Vitaly Churkin, a veteran Soviet and Russian diplomat who served as Moscow’s envoy to the United Nations as its ties with the West plunged to levels unseen since the Cold War, has died at the age of 64.
Churkin’s death was announced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, which said he died at work in New York one day shy of his 65th birthday.
The ministry offered condolences to his family but did not immediately provide details on the circumstances of his death.
A cagey and often combative official who was respected even by critics of his government’s policies, Churkin was a career diplomat who was deployed to defend the Kremlin’s line on a range of geopolitical standoffs over three decades, including the Soviet Union’s handling of the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident and Moscow’s two wars in Chechnya.
But his most prominent public role was at the United Nations, where he served as Russia’s ambassador from 2006 until his death.
His tenure in New York coincided with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s increasingly assertive foreign policy as Moscow sought to shore up -- including with the use of military force -- its influence in the former Soviet Union and beyond.
Less than a year after Churkin assumed his post, Putin delivered a now-famous speech in Munich that accused Washington of being a destabilizing force throughout the world and suggesting a change was needed to the "architecture of global security."
It fell on Churkin to deflect waves of criticism and denunciations of Russia from the United States and Europe in the ensuing years, most notably over Moscow’s seizure and annexation of Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, its backing of armed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and its military operation in Syria.
US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power argues with Churkin prior to a vote on a resolution on Ukraine during a UN Security Council emergency meeting at United Nations headquarters in New York on March 15, 2014.
In the final years of his life, Churkin had several contentious exchanges with Samantha Power, who served as U.S. President Barack Obama’s envoy to the UN as relations between the two sides deteriorated over the conflicts in Ukraine and Syria.
Responding to Churkin’s defense of Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, Power noted Russia’s rich literary tradition before saying that her Russian counterpart "showed more imagination than Tolstoy or Chekhov."
Churkin, for his part, delivered a memorable rejoinder to Power’s accusation last year that Russia, Iran, and Syria were responsible for the atrocities occurring in the Syrian conflict.
"The weirdest speech to me was the one by the U.S. representative, who built her statement as if she is Mother Teresa herself. Please, remember which country you represent. Please, remember the track record of your country," he said.
Power said on Twitter on February 20 that that she was "devastated" by Churkin’s death, describing him as a "diplomatic maestro" and a "deeply caring man" who sought to bring the two countries closer together.
From Child Actor To UN Diplomat
Vitaly Ivanovich Churkin was born in Moscow on February 21, 1952, the son of an aviation engineer and a housewife, and as a child he appeared in three Soviet movies, two of which were about Bolshevik leader Vladimir Lenin, the Russian government daily Rossiiskaya Gazeta reported.
He graduated from a Moscow high school that placed an emphasis on English-language curriculum and went on to graduate from the Moscow State Institute for International Affairs (MGIMO), which to this day remains the premier training ground for future Russian diplomats, in 1974.
After entering the Soviet Foreign Ministry, he was sent to Washington in 1982 to work in the Soviet Embassy as the second -- and later the first -- secretary.
It was during his tenure in the U.S. capital that he gained wide publicity for his defense of the Kremlin’s response to the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in Ukraine, the fallout from which contaminated large areas of northern Ukraine and southeastern Belarus.
In an unusual move, Churkin appeared before lawmakers from the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee following the explosion in the wake of worldwide criticism over the Kremlin’s public reticence about the accident.
"It is my understanding that no harm was done -- real harm -- in those countries which are adjacent to the Soviet Union," he told committee members in the May 1986 appearance. "There was a desire to see what was really happening and what the consequences of that could be before...any public announcements."
He added that Moscow was "well aware of our responsibilities as a member of the international community" and that "at times we hope that the United States would be similarly aware of its responsibilities."
Churkin was widely seen as having close ties to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s foreign minister, Eduard Shevardnadze, who went on to become independent Georgia’s second president after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Churkin served as the ministry’s spokesman in the final years of the Soviet Union and after the nation was formally succeeded by the modern Russian state under its first president, Boris Yeltsin.
In March 1992, as Churkin was handing over his spokesman duties to a successor, UPI journalist Michael Collins noted that after the fall of Soviet Union, the diplomat "moved from being chief spokesman for the Soviet Foreign Ministry to speaking for the Russian government as smoothly as he often deflected hard questions he did not want to answer directly."
Churkin as ambassador to Belgium in 1995
Churkin would go on to serve in a range of senior diplomatic posts under Yeltsin -- including as the Kremlin’s envoy to Belgium and Canada.
During these years he was a forceful advocate for Moscow’s line in the two brutal wars in Russia’s southern Chechnya region, the second of which was launched amid Putin’s political rise in 1999.
Addressing a gathering of foreign-policy experts in Canada in December 1999, Churkin accused Western governments of "hypocrisy" for their accusations of Russian brutality in the second conflict given NATO’s bombing of Serbia in the Kosovo war earlier that year.
He also warned that Russia did not want to see "political tourists" in Chechnya given that foreign aid workers had been killed.
"This is not Disneyland," he said. "People are dying."
Putin appointed Churkin as Russia’s ambassador to the UN in April 2006, and he would continue to accuse the West of hypocrisy and meddling in Russia’s perceived sphere of influence throughout his tenure.
Following the outbreak of Russia’s brief 2008 war with Georgia over the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia, he suggested in an interview with the PBS News Hour that Washington had helped foment the five-day war with its support of then-President Mikheil Saakashvili -- a claim the U.S. government has firmly rejected.
He added that "the United States need to rethink their relationship with the current Georgian leadership," to which the late late PBS anchor Gwen Ifill responded: "Putin had harsher words. He said the U.S. is getting in the way."
"Well, you see, I'm a mild person," Churkin replied.
With reporting by Reuters, AP, Knight News Service, UPI, and The Globe and Mail