There are three reasons why Putin’s address to the UN General Assembly, in which he sought to change the subject of debate from Ukraine to Syria, failed to resonate with the West.
Russia's President Vladimir Putin (left), accompanied by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (second right), the Kremlin's top foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov (right) and Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov, during the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 28, 2015. Photo: Reuters
For a different take read: "Putin's UN speech showcases Russia's view of the global order"
There is an old saying among lawyers that when the law is against you, argue facts; when the facts are against you, argue law; and when both are against you, raise your voice and try to change the subject.
That is what Russian President Vladimir Putin has been trying to do for the last month and especially in his speech to the United Nations and his meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama. Unfortunately for him, his efforts and those of his supporters have fallen short.
There are three reasons for that perhaps unwelcome conclusion.
First, Putin offered far less than the “grand bargain” his advocates say he has. Instead, the Kremlin leader called on the West to accept as legitimate all he has done in Ukraine, to lift sanctions against Russia, and to follow his lead alone in Syria. In exchange, he offers little or nothing except the prospect of an “anti-Hitler” type coalition against terrorism, something that may be good propaganda but that Russia can hardly make a contribution to, given its support for the controversial regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Putin’s suggestion that the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) can be won only if Assad remains in power is at best problematic. It begs the question of whether even Assad could suppress the ISIS forces with outside help and whether such actions would lead to a diminution in refugee flows from Syria and the region.
As usual, the Kremlin leader seems to be playing to Europeans who don’t want any more refugees; but even they will quickly learn that the Russian leader’s program will lead to more refugee flows not fewer, despite his promises to the contrary.
Second, Putin’s efforts to present what he was offering as more than a call for the West to back down and accept his position unintentionally calls attention to the difficulties he and his country are now in – he is swinging for the fences because he has no real prospects of getting a deal and knows it – and at the same time highlights Russia’s inability to make the contributions he claims it can. Russia simply doesn’t have the capacity to solve problems although it can be a spoiler and cause more problems.
The West in general and the United States in particular have done too much to stand up to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine to back down now. One reason they have imposed sanctions and provided as much support to Kiev as they have is because they very much fear that if Ukraine were to fall under Moscow’s control, then Putin would direct his next thrust at the Baltic countries.
There the West would have few options but to respond militarily – something no one wants to see happen. Any sacrifice of Ukraine in the name of an anti-terrorist coalition would therefore undermine that calculation.
For a different take read: "Putin’s UN speech: Big on ideas, short on details"
And third, because of his past actions, Putin is no longer viewed as a reliable partner by the West. Most of its leaders, including Obama, believe he is now prepared to say anything regardless of whether it is true or not if he thinks he can get away with it or if he believes that some will accept it regardless of its truth value. Consequently, few Western leaders accepted what he had to say in New York at face value – although because Russia has nuclear weapons, currently its only basis for claiming superpower status, he will be listened to politely but not heeded.
Some Russian commentators and perhaps many in the Kremlin itself do not understand that reality. Those who have nuclear weapons will inevitably be listened to but that doesn’t mean they are respected – especially if they threaten to use them as, unfortunately, Putin, like the leaders of North Korea, has done.
Thus, Putin got his moment in the spotlight in the UN General Assembly and his meeting with Obama; but he did not get the change in agenda he sought. In fact, as he should have known, there was never any prospect for that.
The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.