Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine had rendered the Russian president somewhat of a pariah in the West, but on Monday Vladimir Putin was at the centre of attention in New York, where he took the tribune to lecture the world on peace, stability, human rights and international order.
The Ukrainian delegation demonstrably left the room during Putin’s speech.
“The Russian president’s goal was to show: here we are, we are back in the international arena,” says Jasutis, of the Institute of International Relations and Political Science at Vilnius University.
“Putin’s speech was a manifestation of Russia’s ambition. The international community screwed up in Georgia, it performed rather poorly in Ukraine and now there’s Syria – in this case, Russia is regarded as a serious player. I think that Putin believes his policies were a success,” the political scientist says.
International relations expert Laurynas Jonavičius says Putin has created a win-win situation for himself: he has proposed solutions for the Syrian conflict and if the Western powers go along with them, he is a hero, if they don’t, it’s all the West’s fault.
The world according to Putin
In Putin’s universe, everything is always the West’s fault. In Syria, because Western powers supported moderate fighters that later turned out not so moderate. Also because they invaded Iraq in 2003 and assisted in overthrowing Libya’s regime in 2011. This, according to Putin, created a power vacuum.
In his speech notes, the word “moderate” was put in inverted commas. The Kremlin leader suggested both directly and by implication that the United States supported not moderate fighters, but terrorists, and therefore had only itself to blame for the rise of ISIS.
At the same time, Putin does not believe Russia had any role in perpetuating the conflict by, say, supporting the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“Sure, Putin is right in many cases, but he does not give the full picture, he cherry-picks what’s convenient for him,” Jonavičius comments.
Putin also blames the West for the situation in Ukraine. He mentioned NATO as a major threat, calling it a remnant from the Cold War era that is trying to conquer new geopolitical areas. By that Putin means the accession of former Soviet republics to NATO.
“They offered the poor Soviet countries a false choice: either to be with the West or with the East,” Putin insisted.
The West is also – obviously – to blame for the Ukraine crisis, according to the Russian president. External powers allegedly made use of the society’s discontent with the government and carried out a “military coup”. He did not explain why the coup was military – Ukraine is currently run by President Petro Poroshenko who was elected in an election international observers said was free and fair.
“He manipulates Western norms. Putin said: you cannot force help onto others, only offer. And what he implies is that the Americans forced their help on Iraq, Libya, but he says nothing about Ukraine. On the other hand, what triggered the crisis in Ukraine? NATO expansion, roughly speaking,” Jonavičius says.
“Meanwhile sanctions, according to Putin, are an economic tool of the US to crush competition. He describes the world as if the sanctions were Washington’s – the world’s biggest colonizer and usurper – way to entrench its domination,” the political scientist adds.
He notes that Russia itself in Putin’s speech is presented as an unequivocally positive power: it is building an international coalition to end the conflict in Syria, it is offering solutions, Russia is working on the Eurasian economic union, cooperating with China and, what’s more, inviting the European Union to work together.
The Russian leader has compared the coalition for Syria with the WWII anti-Nazi coalition, adding, suggestively, that “the key decisions on the principles guiding the cooperation among states, as well as on the establishment of the United Nations, were made in our country, in Yalta (Crimea), at the meeting of the anti-Hitler coalition leaders”.
This way Putin once again appropriated Crimea that Russia tore off from Ukraine in 2014, in violation of all international law.
Russia accepts forums it controls
Jonavičius says that Putin’s speech also underscored Russia’s interest to maintain the current structure of the United Nations, which accords the country a veto power in the UN Security Council.
It was not by chance that Putin stressed in his speech that reforming the United Nations would lead to the destruction of the international system.
“There’s a theory that in its foreign policy Russia cooperates only to the extent and in the format that it has control. In fact, the Security Council and its veto power is effectively the only format where Russia has indisputable control over the situation. It finds this very handy. Putin has always emphasized the role of the United Nations and he singled this aspect out in his last speech,” the political scientist says.
Russia is currently chairing the Security Council and, according to Jonavičius, is likely to make all possible use of the format in order to show to the world how indispensable a player Russia is.
Americans will talk about Syria
According to the political scientist, Russia is currently doing all it can to remain a consequential player in the international arena, but that, in Russia’s mind, is possible only if the Americans talk to them.
“This means that, if the Americans agree, the problems will be tackled, if they don’t, there might be attempts to foment problems. What should the Americans do – it is a truly difficult question,” Jonavičius says.
He believes that Washington will naturally refocus from Ukraine to Syria.
“When you catch a cold, you do everything to treat the cold. But if, while treating the cold, you break a leg, you quite naturally forget the cold and concentrate on your leg. Ukraine in this case is like treating a cold, while the Middle East is a broken leg. The Russians are trying to poke at the broken leg,” the political scientist explains.
He adds that the United States is likely to agree to talk about Syria, even though President Barack Obama called al-Assad a tyrant.
“I think the Americans will negotiate on Syria. Will this mean concessions on Ukraine? Probably not, at least formally they will not admit, but they will pay less attention,” Jonavičius notes.
Russia back on stage
The political scientist Jasutis says that when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said that the Syria issue required an agreement among the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Turkey, he already attached importance to Russia.
Before its aggression in Ukraine, Jasutis says, Russia had no longer been regarded as a key player in the world, but now Moscow is once again included among the big global powers.
“For Russia, it’s fantastic news,” he says.
Is it possible to find a solution in Syria without Russia’s involvement? Jasutis is sceptical about such a possibility.
The conflict has been going on since 2011 and the Western powers have done little besides organizing air strikes on ISIS and half-heartedly supporting moderate opposition for al-Assad, something that Putin ridiculed in his UN speech.
“In some sense, this [Putin’s speech] is a kick for the international community. Perhaps it will make the US, Germany, France to take a more serious look at the essence of the problem and stop whining about the refugees who are but a small consequence of the issue at hand,” Jasutis says.
The political scientist claims that the Democrats, who currently control the White House, are reluctant to play a more assertive role in international politics. Meanwhile Russia exhibits incredible energy: it has gotten Iraq to agree to share intelligence information about ISIS, it is cooperating with Egypt, Israel, Iran.