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Newsline: Vitaly Churkin, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador, Dies at 64

Vitaly I. Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, died “suddenly” while at work in New York on Monday morning, the Russian government announced, without offering details about the cause of death. He would have been 65 on Tuesday. The deputy Russian ambassador, Petr Iliichev, said in brief remarks at a United Nations meeting on Monday that Mr. Churkin had been in the office “until the final moments.” Mr. Churkin had not been at Security Council meetings often recently, but he brushed off reporters’ questions last week about his health. Mr. Churkin, something of a legend in diplomatic circles, was a former child actor who could be caustic and wry in equal measure in his exchanges with American counterparts. He had formerly worked as a translator, and as ambassador he sometimes became visibly annoyed with United Nations translators who could not keep up with his rapid rat-a-tat speaking style. He began his career in the Soviet era, served as spokesman for the Foreign Ministry under Mikhail S. Gorbachev and represented Russia at the United Nations in recent years as relations with the United States soured, first over Libya and then over the crises in Syria and Ukraine. In an interview in October, Mr. Churkin said the last time Russian-American relations were so strained was more than four decades ago, when the Arab-Israeli conflict nearly brought the two Cold War powers to a military confrontation. At his death, he was the longest-serving ambassador on the United Nations Security Council, and he sometimes jokingly referred to himself as the “permanent representative,” the formal title for each member nation’s top envoy to the United Nations. Mr. Iliichev, his deputy, described him as a “strong negotiator, wonderful individual, a teacher.” News of Mr. Churkin’s sudden death sent a ripple of shock across the diplomatic community. He was widely seen as a deft diplomat, skilled at using the rules and protocol of the United Nations system to his country’s advantage, including Russia’s veto in the Security Council. He wielded that veto to block six resolutions that would have punished the government of Syria, Moscow’s staunch ally, and met every Western criticism of Russia’s conduct in the Syrian conflict with retorts about the Western role in Yemen and elsewhere.

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