MOSCOW: As Russia's top diplomat during the invasion of Ukraine, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is embodying the Kremlin's defiant posture with a mixture of toughness and sarcasm.
While President Vladimir Putin single-handedly shapes the country's foreign policy, Lavrov delivers Moscow's message with a bluntness uncharacteristic of a diplomat.
In the role for nearly 18 years, the 71-year-old Lavrov has seen relations with the West shift from near-friendly to openly hostile, plummeting to a catastrophic new low with Russia's war against Ukraine.
The invasion prompted the European Union to freeze the assets of both Putin and Lavrov, among others , an unprecedented blow to Moscow's pride.
Lavrov's tenure as foreign minister is second only to that of Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko, who was in office for 28 years.
Like Gromyko, who was nicknamed Mr.Nyet (Mr.No), Lavrov has come to represent the uncompromising face of Kremlin foreign policy vis a vis the West.
He doesn't mince words when defending what he sees as Moscow's interests, and that style must appeal to the tough-talking Russian president.
In 2008, Lavrov famously responded to a reprimand from then British Foreign Secretary David Miliband by snapping: "Who are you to (expletive) lecture me?" Like his boss, Lavrov has tapped into broad public nostalgia for the country's Soviet-era clout.
He has vented anger at the West, depicting the U.S. as arrogant, conceited, treacherous and determined to dominate the world.
He has contemptuously dismissed Western allies as stooges obediently toeing Washington's line to deter Russia.
Standing next to British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss after their meeting last month, a grim-faced Lavrov snapped that their talks were like a "conversation between deaf and dumb."
After a lifelong diplomatic career, Lavrov looks visibly bored by daily routine.
When he appears before the media, he doesn't bother to hide his irritation at a naive or provocative question, often responding with an air of contempt or plain mockery.
When a CNN reporter in a video call from the Ukrainian capital asked Lavrov whether Moscow wants to topple the Ukrainian leadership, the aide who managed Friday's briefing interrupted and said it wasn't his turn to put a question.
The reporter continued, and an angry Lavrov weighed in: "He's discourteous. He's working in Ukraine now. He's got infected with discourtesy."
Lavrov has particular distaste for photographers, showing annoyance at the clacking of camera shutters.
At one news conference, he muttered an expletive into the microphone in apparent anger at disorderly reporters; the expression became a meme, widely adopted in T-shirt designs for the patriotic audience.
Lavrov has weathered endless waves of speculation that he was on the verge of retirement.
Instead, he has become one of the longest-lasting members of Putin's Cabinet and a perennial figure among a changing kaleidoscope of foreign counterparts.
Before becoming foreign minister, he served as Russia's ambassador to the United Nations for 10 years and liked to have informal chats with journalists, trading news and jokes over a cigarette in the U.N. corridors.
He writes poetry, sings songs on guitar with friends, and eagerly took part in skits with other diplomats at international events when Russia's ties with the West were less rancorous.
But his smiles and easy ways are a thing of the past now that Lavrov launches daily, angry diatribes against the West over Ukraine, the largest ground conflict Europe has seen since World War II.
On Tuesday, he was barred from flying to Geneva to attend a U.N. conference after European Union members banned Russian planes from their skies as part of bruising sanctions against Moscow.
Lavrov denounced what he called the "outrageous" move in a video address to the U.N. session, charging that "the EU countries are trying to avoid a candid face-to-face dialogue or direct contacts designed to help identify political solutions to pressing international issues."
"The West clearly has lost self-control in venting anger against Russia and has destroyed its own rules and institutions, including respect for private property," Lavrov said.
"It's necessary to put an end to the arrogant Western philosophy of self-superiority, exclusivity and total permissiveness."
But Western diplomats from dozens of nations left the room in Geneva as Lavrov came up on the big screen, letting their feet show their anger at Moscow and in effect saying nyet to him and Russian diplomacy.
Russia renewed its assault on Wednesday on Ukraine's second-largest city in a pounding that lit up the skyline with balls of fire over populated areas, even as both sides said they were ready to resume talks aimed at stopping the new devastating war in Europe.
The escalation of attacks on crowded cities followed an initial round of talks between outgunned Ukraine and nuclear power Russia on Monday that resulted in only a promise to meet again.
It was not clear when new talks might take place or what they would yield.
Ukraine's leader earlier said Russia must stop bombing before another meeting.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has decried Russia's bombardment as a blatant terror campaign, while US President Joe Biden warned on Tuesday that if the Russian leader didn't pay a price for the invasion, the aggression wouldn't stop with one country.
The bombardment continued Wednesday.
Ukrainian UNIAN news agency quoted the health administration chief of the northern city of Chernihiv as saying two cruise missiles hit a hospital there.
The hospital's main building suffered damage, Serhiy Pivovar said, and authorities were working to determine the casualty toll.
No other information was immediately available.
A Russian strike also hit the regional police and intelligence headquarters in Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city with a population of about 1.5 million, killing four people and wounding several, the state emergency service of Ukraine said.
It added that residential buildings were also hit, but did not provide further details.
A blast blew the roof off of the five-story police building and set the top floor alight, according to videos and photos released by the service.
Pieces of the building were strewn across adjacent streets.
The attack followed a day after one in Kharkiv's central square that killed at least six people and shocked many Ukrainians for hitting at the center of life in a major city.
A Russian strike also targeted a TV tower in the capital of Kyiv.
Roughly 874,000 people have fled Ukraine and the UN refugee agency warned the number could cross the 1 million mark soon.
Countless others have taken shelter underground.
The overall death toll from the seven-day war is not clear, with neither Russia nor Ukraine releasing the number of troops lost.
Ukraine's State Emergency Service said more than 2,000 civilians have died, though it was impossible to verify that claim.
The UN human rights office has tallied 136 civilian deaths, while acknowledging the actual toll is surely far higher.
Ukrainian authorities said five people were killed in the TV tower strike, which also hit the site of the Babi Yar Holocaust memorial.
A spokesman for the memorial said a Jewish cemetery at the site, where Nazi occupiers killed more than 33,000 Jews over two days in 1941, was damaged.
Russia previously told people living near transmission facilities used by Ukraine's intelligence agency to leave their homes.
But Russian Defense Ministry spokesman Igor Konashenkov claimed Wednesday that the airstrike on the TV tower did not hit any residential buildings.
He did not address the reported deaths or the damage to Babi Yar.
Zelenskyy, who called the strike on the square in Kharkiv a war crime that the world would never forget, expressed outrage Wednesday at the attack on Babi Yar and concern that other historically significant and religious sites, such as St.
Sophia's Cathedral, could be targeted.
Shelling earlier hit the town of Uman, a significant pilgrimage site for Hasidic Jews.
"This is beyond humanity," Zelenskyy said in a speech posted on Facebook.
"They have orders to erase our history, our country and all of us."
Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, called on Jews around the world to protest the invasion.
Even as Russia pressed its assault, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that a delegation would be ready later in the day to meet Ukrainian officials.
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba also said his country was ready, but noted that Russia's demands have not changed and that he wouldn't accept any ultimatums.
Neither side said where the talks might take place.
As the war wears on, Russia finds itself increasingly isolated, beset by the sanctions that have thrown its economy into turmoil and left the country practically friendless, apart from a few nations like China, Belarus and North Korea.
Leading Russian bank Sberbank announced on Wednesday that it is pulling out of European markets amid the tightening Western sanctions.
In Washington, Biden used his first State of the Union address on Tuesday to highlight the resolve of a reinvigorated Western alliance that has worked to rearm the Ukrainian military and adopt those tough sanctions.
"Throughout our history we've learned this lesson, when dictators do not pay a price for their aggression, they cause more chaos," Biden said.
"They keep moving. And the costs and threats to America and the world keep rising."
As Biden spoke, a 40-mile (64-kilometer) convoy of hundreds of Russian tanks and other vehicles advanced slowly on Kyiv, the capital city of nearly 3 million people, in what the West feared was a bid by Russian President Vladimir Putin to topple the government and install a Kremlin-friendly regime.
The invading forces also pressed their assault on other towns and cities.
Britain's Defense Ministry said Kharkiv and the strategic port of Mariupol were encircled by Russian forces and that troops had reportedly moved into the center of a third city, Kherson.
Russia's Defense Ministry said it had seized Kherson, although the city's mayor denied Russia had taken full control.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency, the United Nations' nuclear watchdog, said it had received a letter from Russia saying its military had taken control around Ukraine's largest nuclear power plant.
According to the letter, personnel at the plant continued their "work on providing nuclear safety and monitoring radiation in normal mode of operation," and it said the "radiation levels remain normal.
Russia has already seized control of the decommissioned Chernobyl nuclear power plant, scene of the world's worst nuclear disaster in 1986.
The IAEA says that it has received a request from Ukraine to "provide immediate assistance in coordinating activities in relation to the safety" of Chernobyl and other sites.
Many military experts worry that Russia may be shifting tactics.
Moscow's strategy in Chechnya and Syria was to use artillery and air bombardments to pulverize cities and crush fighters' resolve.
Britain's Defense Ministry said it had seen an increase in Russian air and artillery strikes on populated urban areas over the past two days.
Human Rights Watch said it documented a cluster bomb attack outside a hospital in Ukraine's east in recent days.
Residents also reported the use of such weapons in Kharkiv and Kiyanka village.
The Kremlin denied using cluster bombs.
Cluster bombs shoot smaller "bomblets" over a large area, many of which fail to explode until long after they've been dropped.
If their use is confirmed, that would represent a new level of brutality in the war.
In the southern port city of Mariupol, the mayor said Wednesday morning that the attacks had been relentless.
We cannot even take the wounded from the streets, from houses and apartments today, since the shelling does not stop," Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying.
Boychenko referred to Russia's actions as a "genocide", using the same word Putin has used to justify the invasion.
On Tuesday, Moscow made new threats of escalation, days after raising the specter of nuclear war.
A top Kremlin official warned that the West's "economic war" against Russia could turn into a "real one."
Russia has blamed the conflict on Western threats to Russia's security, and Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, said Moscow was weighing counter-sanctions against "unfriendly countries."
He didn't elaborate on what they could target.
Peskov acknowledged the global economic punishment hitting Russia and Russians now is "unprecedented" but said Moscow had been prepared for all manner of sanctions, and the potential damage had been taken into account before launching the invasion.
"We have experience with this. We have been through several crises," he said.
Ukraine's Defense Ministry said it had evidence that Belarus, a Russian ally, is preparing to send troops into Ukraine.
A ministry statement posted early on Wednesday on Facebook said Belarusian troops have been brought into combat readiness and are concentrated close to Ukraine's northern border.
Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko has said his country has no plans to join the fight.