Putin’s UN Speech: An Old Song with Even Older Tune
On Monday, 28 September 2015 Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the UN General Assembly anniversary session. Prior to the speech there were high expectations about the speech since it was anticipated that the Russian president would be tabling issues that included the evolving situation with the Russian military presence in Syria; talks about the possibility of lifting the sanctions imposed on Russia for its hybrid war in Ukraine; the possibility of gaining some political leverage due to the recent rapprochement with China; and the revitalisation of Russia’s international role as the general umbrella topic. In his speech President Putin, indeed, covered most of them, but there was little, if any, novelty in the letter or the spirit of his talk.
Here is a gist of Putin’s key messages: he began by accusing the US-led anti-terrorist coalition in contributing to the instability in the Middle East by spawning ISIS and indirectly supplying it with arms via the Syrian anti-governmental forces. He reinforced the idea that the coalition would work only if Russia, Syria and other states are present as equal partners. For instance, he asked the rhetorical question: ‘Do you realise what you’ve done?’ The Russian president also pointed out to detrimental nature of the Western-sponsored ‘colored revolutions’ linking them with the NATO continuous enlargement based on “bloc thinking.” The Alliance, he suggested, had been luring the post-Soviet states in by creating false choices between West and East—the epitome of which was the political change in Ukraine ‘instigated from abroad.’ Putin also advocated for lifting economic sanctions off his country, which would promote ‘freedom of trade, investment and open competition’ on a global level, and a good example of which, in his view, was the Russia-led Eurasian Union. He concluded by urging the international community to continue environmentally friendly production.
Essentially, Putin’s UN speech was nothing but a methodic continuation of his post-Munich 2007 stance towards depletion of the Pax Americana and promotion of a multipolar vision on world affairs, based on the “Russian World,” or Pax Russiana. Neither was this a departure from the modern political culture developing in the post-Soviet Russia on whose narrative the country is right in everything it does; the US and the West are, correspondingly, wrong and the culprits in most of the problems in the world. While not directly mentioning the US as the birthplace of ISIS and global terrorism, for that matter, Putin made heavy allusions to that point—as a standard revisionist take on history. Demonising the US and its “exceptionalism” without ironclad evidence has taken firm grounds in the contemporary Russian political discourse. Somenotable examples include blaming the US for ‘setting Hitler up against the USSR’ prior to WWII (according to Putin’s economic aid, Sergey Glaz’ev), and accusing it of ‘wishing very much that Russia no longer existed’ by planning to rip off its “ownership” of the Far East and Siberia (Nikolay Patrushev, Secretary of the National Security Council wrongly attributed these words to former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright).
The ethos of Putin’s speech enveloped the idea of Russia getting reentering the global arena and not as another player but as one of its main decision-makers—a pole in its own right. Indeed, Putin attempted to use his UN moment to reinstate the superpower status of his country in the world and for domestic consumption. Russia’s main message to the West was clear: treat us as equals with respect, or we will act on our own, without consultation or engagement—a point was recently articulated on Bloomberg’s. The second, equally important message was sent back home with the purpose of enhancing Putin’s approval ratings around mid-80%: Russia has eventually ‘gotten off its knees’ and earned its well-overdue respect. For all that, Putin’s speech served quite the opposite effect and returned Russia to the rails of the old Soviet-type of rogue state. The West, however, should not be overly concerned about the future developments in the issue-areas and locales Putin talked about: no tectonic and, most importantly, unanticipated shifts in the global political climate should be expected from Russia. And here is why.
Consider the Russia’s presence in Syria, which mostly serves the purpose of temporarily sheathing Russian Anschluss in Ukraine. Following the conclusion of the UN General Assembly Session, Russia commenced bombing operations against – according to its sources – key ISIS positions. Unsurprisingly, Western intelligence services reported diametrically opposite information: Russia is bombing areas controlled by other (non-ISIS) opposition movements to Bashar Al Assad.
Reportedly, more than two dozen Russian fighter craft, a wide assortment of helicopters and drones, some ground armored personnel carriers, and several batteries of surface-to-air missile systems (SA-22 Greyhound and SA-10 Grumble) are deployed in Syria. At the UN, Putin invited other countries to join multilateral peace efforts in Syria. As Russia’s Foreign Ministry noted to the UN General Assembly: Russia ‘will join the coalition only if it would include all the interested sides and if it would get the UN approval for the use of force.’ In the “interested sides” Russia included Syria, as the host, Iran, as its amiable guest, plus other major regional players, the suggestion, which would make all the previous Western political efforts to remove Syria’s Bashar al-Assad, moot. Russia’s key man in the UN, Vitaly Churkin, verbalised the same: ‘We will not join the coalition which is acting without the Security Council’s authorisation. They [the West] are bombing the Syrian territory without the consent of the Syrian government, without the authorisation of the Security Council.’
This position stands in stark contrast with Russia’s consistent disregard for the very notion of multilateralism in its interventions in Georgia in the early 1990s and in 2008, and its current hybrid war against Ukraine. Also, the vision of Russia participating in coalition activities runs counter to Putin’s personal views on the matter. At one of the meetings of the Russian Security Council after the annexation of the Crimean Peninsula from Ukraine, Putin clearly confirmed his preferences by noting that: ‘Russia, thank God, is not a member of any alliance. This is, to a large degree, the guarantee for our sovereignty. Any country that joins an alliance immediately gives up a part of its own sovereignty.’ How, then, to understand Putin’s recent push towards forming the anti-terrorist coalition in Syria?
The answer is not as simple as it may appear. A key aim of Putin’s impromptu intervention in Syria is to gain leverage over Western-led international democratisation efforts. This would be accomplished by preventing the fall of Al Assad’s regime through continuous vetoing the operational matters in the hypothetical coalition—basically, everything Russia has habitually done in the UN Security Council. Given such a confused Russian stance on coalitions, its current rhetoric is a trap, with which Russia hopes to lure the US and West would into. Some in the US are quick to warn of the potentially serious reverberations from Putin’s mini-victory achieved by his “rolling on” Syria; as air strikes commenced in Northern Syria (30 September) but, as evidence showed, far from ISIS positions.
But pessimism aside, Russia’s military involvement in Syria is too insignificant to cause any sensitive shifts in the distribution of power between Assad’s forces, ISIS and an assortment of other factions. Yuri Fedorov – expert of Russia’s military policy from the PIR-Centre – argues that Putin is ‘selling nothing but air’ in Syria, ‘to represent a real force in the fight against the “Islamic state” Russia should send to Syria, at least, a comparable number of troops and sufficiently serious weapons. It is not just a single air force base, which will have about 10-15, or even two dozens of jet fighters, bombers and attack helicopters.’ At this stage, the nature and the amount of force provided to Assad is too paltry to achieve military superiority over unknown numbers of active ISIS militants (estimates run between 50,000 – 200,000), as indicated by Fuad Hussein, the Chief of Staff of Kurdish President, Massoud Barzani, in his November 2014 interview to The Independent.
Tactically, Russia’s military endeavour in Syria would be its first modern large-scale ex-territorial military intervention with no continuous ground supply routes connecting its deployed troops. The recent military history of Russia, and its predecessor USSR, knows no such complicated operations against the enemies not sharing borders with them. The war in Afghanistan (1979-1989); the short-scale operations in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968); civil war in Angola (1970s); the military campaigns against Georgia and now the hybrid war in Ukraine were all waged either directly across the Russian/Soviet borders, or with uninterrupted ground reach through its satellite states and/or its proxies with only limited presence of own military instructors. Now, with Syria, Russia needs to establish a solid transit base for deployment of its troops if it wishes to have a significant impact over the course of the war there. The best possible choice for this is the Caucasus, notably, Armenia, where Russia already has its 102nd military base. This option, however, is less feasible due to the overly complicated geopolitical environment (the presence of Turkey, a NATO member, complicates this option) and by increasing the economic costs shouldered by Russians already overburdened by sanctions, a shrinking economy and devaluated currency.
A second explanation is that Putin is attempting to package Russia’s engagement in Syria as a solution of the problem the West created but was too impotent to solve. This is the very purpose the proposed UN-mandated international coalition is supposed to serve. Besides, Putin referred in his UN speech to the ‘anti-Hitler coalition’ for good reason. There is a popular sentiment in contemporary Russia that the USSR had singlehandedly won WWII against the Nazi Germany. The USSR had, according to this narrative, saved the world from fascism, and passed the baton of the saviour of the world to the revived Russia. It is its destiny (so the narrative follows) to save Europe from the hordes of refugees and the global ISIS threat. At least, this is how Kremlin is presenting the situation.
A side effect of this move could be to tie the US’s hands since the latter is unlikely to accept sharing the battlefield with Russia—a country it is sanctioning and in direct competition with. From this perspective, Putin may be seeking to have the Western-imposed sanctions lifted since it is in the process of self-rehabilitation to being a peacemaker. The presence of even a handful of Russian troops in Syria places the West in a quite difficult situation since they may serve the same purpose as its “peacekeepers” did in Georgia (2008)—as living shields, which, if attacked, would trigger even larger and deeper engagements, probably beyond Syria.
But Russia will, eventually, become bogged down in Syria: they cannot solve the ISIS problem; are unable to effectively help Assad in regain control over the country; will not change the geopolitical dynamics in the region and, thus, is unable to fundamentally contribute to peace in the Middle East. Putin’s UN speech serves three ultimate goals: to revive the ghost of the USSR (at least in rhetoric); to redirect attention from its involvement in Ukraine and present it as a fait accompli; and, to use Congressman Mike Rogers’ parlance in relation to the Snowden affair, ‘to try to help poke the U.S. in the eye,’ just because it can.
Yet there is an even more compelling explanation of Putin’s intervention in Syria. In December 2014 the EU officially closed the South Stream project meant to provide an additional gas tributary from Russia to Europe. According to its blueprint, the pipeline would have been built on the Black Sea bed from the Russian port of Anapa to Bulgaria and then through East European countries to Austria. The projected capacity of the offshore part of the pipeline was some 63 billion cubic metres of natural gas annually. From the beginning of the talks on the pipeline’s construction, the EU raised serious concerns about the political motivation of Russia and its feasibility. On one hand, as Krišjānis Karins, a Latvian MEP, stated, ‘South Stream is dead because it was a political project, not based on economics, but on the wish of the Putin government to circumvent Ukraine vis-à-vis gas supplies to Europe.’ It was, indeed, a political project designed to by-pass (read: punish) Ukraine by omitting it from the energy transit revenues for its unwillingness to follow the general course of aligning its policies with those of the Russian leadership. Besides, the South Stream would rival another projected pipeline, the Nabucco West, planned to run from Turkey through Bulgaria to Austria with a starting capacity of some 10 billion cubic metres of gas annually, reaching the ultimate projected 30 bcm. Finally, the EU’s own antimonopoly laws embodied in its Third Energy Package” stress rules that do not allow a gas supplier to be both an exclusive owner of the pipeline capacities as well as the controller of such an infrastructure.
Syria represents another transit area for Middle East gas heading to European markets. The new Iran-Iraq-Syria gas pipeline ‘was to be built between 2014 and 2016 from Iran’s giant South Pars field through Iraq and Syria. With a possible extension to Lebanon, it would eventually reach Europe, the target export market.’ With Iran poised to reenter the European gas market, this pipeline will take over the substantial share of the EU gas imports. Dmitry Minin has suggested that
a battle is raging over whether pipelines will go toward Europe from east to west, from Iran and Iraq to the Mediterranean coast of Syria, or take a more northbound route from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Syria and Turkey. Having realised that the stalled Nabucco pipeline, and indeed the entire Southern Corridor, are backed up only by Azerbaijan’s reserves and can never equal Russian supplies to Europe or thwart the construction of the South Stream, the West is in a hurry to replace them with resources from the Persian Gulf.
Furthermore, the Guardian earlier reported that
Assad refused to sign a proposed agreement with Qatar that would run a pipeline from the latter’s North field, contiguous with Iran’s South Pars field, through Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Syria and on to Turkey, with a view to supply European markets – albeit crucially bypassing Russia. Assad’s rationale was ‘to protect the interests of [his] Russian ally, which is Europe's top supplier of natural gas.
By assisting Assad militarily and solving his main problems at home (the Western-backed opposition and ISIS), Putin aims to keep Syria under a pliable ruler preoccupied with regime-survival and make concessions to an exogenous power (re: Russia) in return for security support.
But why now? Why not back in 2013 after Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Ghouta and Khan al-Asal? Then, Putin sought to mediate between the West and Assad and effectively prevented a US-led military intervention against Syria. Two answers stand out. First, two short years ago, the relationship between the West and Russia were more ‘normal’ than ever. Russia’s “little green men” had not yet annexed Crime; the Russian rebirth (re: Novorossiya) was yet to occur and sanctions had not yet been imposed. Second, until now Putin has been testing the waters for a proper reinforcement of Russia’s self-declared superpower status in world affairs. Syria, essentially, marks the beginning of the geopolitical revival of Russia—on the backs of its two previous, successful dry-runs in Georgia (2008) and Crimea (2014). After 2008, Russia received the now-infamous red Reset Button of appeasement from the West. After Crimea, as the international community racketed-up the economic and political pressure on Russia – yet managed unwillingly, but de facto, to accept the annexation of Crimea – Putin realised that brandishing the nuclear club works. The question is, for how long? Putin may have triggered the very events that will be his, and the international community’s undoing.