Diplomacy built on lies

Russian diplomats’ motto abroad is ‘If you were caught in a lie, stay quiet or go into attack mode’. A dossier on Russia’s UN envoy Vasily Nebenzya

Diplomacy built on lies

Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vasily Nebenzya. Photo: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

“Ukraine’s air defence is to blame for residential houses getting damaged and civilians getting killed in Ukraine,” is the mantra repeated constantly over the last year by Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations Vasily Nebenzya. He utters these words at the official level meetings monthly, sometimes more often, — every time residential Ukrainian districts end up in ruins after another shelling, while civilians are dying trapped under the rubble…

Furthermore, Nebenzya never provides direct proof — videos, photos, or documents proving that the Ukrainian air defence is to blame instead of Russian missiles. He just wants you to take his word for it. This is what he does. The UN Security Council meetings are his stage.

His office is in Manhattan. As of today, he is the third most important representative of Russian diplomacy, after Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Maria Zakharova. In his statements, he copies their style, arguments, and rhetoric, which does not seem to appeal to the rules of diplomacy very much. This is not what they were taught at the prestigious Russia’s Institute of International Relations, more likely, they got it from somewhere else. And just like Zakharova and Lavrov, Nebenzya never corrects himself if his statements are refuted by facts. And they do get refuted, more and more often ever since the start of the war in Ukraine.

Vasily Nebenzya is 61. He has served as the Permanent Representative of Russia to the United Nations for the last six years. He replaced Vitaly Churkin at the post. Churkin was also infamous for his confrontational rhetoric. It’s unclear who got luckier: diplomat Churkin, who had died before the so-called “special military operation” began, or diplomat Nebenzya, who will go down in history as a military mouthpiece of the Kremlin at the international level during the era of one of the most tragic and cruel wars ever waged by Russia.

Nebenzya’s father, Alexey Nebenzya, fought in WWII, was a member of the Communist Party, and got through communist ranks to a high-level job.

Alexey Nebenzya during WWII. Photo:

Alexey Nebenzya during WWII. Photo:

His son Vasily, as expected of Soviet officials’ children, was enrolled into an elite university that children of regular parents could not get into — the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, affiliated with the USSR Foreign Ministry. Having graduated in 1983, Nebenzya dived headfirst into diplomatic work. From the late 80s up until the mid-90s, he worked as an attaché of the USSR Embassy in Thailand, at various posts in the USSR Foreign Ministry’s directorates and departments, and then, after the Soviet Union collapsed, he took on jobs at the Russian Foreign Ministry. From 1996 to 2000, he worked in the US as an adviser and then senior adviser within the Permanent Mission of Russia to the UN. Then back to Moscow — until 2006, Nebenzya assumed different leadership positions in the Department of International Organisations of Russia’s Foreign Ministry.

Nebenzya and his family (wife Lyudmila and son Sergey) spent the next five years in Geneva: he was sent to Switzerland in the capacity of the Deputy Permanent Representative of Russia to the World Trade Organization. Later on, he returned to Moscow to take up the position of the Director of the Department for Humanitarian Cooperation and Human Rights of the Russian Foreign Ministry.

Still, it’s unclear whose rights Nebenzya was protecting, and he did not do it for very long. In 2013, he was finally appointed deputy of Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s Foreign Minister.

Four years later, Vitaly Churkin suffers a heart attack in the building of Russia’s UN Representative Office in New York. An hour later, he dies in the hospital without ever regaining consciousness… A weird coincidence: exactly 53 years earlier, the Permanent Representative to the UN from the USSR, a former prosecutor of the Stalin era Andrey Vyshinsky also died from a heart attack in his Manhattan office.

Churkin’s untimely death, just like Vyshinsky’s in the past, shocked many, but no criminal intent was found in either case. Two months later, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs proposed a replacement, Lavrov’s right-hand man Vasily Nebenzya. Putin approved the choice by signing a corresponding decree.

A view of the New York hospital where Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin died on 20 February 2017. Photo: Volkan Furuncu / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

A view of the New York hospital where Russia’s Permanent Representative to the UN Vitaly Churkin died on 20 February 2017. Photo: Volkan Furuncu / Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Nebenzya before the war

In some ways, Nebenzya is similar to his predecessor Vitaly Churkin. The latter’s sharp and not very diplomatic statements towards Western countries proclaimed during Security Council meetings became memes and were quoted often, becoming a symbol of the new “Cold War”. But during Churkin’s era, there was no real war happening, especially not one with Russia’s nearest neighbour. And not many could predict it ever happening…

Before the war, Nebenzya usually only talked about Ukraine during Security Council meetings when the topic of discussion was the 2014 MH17 plane crash. He proclaimed that Russia refused to accept the conclusions of the International Investigative Group, which had established Moscow’s responsibility for the crash.

He referred to the conclusions and accusations against Russia as “unfounded” and stated that the countries who had partaken in the investigation had used “wicked methods”. 

“I want to remind you once again, if you’ve forgotten. No one is allowed to use the language of ultimatums with Russia,” Nebenzya told the Netherlands’ Foreign Minister Stef Blok when the latter said that Russia needed to claim responsibility for the crash.

Nebenzya had every attribute of a “Cold War”-era permanent representative: outer harshness, a style only featuring ultimatums and even threats.

However, before the war, Nebenzya was characterised by a more human, although doubtfully sincere, rhetoric.

This is what he once said about Boeing MH17: “We’re outraged by this terrible incident and deeply mourn the victims and sympathise with their relatives and loved ones. We insist on conducting an investigation that could be trusted, the real culprits should be identified based on reliable proof.”

Nebenzya during the war

“Reliable proof” became Nebenzya’s go-to move after 24 February 2022, too. Although his current military speech style at Security Council meetings copies Maria Zakharova and Sergey Lavrov’s vocabulary word for word.

“We’re carrying out attacks on infrastructure facilities in Ukraine in response to the country being loaded with Western weapons and unwise calls for Kyiv to wield a military victory over Russia,” is how Nebenzya explained the purpose of Russian missile attacks on Ukraine during a Security Council meeting on 24 November 2022. According to the diplomat, one of the purposes of the “special military operation” is “undermining the military capability of the Ukrainian army which poses a threat to the security and territorial integrity of Russia”. Nebenzya promised that military methods would continue being used until “the Kyiv regime takes up a realistic position which would allow us, within the framework of negotiations, to discuss and try to regulate the issues that had led us to start the special military operation”.

…It is likely to be a coincidence, but three days before the invasion of Ukraine, on 21 February 2022, Vladimir Putin awarded Nebenzya with the Order “For Merit to the Fatherland” of the fourth degree — for big contributions to implementation of Russian foreign policy and years of diligent diplomatic service.

Vasily Nebenzya takes the stand at a special session of the UN General Assembly dedicated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 28 February 2022. Photo: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

Vasily Nebenzya takes the stand at a special session of the UN General Assembly dedicated to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, 28 February 2022. Photo: Michael M. Santiago / Getty Images

It is not difficult to guess that after 24 February, Nebenzya’s contributions to the “implementation of Russian foreign policy” became more frequent than before the war.

“No one promised a result in three days or a week. Currently, some experts maintain that Russia’s military operation has stalled and been going at a slower pace than planned. But the progress is there, it continues, and it’s clear as day,” Nebenzya assured foreign journalists six months after the start of the war.

Over the past year, Nebenzya has, obviously, never admitted to Russian troops’ inhumane methods of waging war neither in his interviews nor during Security Council meetings. He insisted only on “atrocities being committed by Ukrainian forces and neo-Nazis in Donbas”, insisted, just like Russian state TV news hosts do, that a biological weapon plant exists in Ukraine, while Ukrainian fighters “are shelling their own residential areas and social infrastructure facilities: schools, hospitals, and kindergartens”.

And he never offered any proof. But he referred to Bucha as “fake news”, demanded “reliable proof” of there being hundreds of victims in Ukraine, children among them, of hospitals and schools destroyed in bombings. Foreign colleagues at Security Council meetings and foreign media correspondents told him that these facts had been documented by UN experts present in the combat zone and independent NGOs, for example, Save the Children.

He wasn’t even embarrassed about publicly getting caught in a lie. After a maternity home in Ukraine’s Mariupol had been shelled, the Russian diplomat showed two photos of Ukrainian women to the General Assembly and claimed that it was allegedly the same woman on both — or “an actress made to look” like two different women. In reality, an independent investigation proved that they were two different women (a fact Nebenzya was made aware of at the same General Assembly) — the first one was killed in the shelling together with her unborn child, the second, Marianna Vyshemirskaya, ended up with light injuries and soon gave birth to a daughter. The woman herself also denied having taken part in any schemes.

The next time, Nebenzya provided an example of “inhumane methods of waging war by Kyiv” by talking about anti-personnel mines Lepestok. According to his data, Ukraine’s Armed Forces allegedly scatter the Lepestok mines in residential areas, streets, and parks. With children assuming mines are toys and picking them up.

At that moment, the mines go off and civilians get hurt in explosions, the diplomat pointed out. However, he was unable to provide data on the number of injured and killed by these mines.

Nebenzya also threatened the US and other allies that help Ukraine with the use of HIMARS systems with “substantial legal consequences”. He warned: “Russia documents all the criminal activities of this kind carefully.”

Last but not least, he accused Ukraine’s president of “undermining” the partial mobilisation in Russia announced by Putin in September 2022. Nebenzya explained during a Security Council meeting that Zelensky tried to disrupt mobilisation via his video messages recorded “in Russian on purpose for tactical and propagandist reasons”. Zelensky indeed called upon Russians to not pick up draft notices, to flee from mobilisation, or surrender. According to Nebenzya, this was how the Ukrainian leader “tried to drive a wedge between the [Russian] authorities and the public”.

It remains unclear what Nebenzya’s 28-year-old son Sergey thought of the mobilisation. Nebenzya did not clarify whether his son was drafted.

Nebenzya today

Almost a year after the beginning of the war, Vasily Nebenzya, just like before, is living in New York and working in the Permanent Office building in Manhattan. And just like before, every time residential areas of Ukraine get shelled by missiles, he utters the same phrases at Security Council meetings: “The blame for civilian victims and damage to residential buildings lies on Ukraine’s air defence, located in city centres instead of outskirts. As a result, missile debris or Ukrainian missiles that veered off course hit facilities Russia was not even targeting.”

Nebenzya is certain that the international community is “delusional” about the situation in Ukraine. He does not see any problem with Russia’s diplomatic and economic isolation, with its “military operation” only being supported by Belarus, North Korea, Syria, and Eritrea. “The West has achieved some tactical success [in isolating Russia], but it’s losing strategically.”

Whether he believes what he is saying, no one knows. He could, probably, do what his colleague, another Russian diplomat Boris Bondarev, did — leave his post as a sign him condemning the government’s actions. Bondarev resigned at the very beginning of the war, saying: “I’ve never been more ashamed of my country”...

“Do you think I should do the same?” Nebenzya asked BBC journalist Stephen Sackur in an annoyed voice when the latter reminded him of Bondarev’s decision. The reporter said that he was just wondering whether those words resonate with him in any way.

Nebenzya did not reply.

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