In my nearly three years covering the United Nations Security Council, I have seen the Russians and Americans brawling rhetorically many times.
Russia has regularly blasted American efforts at “regime change” in Libya and derided the West for backing what it called “fascists” in Ukraine. The United States Mission to the United Nations has hosted some of the Kremlin’s best-known critics, like the punk band Pussy Riot. And American diplomats proposed a resolution that would have declared the Russian annexation of Crimea illegal — knowing Russia would veto it.
But rarely have I been so taken aback as I was the other day, when Russia’s longtime ambassador to the United Nations said that the last time relations between Russia and the United States were this strained was more than four decades ago, when the Arab-Israeli conflict nearly brought the two Cold War powers to military confrontation.
“The general situation is pretty bad: I think the tensions are probably the worst since 1973,” said the ambassador, Vitaly I. Churkin.
His remarks, made in an interview with The New York Times and two other news organizations on Friday, made clear that there are many areas on which Russia will not compromise.
No-fly zone over Aleppo? No chance, Mr. Churkin said, so long as Qaeda-affiliated militants were operating there. He accused Western powers of hypocrisy for demanding that warplanes be grounded over Syria.
“In one situation their eyes are burning; they, like, speak at the top of their lungs and advocate a no-fly,” he said. But not so over Yemen, where an American-supported military coalition has bombed hospitals and other civilian sites.
War crimes? Mr. Churkin called the accusations against Russia “rhetorical things” and turned the tables on the West, saying what the International Criminal Court ought to investigate instead are the alleged atrocities during the American-led invasion of Iraq.
He also questioned the evidence that hospitals had been bombed by Russian and Syrian forces besieging rebel-held parts of Aleppo. “I’m cynical enough,” he said.
And the computer hacking? Mr. Churkin smiled. The United States has yet to show proof that Russia broke into the Democratic Party’s email server. Anyway, he said, “we are not astute enough in American politics to understand it will have any significance for the election campaign.”
In diplomacy as in the movies, he said, Americans are fascinated by “conspiracy theories.”
Perhaps just words. But words are a chief currency of diplomacy. And no matter what Moscow and Washington think of each other, the Security Council is one of the few platforms that American and Russian diplomats have to talk to each other, in good times and in bad, like an estranged couple forced to coordinate the school pickups and soccer matches of their children.
They still manage. As they did this month, when they chose a new secretary general, António Guterres, of Portugal. Mr. Churkin, who is president of the Security Council for October, stood at the podium outside the Council chambers to make the announcement, alongside 14 other diplomats representing the Council. Just to his right stood Samantha Power, the American ambassador, who just days earlier had accused Russians of “barbarism” for the bombardment of Aleppo.
Mr. Churkin called the selection of Mr. Guterres “maybe the best success of the Security Council of the past five years.”
Even so, Russia and the United States emerged from talks in Switzerland over the weekend with no agreement on how to stop the bloodshed in Aleppo. On Monday, Russia said its military, along with Syrian forces, would halt their offensive on eastern Aleppo for eight hours on Thursday, which is not even enough time to get United Nations aid trucks into rebel-held parts of the city.
Late Monday, Mr. Churkin told reporters at the United Nations that Moscow could do no more until the Nusra Front, a terrorist group affiliated with Al Qaeda, was flushed out.
On Friday, Mr. Churkin spoke for more than an hour at the Russian Mission, without press aides or notes. He told jokes. He spoke of his past as a child actor who knew he was not good enough to continue in the entertainment business. At 64, he is the longest serving ambassador on the Security Council, having been appointed in 2006. But he gave no hints about his future plans, saying only with a hearty laugh that since he had helped choose Mr. Guterres, he felt responsible for staying on for the duration of the next secretary general’s first five-year term.
He seemed unfazed by the bitter exchanges he has held with many Western colleagues on the Security Council in the past few weeks. A few were extraordinarily acidic.
On a crisp Saturday in mid-September, after American warplanes had errantly bombed Syrian military targets instead of Islamic State militants — the Pentagon quickly acknowledged the mistake — Russia called for an emergency Security Council session. Ms. Power, en route to Council chambers, called Russia’s move “a stunt replete with moralism and grandstanding.” Mr. Churkin responded by calling her words “demagoguery of the highest order.”
A week later, Ms. Power accused Russia of “barbarism.” Mr. Churkin struck back by accusing the United States and its Western allies of unleashing terrorist groups across the Middle East.
At the end of September, Mr. Churkin said he did something he had never done. He attended a customary closed-door wrap-up session for the month, where Ms. Power, he said, had “blasted” Russian actions in Syria. Diplomats present said Ms. Power had referred to the Chechen city of Grozny, when speaking of Aleppo.
Shortly thereafter, they said, Mr. Churkin marched into Council chambers.
Mr. Churkin said he had no idea she would criticize Russia in that meeting. She could have warned him, he argued. They had been on the phone regularly.
“I walked into the room and I said what I had to say about her behavior,” Mr. Churkin recalled. “I said I try never to criticize my colleagues, but I have to tell you what I think about the whole thing. And I think she took note of it.”
Ms. Power’s office declined to comment on the episode.
Mr. Churkin took pains to say the current situation is unlike the Cold War in that Russian and American diplomats today speak regularly and manage to accomplish things they can agree upon.
He signaled too that no matter who wins the American presidential race, he would like to see relations improve, or as he put it, “get back to normal in our relations.”