Ben Aris in Moscow -
Russian President Vladimir Putin played his trump card by calling on the international community to form an international coalition against terrorism at his speech during the United Nations (UN) annual assembly on September 28.
‘We need a genuinely broad alliance against terrorism, just like the one against Hitler,” Putin told the delegates assembled in New York, bar the Ukrainian delegation, several of whom walked out of the Security Council chamber as the Russian president walked in.
The flood of refugees from Syria's civil war, now in its fifth year, has put visible pressure on the European Union (EU), which is struggling to accommodate the growing number of families piling up on its borders. Europe needs to stem the flood of refugees, but with no end to the Syrian hostilities in sight, making an accommodation with Russia is one possible way to bring an end to the war.
Putin’s message can be seen as disingenuous as Russia is largely responsible for prolonging the conflict in Syria. The military effort of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has been on its back foot in recent months until the Russians recently decided to increase their military aid. Russia has been supplying Syria with materiel throughout the conflict, but now it is doing so openly.
As bne IntelliNews speculated in a recent op-ed, Putin has destabilised East Ukraine with impunity and now he is doing the same with Syria – only on a much larger scale. Russia’s goal is to force the Western powers to the negotiating table where the Kremlin wants to play a key role in deciding shaping the future of the region and, as Putin overtly stated in his speech, to protect Russia’s national interests in international affairs.
"Far from learning from others' mistakes, we keep on repeating them. It suffices to look at Middle East and North Africa ... Rather than bringing about reform, foreign interference has resulted in ... violence, poverty, and social disaster,” Putin said.
In what is becoming a routine line, the former KGB officer clearly singled out Washington for criticism and brought up his regular battery of tropes. He lambasted the US repeatedly in the speech without actually calling it out by name once. "The export of revolutions — this time so-called democratic ones — continues," Putin said. He once again criticised Nato’s expansion westwards: “What for?” he asked. And in general took the US to task for attempting to impose its will on the rest of the world.
However, all this was done in the mildest terms, to the point where Russia-watchers complained that the speech was “boring and predictable”. Eastern European editor at the Financial Times Neil Buckley was similarly down on Putin’s speech on Twitter, suggesting the Russian president is running out of ideas.
In fact the speech was so easy to predict that fake Putin tweeter @DarthPutinKGB invented a speech-drinking game that made fun of many of Putin’s clichés. Likewise, Washington Post satirist Andrew Roth produced a “Putin Speech Bingo” card along the same lines.
But the very mildness of the speech should be seen in the context of the other meeting on the Russian president’s schedule. The key consultations took place later the same day, with Putin meeting US President Barack Obama face to face for the first time in two years. The two men spent a total of 1:40 hours together, but few details of their conversation have been released.
Russia has been toughing out the international sanctions imposed last year by the US and EU and with some $350bn in reserves can probably go another two years without really serious economic consequences. But the country cannot develop in the long-term without renewed access to the international capital markets and so the Kremlin will have make its peace with the West at some point. In this context, the Syrian crisis is a gift for the Kremlin as it is one issue where Russia really has leverage over the West in that the conflict will be impossible to resolve without Russia’s active participation. The very mildness of Putin’s UN speech was designed to set the stage for what it appears he hoped would be constructive talks with Obama. No one is expecting a breakthrough, but at least the two sides could use this opportunity to start to walk the situation back.
That will not be easy. Obama’s speech a few hours earlier pointedly took Russia to task (and Obama explicitly named Russia) as the US president also rolled out his standard repertoire of complaints.
“America has few economic interests in Ukraine. We recognise the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine, but we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integraty of a nation is flagrantly violated. If that happens without consequence in Ukraine it could happen to any nation gathered here today,” said Obama. “That is the basis of the sanctions the United States and our partners imposed on Russia."
Putin would throw exactly the same arguments back at the US, pointing to the regime-change wars the US has pursued in the last decade. And clearly Putin specifically blames the West for the mess in the Middle East, arguing that meddling has created a power vacuum in the Middle East that has "started to be filled by militants and terrorists". He continued: "We think it is an enormous mistake to not cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces. No one but Assad's armed forces and the Kurdish militias are truly fighting ISIS and other terrorists in Syria. On the basis of international law, we must create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Naturally, the modern countries are expected to play a key role in this coalition,” Putin concluded.
This international coalition should be formed and supervised under the aegis of the UN, Putin argued; creating what the Russian’s dub a multi-polar world where the US is not the global hegemon has been the central point of Russia’s foreign policy since Putin took over in 2000.
The rest of the speech skidded over several other points. Putin also took the opportunity to head off calls for a change to the structure of the UN and an end to the permanent members’ (Britain, France, US, China and Russia) veto powers. He barely mentioned Ukraine other than to emphasis there was no solution to that problem without fulfilling the terms of the Minsk II deal struck at the start of this year. And in a new meme for Putin, the president committed Russia to a leading role in dealing with climate change.
Brass tacks in private
After the UN speech was over Putin moved on to the main event: his tête-à-tête with Obama. Despite some cool body language when the two met, their talks, which ran 90 minutes instead of the scheduled hour, had been "very constructive and surprisingly open", Putin said, adding that the sides have "a lot in common". While "disputes remain," Putin declared that "we have sound grounds to work on the points of concern together".
Obama is expected to have challenged Putin over his stance, underscored before the UN, that it would be an enormous mistake to remove Assad, as Washington advocates, since the Islamic State (IS) would sweep to power in Syria without the resistance mounted by government forces. "In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children," Obama said in his own address to the UN assembly, "because the alternative is surely worse".
White House officials later said the presidents agreed to explore a political resolution on Syria and decided that there should be talks between US and Russian military officials to help de-escalate the conflict there.
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