Churkin was known for his larger-than-life personality
The ambassador was always a staunch proponent of Moscow's line
The United Nations is used to receiving news of tragedy. Diplomats will calmly call meetings in response to reports of death and destruction from far away.
But breaking news of Russian UN Ambassador Vitaly Churkin’s death ripped through the UN system like a thunderbolt. The deputy UN spokesperson gasped when he heard the news during the daily briefing.
Churkin’s death came at a time when the world is focused on the relationship between President Donald Trump and the Russian government, as Michael Flynn’s phone calls with Churkin’s colleague at the Russian Embassy in Washington recently cost the national security adviser his job.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has been described as upset by Churkin’s death, will have to choose a replacement. There are several deputies in the Russian mission, but the post calls for a heavyweight type from Russia’s diplomatic ranks.
The United Nations is where ambassadors can stand out and actually become media stars. There are cameras everywhere, leading right up to the doorstep of the Security Council – not the case at fortress-like embassies around the world.
Everybody knew Ambassador Churkin. Even if you didn’t like his policies, you still kinda liked the man. From diplomats who argued with him to reporters whom he scolded about their questions, Churkin was without a doubt the most standout UN diplomat. British UN Ambassador Matthew Rycroft told me he was a “diplomatic giant.”
“Ambassador Churkin was a uniquely skilled diplomat, a powerful orator with great wit, and a man of many talents and interests,” UN Secretary-General António Guterres said in a statement. “Although we served together for a short time, I greatly appreciated the opportunity to work with him and will deeply miss his insights, skills and friendship.”
“It’s a somber day for us all,” General Assembly President Peter Thomson told a Monday afternoon meeting. “We’ve lost one of the most respected and influential members of the UN family,” he added, his voice choked with emotion, “and I can say with confidence that his name is going to live on in the annals of this organization’s history.”
A Secretary-General can leave office after ten years and nobody really notices – but Churkin? There were tears in diplomatic faces at the UN.
Of course Churkin, with his unique personality, will also be remembered for siding with Syrian President Bashar Assad through years of civil war. It was Churkin who vetoed many Security Council resolutions pushed by Western countries seeking a diplomatic end to the conflict.
Churkin was always a staunch proponent of Moscow’s line – not just on Syria, but on the downing of a Malaysia Airlines plane over eastern Ukraine and the Russian move into Georgia. When asked by reporters about Trump’s election victory and its impact, Churkin could not be swayed to discuss it.
A career diplomat, he was well-connected at the Kremlin and would not go rogue while representing his country.
Hardly a meeting about conflict would pass without Churkin reminding his collegues of US attacks to remove Moammar Gadhafi from power in Libya, which proved, in his opinion, that “humanitarian intervention” doesn’t work. But Churkin, unlike many of the other 192 ambassadors, had a way of getting his message out with some flair and some bite.
He was not like the dozens of other faceless men in suits walking the hallways. Had he been there, tomorrow’s planned meeting involving Ukraine and its foreign minister would likely have provided some sharp comments from Churkin.
Ten years in a UN post is a long time by traditional diplomatic standards, but Russia tends to keep its lead diplomat at the UN in place for a long while.
Churkin’s passing comes at a time of change at the United Nations. The United States and its new ambassador are placing great pressure on the UN to cut costs and staff. And there’s a new UN Secretary-General, Guterres, who has to somehow handle the five major powers on the Security Council that backed his election.
It was Churkin’s last significant Council action: in a move no one was expecting, Churkin led the entire Security Council out to meet the press in early October to announce the Council had reached a closed door decision and chosen its new Secretary-General. Surrounded by fourteen other smiling ambassadors, Churkin was proud to represent Russia in the Council Presidency chair and to have the right to be the one to end months of suspense.
It was a rare moment of unity for the Council – the same Council that had frequently, over the course of Churkin’s ten years, been blocked by Russia’s combative ambassador from truly protecting international peace and security.
Earlier this month, I said to Churkin, “you’ve been here a long time.” To chuckles, he smiled and said “don’t remind me.”
Recently I thought he didn’t look well. Others heard he had been sick and not around as much.
Unlike many other ambassadors, he stopped to talk on camera after a recent Ukraine Security Council meeting. Nikki Haley had just come onto the scene as the new US ambassador for the Trump Administration, and they had just been in the chamber for the first time with the full Council.
UN observers had been waiting to see how Churkin and Haley’s relationship might develop, especially as Trump’s relationship with Russia was now under the microscope. Churkin had dueled with the previous two female US ambassadors.
He had told Samantha Power in December that she wasn’t Mother Teresa as she criticized Russian action in Ukraine. Before Power, Churkin and former US Ambassador Susan Rice were described as acting like an old married couple. And boy did they argue.
Now I asked whether he would be “training” a new US Ambassador. Churkin smiled and “I’m much more optimistic. I’m not training.”
He told the press corps he had one guiding principle: “never underestimate a colleague,” a phrase he often repeated. In their brief time at the UN together, Haley said in a statement after Churkin’s passing, “we did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country’s positions with great skill.”