Russia’s doubling down on offensive remarks by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who accused Jews of being antisemitic and said that Israel is supporting a “neo-Nazi regime” in Kyiv, are an indication that Moscow is all-in on Ukraine war and is likely to intensify its efforts in the East.
Lavrov is a loyal ally to Russian President Vladimir Putin, and his remarks received a full-throated defense from the Russian Foreign Ministry – issued in a nearly 1,000-word statement on Tuesday.
Israeli leaders, who had positioned their country as a possible intermediary in the war, have issued strong condemnations, though it is unclear if the controversy will shift Jerusalem’s position. Israel so far has held back from sending military hardware to Ukraine to maintain relations with Russia.
Most observers said the ugly comments and Moscow’s defense of them show Russia remains focused on its propaganda effort, which from the beginning has been based on false tropes about neo-Nazis in Ukraine.
“All of this goes to the bigger reality, I think the Russians, simply, do not want an offramp,” said Don Jensen, director of the Russia and Europe program at the US Institute of Peace.
“They want to win this thing, and the whole tone of what he said, the whole ahistorical foolishness of it, just shows that they’re not interested in sitting down or talking about a peace settlement or anything like that, not right now. ”
Lavrov in an interview on Italian television said Adolf Hitler had “Jewish origins” and that “the wise Jewish people say that the most ardent anti-Semites are usually Jews.”
“It sounds like a guy who is losing the war,” US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides said in remarks about the comments during a panel hosted by The Atlantic Council on Tuesday.
“I do not want to give it credibility, it was so outrageously stupid… I think ultimately the actions of what Russia has done has set Russia back, in my humble view, not only with Israel, but for the world for 30 years. ”
Some say Lavrov, an experienced diplomat, knew what he was doing with remarks that at a glance may have looked clumsy.
“I do not believe that what he said about Hitler and about the Jews, that it slipped from his tongue, that it was a mistake,” said Ksenia Svetlova, a former Israeli Member of the Knesset (Parliament) and who was born in Moscow.
“It was a well thought out, planned attack. It is part of the justification of the Russian regime. ”
Svetlova, who serves as director of the Israel-Middle East Relations Program at Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policy, met Lavrov in 2006 and said he “made an impression of an intelligent and well-versed person.”
A politician and a diplomat, Lavrov rose through the ranks of the then-Soviet Union’s diplomatic corps and then, following the fall of the Soviet Union, served as Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations between 1994 and 2004.
One former diplomat described Lavrov as “charismatic” and “theatrical,” who participated in drama productions when serving at the Russian mission to the UN before he became ambassador.
“Clearly his skills are pretty well developed to act and be theatrical and in that sense, sell any policy the Kremlin wants to be sold,” said the diplomat, who further described Lavrov as “a genuine foreign ministry veteran professional.”
Lavrov was appointed as Moscow’s top international envoy in 2004 shortly after Putin assumed leadership. As one of the longest-serving members of Putin’s political party, United Russia, observers say he has financially benefited from his unwavering fealty to the Russian leader and has maintained longevity through a rejection of political ambition.
“He’s like a mouthpiece, whatever they want him to say, he says,” said Olga Lautman, a non-resident senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis.
“Before he was seen on the world stage as kind of likable, and you know, moderate and normal,” Lautman continued, before adding that Lavrov has shifted his rhetoric in time with Putin’s directions.
“I also think maybe he was playing to the Italian audience,” she said, “pointing to some old sentiment in Italy because there’s still antisemitic views across certain countries.”
Jensen, of the US Institute of Peace, said Russia views Italy as “a relatively soft target.”
“It makes sense that he would go on Italian media, because he would have an audience that is relatively more sympathetic to Russia than Estonia or Poland,” he said. “But that having been said, the Italians have been pretty tough lately, partly because of [Italian Prime Minister Mario] Draghi. ”
Lavrov’s interview on Italian television aired as Draghi is expected to visit Washington on May 10 and also came before an announcement by the European Union aiming to ban all Russian oil imports by the end of the year.
Russia is the main supplier to Italy for natural gas and oil, but Italian officials have spoken openly about weaning the country from its energy dependence on Moscow.
Draghi is also in favor of empowering the EU to pass agenda items on a majority basis, and not as consensus measures in reaction to countries – like Hungary and Slovakia – that may oppose sanctions on Russia.
“Italy is at the forefront of those who not only adopt anti-Russian sanctions, but also put forward all sorts of initiatives,” Lavrov said in his interview.
The US sanctioned Lavrov on Feb. 25, along with Putin, the day after Russia invaded Ukraine. His family members have come under sanctions from the US and UK in retaliation for the discovery of mass civilian atrocities in the towns and villages following Russia’s retreat from western Ukraine
“As Foreign Minister, Lavrov has advanced the false narrative that Ukraine is the aggressor as he has aggressively sought to justify Russia’s actions globally,” the Treasury Department said in its explanation of the sanctions.
“Additionally, as the top diplomat representing Russia on the world stage, Lavrov has helped facilitate Russia’s aggressive actions against sovereign states and enabled Russia to degrade democracy globally.”