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Samantha Power: My Friend, the Russian Ambassador
On Monday, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations for the last decade and one of the world’s most effective diplomats, passed away.
I was America’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 2013 until President Trump took office, and over the last few years I was probably Ambassador Churkin’s most visible foe. He faithfully defended President Vladimir V. Putin’s deadly actions in Ukraine and Syria.
At the same time, Vitaly was a masterful storyteller with an epic sense of humor, a good friend and one of the best hopes the United States and Russia had of working together. I am heartbroken by his death.
I am also saddened that, in our hyperpolarized environment, praise for Vitaly — the diplomat and the man — has been interpreted as acquiescence to Russia’s aggression.
When, upon learning of his death, I referred to him as a “diplomatic maestro” on Twitter, I was slammed for whitewashing Russia’s crimes and “mourning its biggest enabler.” “Ask Syrian and Ukrainian children what they think,” read one typical tweet.
I believe Mr. Putin’s Russia poses a grave threat to American interests and that those, like President Trump, who praise Mr. Putin — or falsely equate the destabilizing role that Russia plays in the world with that of the United States — are profoundly misguided. The Russian government has murdered its political opponents, seized territory that belongs to its sovereign neighbors, killed countless civilians in Syria and meddled in democratic elections, including in the United States.
But I also believe that it is imperative that we try to build relationships with individual Russians, who are as complex and contradictory as the rest of us. Indeed, our security depends on our ability to reach across ideological divides — to understand one another, but also to try to solve problems together.
When I arrived in New York, my predecessor, Susan Rice, told me: “Invest in your relationship with Churkin. He will drive you crazy, but you will need each other.” Vitaly had been Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations for six years and a diplomat for nearly four decades. Because Russia holds one of five vetoes at the Security Council (allowing it to block any resolution it chooses), I needed Vitaly’s support to secure council condemnations, to send peacekeepers to conflict areas and to impose sanctions on rogue individuals and nations.
We often ended up in heated — sometimes vitriolic — clashes over basic issues of fact and justice. On the illegal occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea, the official Russian narrative deviated so far from the truth that I accused him of writing better fiction than Tolstoy; on Syria, I challenged him to answer for the carnage, asking during the joint Syrian-Russian-Iranian assault on Aleppo, “Are you truly incapable of shame?”
He, in turn, was a master of diversion, blasting me as a self-styled “Mother Teresa” and pivoting away from Ukraine and Syria to America’s wars in Vietnam and Iraq.
Sometimes — such as when he ludicrously argued that civilians in Aleppo had simply covered themselves in dust to look like bombing victims for photographers — my abhorrence infected our working relationship.
But generally, we knew we had to work together, and we did, including byimposing the toughest sanctions in a generation on North Korea, helping mobilize a response to the Ebola epidemic and choosing a dynamic new secretary general.
Whether in monthslong negotiations or in huddles held minutes before a vote, we were able to disagree vehemently on fundamentals, but find a way to listen and discern what the other needed. Once the two of us had settled on a plan, other countries tended to defer, reasoning that if we had found common ground, so could they.
I think I learned most about Vitaly from the issues on which we failed to come to agreement. Twenty years after Bosnian Serbs murdered more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys in a clear act of genocide in Srebrenica, Britain pursued what we all thought would be a straightforward anniversary condemnation of the crime. It soon became clear that Mr. Putin, who was seeking closer ties to Serbia, was determined to prevent the Security Council from calling the killings “genocide.” Vitaly and I worked for days to come up with a version of the text that his president might allow. The morning of the vote, Vitaly couldn’t mask his disappointment when he emailed, “It didn’t fly.” He vetoed the resolution.
It is well known that it was Vitaly Churkin who raised his hand six times to veto Syria-related resolutions, but it is less known that it was Vitaly who worked frantically (and in the end futilely) to try to secure enough changes to the drafts that Moscow might support them.
Although he was the public face of so many of Mr. Putin’s harmful actions, he was also a believer in the relationship between our two countries. When Secretary of State John Kerry and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov tried to develop a joint counterterrorism cell in Syria, Vitaly hailed the partnership with exuberance. When the effort fell apart, he urged that we try to resuscitate it. He often told me stories from his time as an interpreter in arms control negotiations during the Cold War, drawing the lesson that, when estranged, we could start cooperating again by carving out discrete areas for progress.
Even when our positions were miles apart, we always took each other’s calls. When I asked him to meet with aid workers who had witnessed atrocities (including those perpetrated by Russian security forces), he generally ensured that he or someone senior at the Russian mission took the meeting. When journalists or human rights advocates went missing in Syria and I asked him to have the Russian ambassador in Damascus press the Assad government for help, he often called looking for more specifics so that he could work the issue within his system.
No matter how much our countries’ relationship deteriorated — and we saw a steep decline during our time together — we had much in common as individuals. We both loved sports, and the only time I couldn’t get through to him was when Russia was competing for an Olympic medal. We brought each other to games (he favored hockey and tennis; I preferred Major League Baseball, but could never convince him that baseball was in fact interesting, so we settled on the N.B.A.).
He and his wife, Irina, loved the theater. When I brought a group of ambassadors to Shakespeare in the Park, he was the first to leap out of his chair to ignite a standing ovation for “Cymbeline”; he didn’t hold it against me when the press covered the fact that I had brought the Russian ambassador to the L.G.B.T.-themed musical “Fun Home”; and at “Hamilton” he interrogated my law professor husband on the origins of the Constitution. I introduced him to the Cold War FX drama “The Americans,” which he made fun of as “a bit ridiculous” but nonetheless seemed to watch compulsively.
I invited him and Irina to my parents’ home in Yonkers for Thanksgiving, making him the only United Nations colleague who ever entered my wild Irish family sanctum. And in one of our last one-on-one meetings, he brightened when I floated the possibility of our teaching a graduate school class together after his retirement, perhaps switching roles and each representing the other’s view.
Vitaly spent his professional life defending his country, whose culture and tradition he cherished. Although he never shared with me his view of his president, I got the sense that he valued Mr. Putin’s restoration of Russia’s relevance on the global stage, but would have preferred peaceful methods. As far as I am aware, he never considered resigning in protest over Mr. Putin’s horrors. But it is also true that, had he done so, he most likely would have been replaced by someone less willing to compromise, perversely weakening the United Nations’ ability to advance peace and security — and further undermining the United States-Russian relationship.
While the rest of us diplomats came and went in New York, there was one fixture: Vitaly Churkin, formidable as a foe, caring as a friend and fierce as a defender of Russia, the country he adored and strived to make proud. If we are to get our countries’ relationship back on track — an indispensable foundation for tackling global threats — it will not be because Americans cave on our principles. It will be because we stand firm, while also never losing sight of the humanity of those with whom we fervently disagree.
Samantha Power was the United States permanent representative to the United Nations from 2013 to January.