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'Look At Me!': Russian UN Envoy's Rant Stirs Buzz Back Home

Russian deputy UN envoy Vladimir Safronkov at a Security Council meeting on April 7
Russian deputy UN envoy Vladimir Safronkov at a Security Council meeting on April 7

Russia's chattering classes have been set abuzz by a tirade that Moscow's deputy UN envoy unleashed on his British counterpart, with supporters hailing him as a rising political star and critics condemning him as a thug.

The April 12 speech by Vladimir Safronkov, Russia's deputy ambassador to the UN, was remarkable for its aggressive, blunt, and highly informal tone directed at Britain's envoy, Matthew Rycroft.

Responding to Rycroft's accusation that Russia is siding with a "murderous, barbaric criminal" in backing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Safronkov angrily accused Britain of trying to "sabotage" potential U.S.-Russian cooperation on Syria and proceeded to order the British diplomat to make eye contact.

"Look at me! Don't turn your eyes away! Why are you looking away?" Safronkov said during his speech, which came shortly after Russia vetoed a Western-backed draft UN Security Council resolution on last week's suspected chemical weapons attack in Syria.

Safronkov also accused Rycroft of acting "irresponsibly, offensively, and obscenely."

"Don't you dare insult Russia again," he snapped.

Safronkov's rant stood in stark contrast to Russia's silver-tongued former ambassador to the UN, Vitaly Churkin, who died unexpectedly in New York in February. Churkin was known as a pugnacious advocate for his government, but also for his wit and erudition that earned him respect even from UN counterparts who loathed the Kremlin policies he defended.

Kremlin-loyal media generally gave a positive spin of Safronkov's outburst, with national broadcaster NTV saying that he "forbade the British representative to the UN from insulting Russia."

Sergei Markov, a Kremlin-connected political analyst and former federal lawmaker with President Vladimir Putin's ruling United Russia party, was openly effusive, writing on Facebook that Safronkov's performance marked the "birth of a new politician."

Safronkov's speech was also promoted by the Russian government, which circulated a transcript that excised one of the most striking aspects of his turn at the mic: his use of the informal Russian pronoun "ty" when addressing Rycroft.

It is generally considered rude to use the pronoun except between friends and close acquaintances, and it is virtually never used in public, official settings in Russia.

The official transcript posted by the Russian Foreign Ministry replaced Safronkov's use of "ty" with the more formal pronoun "vy."

Safronkov's coarse tone -- echoing a style that President Putin has himself frequently embraced during his 17 years in power -- triggered criticism from some in Russia, who said they already missed Churkin's professionalism and likened Safronkov to a thug.

Russian-language social-media users subsequently compared Safronkov with Russian hoodlums -- commonly referred to as "gopniks" -- known for their signature track suits, as well as a proclivity for cheap beer and cigarettes.

​TRANSLATION: “A Russian diplomat on his lunch break.”

Russian political analyst Aleksandr Shmelev wrote on Facebook that he had a suggestion for a stunt for Russia's next ambassador to the UN: "[He] should pull boogers out of his nose and demonstratively smear them on his opponents’ jackets. After that, [he] can start barking and biting the ankles of those next to him."

Oleg Kozyrev, a media analyst and opposition blogger, set Safronkov's speech to a video of Denver the Guilty Dog, a canine Internet sensation who gained fame after appearing to look remorseful after eating a forbidden bag of treats.

(Like Safronkov, the dog's owner tells Denver to "look at me.")

Opposition politician Dmitry Gudkov recalled the time that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov -- a smooth-talking, urbane official widely respected by colleagues for his diplomatic savvy -- was caught on a hot mic mumbling the words "f***ing morons."

Gudkov wrote that he hopes Lavrov has already "brushed away a tear recalling his humbly whispered 'f. morons'" after seeing the rough approach openly embraced by his "triumphant student" Safronkov.

Gudkov added on Facebook: "After jurisprudence, next on the list of unneeded cargo in Russia is diplomacy."

Vladimir Solovyov, a popular Russian television and radio personality generally friendly to the Kremlin, seemed bewildered by Safronkov's tirade, particularly his use of the informal pronoun when addressing his British counterpart.

"Someone probably signed off on this, right?" Solovyov said on his morning radio show on April 13, going on to compare Safronkov unfavorably with Churkin and Lavrov.

"I can't imagine such language from Sergei Viktorovich Lavrov -- who can say all sorts of things, like 'morons' and so forth -- but with a very clear stylistic understanding of what, where, when, and how one can speak," Solovyov said.

The Kremlin itself finally weighed in on the matter on April 13 and appeared to be fine with their man in New York.

Putin's spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said it would have been worse had Safronkov demonstrated a "lack of determination."

"He did not say anything insulting. In fact, [UN] Security Council debates are rather heated. They often relate to the essence and the future of international relations. A lack of determination is fraught with very bad consequences," Peskov was quoted by Interfax as saying.

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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.

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