Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Putin’s foot soldier in New York: How Vassily Nebenzia fought on after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine  

Seen as a potential heir apparent to Sergey Lavrov, Vassily Nebenzia is a mysterious but relentless envoy for the Kremlin.

Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia of Russia at a Security Council meeting: he has unceasingly pushed Putin’s narrative since the day Russia’s tanks rolled into Ukraine’s territory (Lev Radin via Getty Images)
Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia of Russia at a Security Council meeting: he has unceasingly pushed Putin’s narrative since the day Russia’s tanks rolled into Ukraine’s territory (Lev Radin via Getty Images)

When Vassily Nebenzia, Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations in New York, took his job in 2017, he did so under unusual circumstances.

His predecessor, Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s permanent representative between 2006 and 2017, died suspiciously of a heart attack in his office in February 2017, forcing Moscow to appoint a new envoy in New York City. At the time, New York State examiners called for additional toxicology reports, but ultimately, Churkin’s death remains a mystery because of conventions for diplomatic immunity. Churkin was one of 38 Russian diplomats, critics and anti-corruption activists who mysteriously died in the span of three years.

Whispers about Churkin’s death continued after Nebenzia took his post in New York in June 2017, but he nonetheless carried on. Nebenzia was already an established figure in Russia’s foreign ministry, having worked as a deputy foreign affairs minister under long-serving Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Some in New York City even view Nebenzia as one of a few potential candidates to step next into the Foreign Minister job – after all, he is a leading diplomat and a relentless soldier for Moscow. Lavrov himself was a UN ambassador before being appointed foreign minister in 2004.

Nebenzia trod a traditional diplomatic path in Russia. The son of the deputy chairman of the USSR’s publishing committee, responsible for literary censorship, Nebenzia began his diplomatic career as an attaché in Thailand and slowly climbed his way up. He worked with Lavrov in 1996 as a counsellor at the UN mission in New York, again when Lavrov was UN ambassador, and then in 2013 as deputy foreign minister.

During his first few years Nebenzia was regarded as a mysterious although friendly face for Russia, which occupies a disproportionately powerful position at the UN by dint of its permanent status on the Security Council. Nebenzia was always on top of procedural matters and always ready to argue about Russia’s worldview and anti-Russian bias in Western countries.

If both Lavrov and Nebenzia had been kept in the dark, they both answered the same way: they closed ranks and kept pushing Russia’s worldview.

Following the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Nebenzia has become a much more recognisable figure, seen regularly on news broadcasts as the face of Russia’s belligerence as he parries Ukrainian and Western officials.

Just as with questions about to what extent Lavrov is “in the inner circle or not”, it is unclear whether Nebenzia was directly warned about Russia’s upcoming invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin announced that he was launching his euphemistic “special military operation” in the middle of a Security Council meeting on Ukraine. Nebenzia looked confused during the meeting and took a phone call shortly after the news came out of Russia’s invasion. He later told the BBC that he didn’t know about his country’s plan to invade Ukraine. The Ukraine representative at the UN, Sergiy Kyslytsya, told the BBC “Nebenzia was lost, he was clearly lost” during that Security Council meeting.

“He (Kyslytsya) was telling me to call Lavrov but I wondered who he is to give me orders, I have my own bosses,” Nebenzia told the BBC.

It was later reported that Lavrov himself may not have been aware of the imminent invasion either. If both of them had been kept in the dark, they both answered the same way: they closed ranks and kept pushing Russia’s worldview.

Exercising the veto - Nebenzia voting against a draft resolution in the Security Council on 25 February 2022 that "deplores in the strongest terms" Russia's "aggression" against Ukraine and demanded the immediate withdrawal of its troops (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)
Exercising the veto - Nebenzia voting against a draft resolution in the Security Council on 25 February 2022 that "deplores in the strongest terms" Russia's "aggression" against Ukraine and demanded the immediate withdrawal of its troops (Timothy A. Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

Nebenzia has relentlessly pushed Putin’s narrative since the day Russia’s tanks rolled into Ukraine’s territory – whether it is Russia’s claim that Ukraine needs “denazification” or that the Kyiv “regime” is a terrorist one, Nebenzia always seeks to blunt diplomats’ and reporters’ toughest questions on his country’s decision to invade its neighbour.

But Russia is used to presenting what it calls “alternative” points of view at the United Nations. Before Ukraine came to dominate the agenda, Nebenzia had continuously held Arria-formula, or informal Security Council meetings, to invite individuals from all walks of life presenting such “alternative” visions, for instance on the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons. This communication strategy repeated itself when the massacre of Bucha took place in Ukraine in April 2022.

While Russia’s communication playbook is known at the UN, behind closed doors, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine changed the dynamics inside the Security Council. It also affected the view of the council from outside.

After the invasion, Russian diplomats appeared to be, essentially if not formally, persona non grata at the UN, but Nebenzia kept pushing. The right of veto as one of five permanent Security Council members ensured that Russia maintained some kind of power and leverage even after the diplomatic isolation many UN delegates tried to impose.

Besides, for all the outrage about the violence done to Ukraine as well as the spirit of the UN Charter, the isolation was limited. “The highest number of votes against Russia in the general assembly was 143,” out of 193 member countries, one UN diplomat noted. The view of Western double standards in human rights criticism was only reinforced in the debates about Israel’s response to the Hamas’ attack of 7 October.

As such, the wars in Ukraine and Gaza have intensified tensions inside the Security Council, making it even more dysfunctional than it used to be. There at the table sits Nebenzia, who never misses an occasion to disrupt a meeting with a procedural ploy or to completely obstruct negotiations by casting a vote against. The number of vetoes used in the Security Council this year already surpasses those of last year, most of them cast by Russia.

For all the outrage towards Russia about the violence done to Ukraine as well as the spirit of the UN Charter, its isolation was limited (Cia Pak/UN Photo)
For all the outrage towards Russia about the violence done to Ukraine as well as the spirit of the UN Charter, its isolation was limited (Cia Pak/UN Photo)

It’s difficult to get a sense of workings behind the scenes, away from the showpiece proceedings. Western officials say they have limited contact with Russian counterparts at the UN nowadays, and cooperation between permanent five members of the Security Council is also reduced. Other diplomats say otherwise, and argue the permanent five countries still talk regularly, though maybe not as constructively as they used to. Official meetings between permanent five members resumed a year ago, according to a diplomat, but are very formal and tense. Official meetings of the Security Council certainly reflect dysfunction reminiscent of the Cold War era.

As one Security Council diplomat put it, “if only [the permanent five] countries would change their approach, it would have a dramatic impact on all the others because the smaller countries watch the bigger ones.”

A colleague described Nebenzia as reliable and highly professional but also likes to keep to himself – trustworthy, but not soon to forget a perceived betrayal.

Still, Nebenzia’s relentless official attitude contrasts with his easy-going personality with colleagues in informal settings. Russian diplomats are typically regarded as highly skilled diplomats. Nebenzia is known, among other things, to even listen to his live translation in English and sometimes correct interpreters should they make a mistake.

A colleague described Nebenzia as reliable and highly professional but also a person who likes to keep to himself – trustworthy, but not soon to forget a perceived betrayal. Nebenzia is also a regular churchgoer with a deep knowledge of Russian Orthodox dogma. He likes football (European football, but his colleague referred to it as “Russian” football) and is a good cook.

Whether Nebenzia believes everything he says at the United Nations, which can often be described as describing black as white in the face of solid evidence, he doesn’t care to be questioned. Nebenzia rarely takes one-on-one interviews with journalists, leaving that task to his number two, Dmitry Polyanskiy – an unusual approach in the UN setting.

When Nebenzia was once asked whether he would follow the footsteps of Boris Bondarev, a Russian diplomat who quit his post in Geneva to protest the invasion and denounced Russia’s actions, Nebenzia tersely answered “Do you think I should do the same?”

Nebenzia has never betrayed any doubt towards the Kremlin’s strategy in Ukraine and simply doubled down. No one will likely ever know if he has done so out of fear, belief, or ambition.


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