NEW YORK — Russian President Vladimir Putin will steal the limelight at the United Nations General Assembly, which kicks off tomorrow. He is scheduled to address his fellow leaders Monday morning, shortly after President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In recent years, Obama has absorbed the lion’s share of international attention. But this is Putin’s first appearance at the U.N. for a decade, and diplomats are on tenterhooks to hear what he has to say.
Many expect him to lay out new proposals over the conflict in Syria. Russia has thrown the U.S. and its allies off-balance by deploying aircraft and attack helicopters to support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in recent weeks. Moscow has also been lobbying Western powers and regional players such as Saudi Arabia to put aside their hatred for Assad, and cooperate in a fresh campaign against the radical armed group the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
Putin could use his appearance in New York to clarify his military goals in Syria or push his Western counterparts to support a peace deal that leaves Assad in power.
The U.S. and its European allies have recently indicated some flexibility over Assad’s future, although they insist that he cannot stay in power indefinitely. They are unlikely to come to a complete consensus with Russia on this question next week. At a minimum, however, the Russian president’s mixture of military and diplomatic adventurism means that he, not Obama, will set the agenda in U.N. debates over Syria.
Russia also happens to hold the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month, and foreign minister Sergey Lavrov will convene a discussion of terrorism in the Middle East and North Africa on Wednesday. While the U.S. has reportedly blocked agreement on a joint Security Council statement that would legitimize Russia’s build-up in Syria, Lavrov will almost certainly use the occasion to blame NATO for the collapse of Libya and further defend Assad’s position in Syria.
Putin and Lavrov will enjoy setting the agenda at the U.N., as Russia has in recent years regularly been on the defensive in the Security Council and General Assembly. They may also grasp that they need a way to secure peace in Syria if their new military operation is not going to turn into an open-ended drain on their resources.
Moscow sometimes seems to court pariah status at the U.N. With China, it has vetoed four Security Council resolutions aimed at putting pressure on Assad since 2011. In July, Russia also killed a resolution commemorating the Srebrenica genocide and another authorizing an international tribunal to investigate the destruction of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over Ukraine. The former threatened to embarrass Moscow’s Serb allies, who publically called for a veto, while scrutiny of the MH17 disaster could have highlighted its involvement in the war in Ukraine.
Nonetheless, both vetoes damaged Russia’s reputation, and China notably abstained on both rather than backing up its closest ally in the Security Council. Western diplomats are increasingly willing to face Moscow down over such symbolically important votes. The resulting debates hark back to the Cold War. At a Security Council debate on the health of the U.N. charter in February, Lavrov accused the U.S. of ignoring the principles of the U.N. and using “regime change operations” in cases such as Ukraine.
Yet Russia does not want to see the U.N. slide into paralysis. Its seat on the Security Council has been one of Moscow’s few permanent guarantees of international influence since the end of the Cold War. It needs to balance its tough posturing in New York with just enough cooperation to keep the U.S. and its allies engaged. Putin’s last great diplomatic coup was his 2013 offer to work with the U.S. to dismantle Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles, which went ahead despite the Ukrainian crisis.
Since then, Russian diplomats have looked for areas of common ground over Syria, signing up to a series of resolutions calling for greater humanitarian access and pushing for sanctions against ISIL. This summer, American and Russian officials negotiated a resolution setting up a mechanism to investigate new incidents involving poison gas inside Syria. But Moscow has rarely if ever put real pressure on Assad to stop the slaughter. Still, Russia has managed to persuade the U.S. and European governments that somehow, someday it might be possible to end the Syria war through the U.N.
Putin’s speech arguably represents the culmination of this drawn-out diplomatic game. Having very publicly inserted combat forces into Syria, Russia faces an open-ended campaign against Assad’s opponents that could prove to be both militarily and financially costly. Saudi Arabia and its Arab allies, having spurned Putin’s proposal for a common front against ISIL, could funnel fresh arms to the Syrian rebels just as they funded the Afghan mujahedeen the 1980s. Meanwhile, Putin and his advisers are also rumored to be tiring of the prolonged on-off conflict in Ukraine.
So while Putin does not like to show weakness, and may well want to mount a major show of force in Syria as soon as he can, he also has a fresh interest in making a peace process in Syria work. U.N. officials are currently working on a worthy but incremental process of consultations with Syrian parties about how to promote security, economic recovery and political reconciliation in the event of a cease-fire.
Putin will probably call for a more decisive peace effort before his Syrian intervention starts to backfire. He may be the man of the moment at the U.N. next week, but he is taking a risk in Syria that leaves him vulnerable, and he needs the U.N. to help find a solution to the crisis. He had better have a very good speech ready.