At the UN later this month, Vladimir Putin will likely eschew the bombastic and hypocritical statements about Russia’s role in the world that many Western analysts are expecting.


Russian President Vladimir Putin in Kazan, Russia on July 24, 2015. Photo: AP

According to numerous forecasts, the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly in New York, scheduled to start in late September this year, could be the scene of a blazing rhetorical battle.

The General Assembly will feature speeches by the heads of the world’s leading countries, with U.S. President Barack Obama, China's Xi Jinping, Russia's Vladimir Putin and Iran's Hassan Rouhani potentially mounting the rostrum in sequence on Sept. 28, the very first day of the gathering.

Of course, the ceremonial nature of the 70th anniversary of the event will leave a mark on the content of the speeches, and the leaders of the great powers are unlikely to set about listing their grievances without prolix preambles and platitudes.

Rather, attentive listeners will have to read between the lines and fish out their own interpretations from the stream of evasive phrases and allusions.

However, such sessions always demand the appearance of a maverick speaker to tear up the script and add spice to the staid proceedings. In previous years, the presidents of Iran and Venezuela have played this role, but at the 70th Session of the General Assembly the odds-on favorite is Putin.

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All eyes and ears will be tuned to the Russian president for potentially scandalous denunciations of the United States and its allies, and off-the-wall solutions to international exigencies. Journalists, of course, would love for him to sail close to the wind, thereby livening up their reports and ensuring a wider audience.

But all told, one must be prepared for the fact that such expectations might be in vain. Neither can it be ruled out that Putin will suddenly decide to subcontract his UN speech to a subordinate.

The fact is that in today’s international climate, particularly in the UN, it is hard for the Russian president to take the moral high ground over his opponents. And without the certainty of victory, Putin will not act — or will at least limit himself to a formal address.

A historical look back at Russia’s UN role

Over the 70-year history of the organization, UN-Soviet/Russian relations have fluctuated wildly. For most of the first decade of its existence, the United Nations in Moscow’s eyes was an enemy stronghold and a tool for Western countries (who had a firm majority in the General Assembly) to exert pressure on the Soviet Union.

The Soviet delegation during this period (as, indeed, any period) actively used its right of veto, mainly to block the accession of new “pro-American” members.

After Stalin’s death and the coming to power of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet attitude to the UN did an about-face. The admission of new countries was now welcomed, and the Kremlin began to view the General Assembly as the ideal platform from which to spread its influence among the newly independent countries of the so-called Third World.

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In the fall of 1960, Khrushchev’s visit to New York to attend the 15th Session of the General Assembly lasted three weeks, during which time the Soviet leader actively engaged in the debates and attracted global attention. Suffice it to recall the (alleged) shoe-banging incident in protest against what he regarded as “anti-Soviet” statements.

In the Brezhnev era (1964-1982), the Soviet Union sought to utilize the UN General Assembly largely as a platform to promote its ideas in the area of disarmament and international security. 

These ideas appeared more sober in comparison with the projects put forward by Khrushchev for “general disarmament in four years,” and allowed the Soviet Union to present itself as the “bastion of peace,” especially at a time when the United States was bogged down in Vietnam.

But this carefully built construct began to crumble in the late 1970s when the aging Soviet leadership embarked on its own foreign policy misadventure in Afghanistan.

As a consequence, the UN General Assembly swiftly turned from being a champion of Soviet foreign policy into its harshest critic. Forceful intervention in the affairs of small and medium-sized countries unable to resist was not to the liking of most members of the General Assembly.

The Soviet Union’s reputation in the UN was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev and his “new thinking” in matters of foreign policy. Gorbachev’s speech at the UN General Assembly on December 8, 1988, was one of the most striking episodes in the organization’s history and seemed to herald a new era of international cooperation.

 Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1988 speech at the UN General Assembly. Source: C-Span.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russia tried for a while to preserve and build on the political capital gained from “the Gorby effect,” persistently calling for a greater UN role in international affairs. 

This position was welcomed, especially in light of the openly disdainful attitude toward the UN on the part of the United States.

Russia’s search for a new image within the UN

But in the second decade of the 21st century, Russia has decisively waved goodbye to the legacy of Gorbachev’s foreign policy. If Putin decides to devote his speech at the 70th Session of the UN General Assembly to the need for strict observance of international law and a more prominent role for the UN, he might simply be catcalled.

After Crimea, Donbas and MH17, Russia can no longer stake a claim to being “the sincerest and most consistent upholder of international law and advocate of peaceful means in the settlement of conflicts between states.”

For many years Moscow subjected Washington to fair criticism, but now the Kremlin has demonstrated by example that it recognizes no other means in the defense of national interests other than power politics in circumvention of all international institutions.

Having made this “coming out,” Russia has effectively nullified the many years of image building in the eyes of the UN, like Brezhnev’s Soviet Union did in the late 1970s.

Fast-forward to today and the reality is that appeals by the Russian president to the anti-Americanism of some delegations in the hall will not work. For many, modern Russia is no better than the United States — it too is a great power predator that only looks after number one.

This being the case, Putin’s best option when speaking from the UN podium is to refrain from making bombastic and hypocritical statements about respect for international law and from accusing the United States of all mortal sins. In any case, there is no way that he can surpass the oddball rhetoric of Fidel Castro, Hugo Chavez or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

As the leader of a great power, Putin should deliver a realistic assessment of the current threats to the world - primarily the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) - and show commitment to creating a mechanism of international cooperation that can withstand them, preferably under the auspices of the UN. However, given the present state of Russia-West relations cooperation is wishful thinking.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.