Immediately after the White House announced new sanctions against Russia on April 15, U.S. Ambassador to Russia John Sullivan was summoned to the Russian Foreign Ministry. Reports about ambassadors being “summoned” often appear in the news amid rising tensions between states. Russian ambassadors are also called to the U.S. State Department, the UK’s Foreign Office, or the foreign affairs department of any country that has diplomatic relations with Russia. But only professionals from the diplomatic service know the purpose of the summons. To find out more about what goes on during these consultations, Meduza spoke to Roman Reinhardt, an associate professor in MGIMO University’s Department of Diplomacy.
Associate Professor Roman Reinhardt, Department of Diplomacy, MGIMO University
The American ambassador being summoned to our MID [the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry] is a common practice. They summon him for consultations, to clarify some positions that are being expressed by his country’s leadership. This is the immediate function of a diplomatic representative, as enshrined in the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. This is exactly what the head of a diplomatic mission ought to be doing.
It would be more appropriate to say invited than “summoned.” The process goes something like this: a document requesting a visit from the ambassador is sent from the MID to the embassy. The time is agreed upon through the usual channel, based on the MID’s schedule and the ambassador’s schedule. [The ambassador] may be sick or have some urgent business to attend to, but in general there’s nothing sacred or complicated about working out the details.
[During the meeting], the MID will ask the ambassador clarifying questions, however, he isn’t obliged to answer everything immediately. If any questions are uncomfortable for him for whatever reason, no one will grill him — they simply have no right to interrogate him. He can take a time-out and consult with the central apparatus — in [the U.S.’s] case, the State Department. If he doesn’t want to answer the question directly, he’ll give a vague response.
However, [in this case], I think everything will be quite specific. Previously, there were instances where they asked the ambassador an uncomfortable question and he avoided answering it by saying “I need to think” [or] “I’m not prepared to answer,” or he hit back with platitudes. A relatively new trend in international communications is that everything is said directly. Take the recent episode when U.S. President Joe Biden was asked a provocative question about our President [Vladimir Putin]. He could have avoided answering and declined to comment. Or said that he disagrees with this statement, which would have been even more correct. But he went for a direct answer — for what reasons is another question.
Of course, a president and an ambassador are different figures. However, from what I’ve observed, such sharpness and shrewdness has become more and more characteristic of international communication on the whole, including diplomatic communication. No one’s shy anymore about saying things that are often extremely harsh.
Abridged translation by Eilish Hart