Russia's ambassador to United Nations falls ill, dies at 64

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NEW YORK — Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, a veteran diplomat known as a potent, savvy yet personable voice for his country's interests who could both spar and get along with his Western counterparts, fell ill and died suddenly Monday in his office at Russia's U.N. mission.

Vitaly Churkin was taken to a hospital, where he died a day before his 65th birthday, said Russia's deputy U.N. ambassador, Vladimir Safronkov. The cause of his death was unknown.

As Russia's envoy at the United Nations since 2006 and a diplomat for decades, Churkin was considered Moscow's great champion at the U.N., where he was the longest-serving ambassador on the powerful Security Council.

Russian President Vladimir Putin esteemed Churkin's "professionalism and diplomatic talents," spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the state news agency TASS. Diplomatic colleagues from around the world mourned Churkin as a master in their field: a passionate and effective advocate for his country; an intellectual with a doctorate in history who was also a onetime child actor with an acute wit; a formidable adversary who could remain a friend.

"We did not always see things the same way, but he unquestionably advocated his country's positions with great skill," U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley said in a statement.

Her predecessor, Samantha Power, described him on Twitter as a "diplomatic maestro and deeply caring man" who had done all he could to bridge differences between the U.S. and Russia.

Churkin's death stunned officials at U.N. headquarters, where the news emerged in the midst of a routine briefing for reporters. He died weeks into some major adjustments for Russia, the U.N. and the international community, with a new secretary-general at the world body and a new administration in Washington. Meanwhile, the Security Council is due this week to discuss Ukraine and Syria, points of contention between Russia and the U.S. and some other Western countries.

The U.S. and the European Union imposed sanctions on Russia for its 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula and its support for insurgents in eastern Ukraine. Meanwhile, the United States, Britain and France have been pressing the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on the Syrian government for using chemical weapons, while Russia, Syria's closest ally, has repeatedly questioned investigators' conclusions linking chemical attacks to Syrian President Bashar Assad's government, which has denied them.

From Moscow's vantage point, "Churkin was like a rock against which were broken the attempts by our enemies to undermine what constitutes the glory of Russia," Tass quoted Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov as saying.

Churkin's U.N. counterparts "experienced and respected the pride that he took in serving his country and the passion and, at times, very stern resolution that he brought to his job," said General Assembly President Peter Thomson, of Fiji.

But colleagues also respected Churkin's intellect, diplomatic skills, good humor and consideration for others, Thomson said. He said he'd been struck and heartened by Churkin's openness to meeting with representatives from small countries, such as Fiji.

Britain's U.N. ambassador, Matthew Rycroft, recalled "a diplomatic giant and wonderful character." Former French U.N. Ambassador Gerard Araud, now French ambassador to the U.S., described Churkin as "abrasive, funny and technically impeccable."

Churkin emerged as the face of a new approach to foreign affairs by what was then the Soviet Union in 1986, when he testified before the U.S. Congress about the Chernobyl nuclear plant disaster. It was rare for any Soviet official to appear before Congress, and Churkin was in his 30s and a second secretary at his country's embassy in Washington.

In fluent English, Churkin provided little new information about Chernobyl but engaged in a friendly, sometimes humorous, exchange with lawmakers who weren't accustomed to such a tone — or to a representative in a fashionably well-fitting suit and a stylish haircut — from the U.S.S.R.

After he returned to the foreign ministry in Moscow, Churkin ably dodged questions and parried with Western correspondents, often with a smile, at briefings in the early 1990s. Within the government, he proved himself an able and flexible presence who survived numerous course changes after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. He held ambassadorships in Canada and Belgium, among other posts.

Churkin told Russia Today in an interview this month that diplomacy had become "much more hectic than it used to be," with political tensions rising and stability elusive in various hotspots. At the time, he "looked in good health and was very energetic," reporter Alexey Yaroshevsky tweeted Monday.

Lederer reported from London. Associated Press writers Colleen Long in New York, Cara Anna in Johannesburg and James Heintz and Brian Friedman in Moscow contributed to this report.


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