the US amendment, Churkin observed that the suggested language was akin to a former US administration’s attempt to describe intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as ‘peacemakers’. Strong words by Churkin and others caused Susan Rice, the influential American PR known to have direct access to the president, to backtrack.  Delegation after delegation took the floor to point out that the intent all along had been to pass a resolution confined to targeted sanctions. Carte blanche for the authorisation of use of force under Article 42 of Chapter VII would be incompatible with the objective of the resolution.  Council members were not willing to authorise measures that had not even been discussed.

An attempt by Rice to introduce the issue of chemical weapons also did not gain traction. Churkin raised a strong objection to the reference to chemical weapons and said that a totally different element, unconnected with the matter at hand, was being injected to allow for language which could result in the ‘use of force’ under the garb of humanitarian intervention.  Rice, however, persisted and said that language similar to what the US had proposed had been incorporated in Council resolutions on fighting piracy off the coast of Somalia.  The Brazilian PR, Maria Luiza Viotti, presiding over the Council in February, pointed to a crucial difference: the Somali government had given its consent in the course of anti-piracy resolution. Seeing that the Council was not willing to go down the Chapter VII route, the US finally backtracked, and, realising its isolation, agreed to compromise on the language, which resulted in the withdrawal of the amended paragraph.  New language was adopted in the resolution along the lines suggested by the Russians.  In order to remove any unintended ambiguity, the resolution clearly stipulated. In the preambular section, that it was under Article 41.

More recently, when confronted by Samantha Power on Russian support for President Bashar al-Assad in Syria, he drew attention to US policies in Yemen and encouraged her not to think of herself as Mother Teresa.

Vitaly Churkin was the longest serving PR on the Security Council (11 years). During this period, the US had four PRs, Khalildzad, Susan Rice, Samantha Power and now Niki Haley. Each of them has paid handsome tribute to their erstwhile colleagues’ professional and personal qualities. Tribute was also paid by President Donald Trump.

By any standard of reckoning, Vitaly Churkin’s name will find mention in any listing of diplomacy’s all time greats.

Hardeep Singh Puri is an Indian diplomat and author of Perilous Interventions: The Security Council and the Politics of Chaos.

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