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What To Look For When Putin Speaks At The UN

  • Mike Eckel

Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech to the UN General Assembly on September 28 will be his first in a decade.

Russian President Vladimir Putin's speech to the UN General Assembly on September 28 will be his first in a decade.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin finally takes the UN stage on September 28, he won't need to take off his shoe and bang the podium with it like a Soviet predecessor, Nikita Khrushchev, reportedly did 55 years ago.

Russia's actions around the world speak loud enough.

Putin's address to the United Nations General Assembly, his first in a decade, comes as the Kremlin bangs its proverbial shoe on the world stage with growing frequency and volume. From Syria to Ukraine to the Arctic, Moscow has reset the agenda and kept Western states -- and perhaps the United States, first and foremost -- off balance and playing catch-up.

For many, there is fear that the world is slipping back into the binary rules of Cold War politics. For others, like James Nixey of Chatham House, that is not entirely correct, since no one really knows what the rules are yet.

"There was a set of understandings. The Cold War was a set of understandings. We knew what each other was about. That now is very much in flux," says Nixey, who heads the London think tank's Russia and Eurasia program.

Putin's speech will therefore be watched closely for clues to his intentions, and what he wants the new rules to be.

Here are five things to watch for in his speech:

What Are Russian Troops Doing In Syria?

Sukhoi ground-attack and air-attack fighter jets, T-90 battle tanks, SA-22 antiaircraft missiles: The military hardware being secreted into Syria is formidable and highly advanced. Along with the growing contingent of naval infantry, the deployment is turning into the largest expeditionary force fielded by Russia outside the former Soviet Union.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Moscow in 2006. Putin's intentions in Syria are likely to be the most closely watched portions of his UN speech.

Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad met in Moscow in 2006. Putin's intentions in Syria are likely to be the most closely watched portions of his UN speech.

The deployment has injected new uncertainty into the chaos of Syria's civil war, whose mayhem and violence have contributed to the rise of the militant group Islamic State (IS) and bedeviled U.S. President Barack Obama's foreign policy portfolio.

Putin and other Russian officials have sought to portray their effort in Syria as aimed at a common goal of combating Islamic State and extremism. But that rings hollow with many Western officials, given that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime is a regular customer of Russian weaponry and a longtime ally that has allowed Russian naval ships to access the Mediterranean port of Tartus for years.

The Syria topic is likely to be the most closely watched portion of Putin’s speech -- perhaps by design, given his problems in other areas. How he frames Russia's actions there will hint at Moscow's longer-term goals.

"I think [the speech] will be all about Syria," says Anders Aslund, a longtime Russia analyst now with the Atlantic Council in Washington. "He will say, ‘You have to come to terms with us. We have a strong card here and you have to play with us.' My suspicion is that Putin will focus entirely on Syria."

Biting The Bullet Over Ukraine?

Russia's largely unrecognized annexation of Crimea has resulted in serious political setbacks for Moscow, including painful Western sanctions as well as visa bans targeting Putin's inner circle. It has also saddled Russia with an economic burden since the Black Sea peninsula was cut off from mainland Ukraine. In eastern Ukraine, fighting between pro-Moscow separatists and Kyiv-backed forces has ebbed in recent months, while many of the terms of a cease-fire negotiated in Minsk remain unmet. Increasingly, the patchwork battlefront around Donetsk and Luhansk resembles a "frozen conflict" of the sort Moscow has created in other former Soviet states like Moldova (Transdniester) and Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia).

But the economic sanctions imposed by the European Union and the United States remain in effect, and neither Washington nor Brussels has shown any inclination to loosen the screws. Keeping Crimea's economy functional and arming and financing the separatists remain a drain on the Kremlin's coffers. Subsidies for Crimea alone are estimated at more than $1.1 billion annually.

This all raises questions about whether the Kremlin has a long-term strategy for Ukraine, whether that strategy is sustainable, and whether the Kremlin will pull back on the separatists' reins. In his speech, Putin is likely to indicate whether Moscow is inclined to seize on any overtures from the Obama administration and Europeans to normalize relations.

"I can't imagine that Putin would be so brazen as to propose explicitly some tradeoff with Syria," said Thomas Graham, a former senior adviser on Russia to President George W. Bush. But, he notes, "I'm sure he'll put in the context: 'We need to work to make sure the Minsk agreements are followed faithfully...and that we should get to a situation where we can normalize relations between Russia and European Union, and perhaps the United States."

Punching Above Its Economic Weight?

Putin isn't likely to spend a lot of time on a topic that is now Russia's Achilles' heel: its reeling economy. Pinched by sanctions over Ukraine, a precipitous drop in oil prices, and structural problems, Russia's gross domestic product is expected to decline by 3.4 percent this year, according to the International Monetary Fund, and remain anemic in the following year. The Kremlin is trying to adjust its budget plans, which might include raising the retirement age and trimming pensions, among other things. But Putin's insistence on pouring money into expanding and upgrading military and security capabilities will strain the coffers and could spur creative solutions to keep the country from bankrupting itself.

Russia punches above its weight for a country whose economy is obviously clearly declining and is an international pariah in so many ways."

What Putin might end up signaling in his speech is an alternate Russian vision to U.S. economic hegemony. Some in Moscow -- suspecting the oil-price decline to be a Saudi-U.S. conspiracy to undermine Russia -- have called for denominating oil prices in something other than the U.S. dollar. Putin may also call out the BRICS in hopes of making that loose economic grouping -- made up of developing economies Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa -- an alternative to Western economic blocs. (Just this week, he proposed doing away with visas for BRICS-member citizens). Russia, however, has been the weakest of the BRICS economies in recent years, prompting some speculation that it could be booted out of the club.

"Russia punches above its weight for a country whose economy is obviously clearly declining and is an international pariah in so many ways," Nixey said.

Beijing Bromance

Putin addresses the UN just three days after Chinese President Xi Jingping attends a black-tie state dinner at the White House. The Sino-Russian relationship is a complicated one. The two share public sentiments of antipathy toward U.S. intrusion into what they see as their historic spheres of influence. Beijing also covets cheap natural resources that Russia has to offer; Moscow covets better access to Chinese markets, particularly since the West imposed its sanctions following the Crimea annexation.

But China is a tough negotiator. The much-heralded 30-year, $400 billion gas deal announced last year is still a work in progress, with no pricing mechanism announced and disputes about the placement of pipelines to bring Russian gas into China and Chinese investment in Russian gas fields. And the two countries compete for influence in Central Asia and Eurasia as a whole.

"China is vital for Russia. It is the backbone for Russia to take the position it does, insisting that China is 'with' it, and although Putin will enunciate an autonomous foreign policy...it'll all be based on the premise that China is there to back it up," says Gilbert Rozman, who researched Russian-Chinese relations for five decades at Princeton University in New Jersey.

If China isn't specifically mentioned by name in Putin's speech, look for mention of a "multipolar world" or "Eurasia" as a signal that Putin is bringing China into the ring to bolster his case against what the Kremlin likes to call "unilateralism" by Washington.

"He'll argue that Eurasia is being transformed and there is a new order emerging in the world and, by extension, it's the United States that's resisting the change, and the West," Rozman says.

'Russia Is Back'

This may yet turn out to be the central theme of the Russian president's appearance. Like many Russians, Putin has long lamented the country's "has-been superpower" status and yearned for a return to the days when, in his eyes, Moscow is treated as a full partner by Washington.

Putin has succeeded in restoring much of that lost pride since first becoming president in 2000, stabilizing the country after the 1990s economic chaos and projecting Russia military force farther afield. Coming to the United Nations gives him the opportunity to show that despite the events in Ukraine, the ensuing sanctions, and the efforts by Washington, Russia hasn't been isolated at all, Graham says.

By that narrative, the appearance at the UN further demonstrates that Putin can stand up to the United States, be treated as an equal, and offer an alternative model for world politics -- one in which Russia is a force for stability and for "traditional, conservative" values.

In other words, Putin is trying to write new rules for the global order.

"What he will be doing is reminding...the world that Russia is not to be trifled with, that Russia is a major world power which will have its say, and which will do what it likes in accordance with its own national interests," Nixey of Chatham House says.

"I don't think it would make any sense for him to beat his shoe on the table. He's created a situation in which a lot of the spotlight is going to be focused on him. That's no small achievement," Graham says. "Coming here, coming to the United States, being the focal point, a topic of discussion, demonstrating that he's not isolated, is already a big achievement."

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