Analysis: What Vitaly Churkin’s death means for the United Nations


(CNN)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.
    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.”

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