U.S.-Russian antagonism pervaded other topics too. Putin, for example, rebutted criticism about the veto afforded each permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, which Moscow has exercised on multiple occasions to block war crime proceedings against the Assad regime. As the death toll in Syria climbs above 250,000 and the Security Council’s paralysis precludes any intervention, many critics have called for the veto power to be limited or scrapped in war crime situations.
Putin defended his liberal use of the veto as fundamental to protecting different “opinions” within the international system, making reference to the U.N.’s 70th anniversary this year. If there is a crisis in this system, he said, it is due to the post–Cold War world order, which imposes oppressive development models on underdeveloped countries and acts outside the parameters of the U.N. when it pleases. The 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq and the 2011 NATO strikes in Libya, both of which toppled oppressive regimes, defied international law and opened power vacuums that allowed hard-line groups like ISIL to take root, he said.
Western critics were quick to note that such rhetoric is dissonant with the Russian military intervention in Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimean Peninsula, a move that was widely decried as illegal. A tense cease-fire has settled much of the fighting between Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine and the pro-Western government in Kiev, but many say Moscow intends to keep the country, a former Soviet holding, in its sphere of influence by overseeing a frozen standoff.
Obama repeatedly slammed Putin for his meddling in Ukraine, arguing that Western sanctions imposed on Moscow in response were taking a steep toll on the Russian economy. “Imagine if, instead, Russia had engaged in true diplomacy and worked with Ukraine and the international community to ensure its interests were protected,” Obama said. “That would be better for Ukraine but also better for Russia and better for the world.”
Obama telegraphed his desire for such urgent diplomacy on Syria, as Moscow continues to ship weapons and, reportedly, Russian troops to a Syrian air base along the Mediterranean in Latakia. The Russian-led coalition that Putin called for on Monday will add another layer to the escalation, raising the specter of direct confrontation between U.S. and Russian aircraft, American officials have warned. Others suspect a Russian-led coalition, whoever it includes, would seek to expand the scope of potential airstrikes to include other factions besides ISIL, bolstering the Assad regime on the ground and accruing negotiating capital ahead of peace talks.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking before a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Sunday, suggested those topics would be covered when Putin and Obama met in New York on Monday afternoon.
“This is the beginning of a genuine effort to see if there is a way to deconflict but also to find a way forward that will be effective in keeping a united, secular Syria that can be at peace and stable again without foreign troops present, and that’s our hope,” Kerry said.