‘You’re being emotional’: What happened when I asked Sergei Lavrov about the blood on his hands

I only managed to get a couple of follow-up questions in after my director waged his own war with the mute button, repeatedly unmuting me when the Foreign Affairs Ministry tried to shut me up

Lavrov accuses reporter of ‘emotionally charging’ audience with question on civilian deaths

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It’s hard to compete for ratings with Paddington Bear. But that grizzled old Russian bear – foreign minister Sergei Lavrov – thought he’d give it a try this morning.

Wounded, perhaps, by the series of social media videos launched with devastating effect by the man who – before he became Ukraine’s wartime president – offered his acting skills as the voice of Paddington, Lavrov set the stage for his own performance by calling a press conference.

This was no ordinary media facility though. Earlier this week, I got a WhatsApp call from a bloke called Nikolay who I’d never spoken to before, saying I’d have an interview today.

Having sat down with Lavrov in Moscow for Channel 4 News in 2018, I’d been bidding for another encounter ever since, to no avail. So I was pleased to have a chance, finally, to put an array of disturbing allegations to him about Vladimir Putin’s war.

My joy was short-lived: Nikolay informed me this was to be what he called a “group interview” and that I would have only two questions.

Nevertheless, I duly showed up in the studio, where one by one a handful of journalists from across the globe were admitted into the Foreign Affairs Ministry’s Zoom meeting. The preamble lasted close to an hour, with Lavrov’s apparatchiks kept busy by a constant cacophony from the French broadcaster on the call, and the last-minute arrival of the American breakfast TV host George Stephanopoulos.

Finally, the white leather chair was readied and Lavrov plonked himself in it.

He’s a pretty fearsome figure: Putin’s right hand man, a veteran of Russia’s beef with the world, and a man not afraid (as the foreign secretary Liz Truss knows to her cost) to humiliate his interlocutors.

So it was with some trepidation that I decided to confront him about Polina Zapadynskaya, the girl in her final year of primary school, shot dead by the Russians in her family car in Kyiv on Saturday. I asked Lavrov to look me in the eye and tell me how he could sleep at night knowing Russian bombs and bullets are killing children.

He expressed his condolences, insisting “any human life is priceless” and emphasising that “our military personnel who are now involved in this special operation have a very strict order to only use high precision military equipment to suppress the military infrastructure”.

The facts on the ground, as so often, tell a very different story of the “special operation”, or Putin’s war, as it should more accurately be described.

Russia’s targeting is so indiscriminate hundreds of civilians have already lost their lives since the invasion began a week ago, according to the United Nations.

So, does Lavrov have Polina’s blood on his hands? It’s a “heated question”, designed to “emotionally charge your audience” he retorted, before accusing me of “acting like a talk show host” and questioning why we never scrutinised the civilian casualties during the west’s “escapades in Iraq”.

Channel 4 News did, of course, many times.

As the “group interview” progressed, he warmed to his theme, haranguing us for “emotional” questions, and repeatedly referring us to the Foreign Ministry’s website for “the facts”.

At one point he sounded almost forlorn when he said: “The questions I receive are as if no one listens.”

I only managed to get a couple of follow-ups in after my director, Martin Collett, waged his own war with the mute button, repeatedly unmuting me when the Foreign Affairs Ministry tried to shut me up. Russia can’t silence us all just yet.

And that goes to the heart of the information war Russia appears at present to be losing to Volodymyr Zelensky. The Ukrainian president, clad in a T-shirt, pumps out one high-impact video after another, and his message is retweeted the world over.

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Whether he’s ad-libbing to the European parliament (and receiving a standing ovation), or defiant on the streets of Kyiv, every time he appears on our screens, we listen, and he cuts the Russians down to size. He may not have Russia’s thermobaric hardware to rain down death and destruction – let alone a nuclear arsenal – but a Twitter account is the most powerful weapon at his disposal: and he’s using it to cause maximum pain.

Putin and his henchmen, by contrast, look sclerotic: analogue politicians in a digital war, taking days to convene a “group interview”, and answering at length with “facts” no one now can believe.

Zelensky’s mastery of communication clearly wounds Russia deeply. Why else would they shut down their country’s independent media?

But let’s not fool ourselves: a tweeted video can only achieve so much. When it comes to tanks, bombs and bullets, Russia surely can’t fail to win. Then the only question that remains is what victory looks like.

Lavrov talks blithely of World War Three and fighting to “the end” in Ukraine. But where and when does this end? And what will be left when Russia has finished? Lavrov alone, on a screen, carrying out a “group interview” with a couple of media cronies?

Call me emotional if you like, ask us – as he did – to “learn more facts”, but questions like this need answering.

Cathy Newman presents ‘Channel 4 News’ at 7pm

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