Vladimir Putin today speaks at the UN for the first time in 10 years. Will he try to make peace with the West?
The smaller your audience, the easier it is to win its favours. Your voice doesn’t have to carry as far, you can more easily target your message, you can look everyone in the eye. And there are fewer hands to shake afterwards.
Vladimir Putin will have none of this today. As he pronounces his first UN speech in a decade, the Russian president will have to speak to a room packed with both friends and foes – and these days Moscow has more foes than friends. What’s more, his words will be analysed far beyond the walls of the organisation’s headquarters: a week after Russia undertook a dramatic build-up of its military presence in Syria, everybody's looking for clues on what Moscow’s real intention are in the country.
It won’t be easy for Putin to find the right tone. In theory, Moscow is in a position of force: the US’ strategy for bringing Syria back to stability is in tatters, and America’s European allies, in the midst of a tragic refugee crisis, are desperate to end the country’s civil strife. Western powers are also trying to find more definitive solutions to cripple Islamic State (IS). Working in tandem with Russia on both fronts seems the least-worst solution, offering less room for incidents and more chances of success.
So Putin will likely dwell on his usual themes, something made all the more probable after his foreign minister leaked part of the address last week. He will say that the unilateral use of American force only aims at slowing down the emergence of a more benevolent multipolar world order, and continue to describe the expansion of NATO as an act of provocation by its “Western partners”. He will denounce the use of coercive sanctions by said partners as a tool of illegitimate international pressure. And he will urge everyone to form a united front against terrorism “without indoctrination or double standards” - a thinly veiled swipe at the US.
But the Russian president shouldn’t overplay his hand. A number of high-profile personalities within the Obama administration are sceptical of a potential collaboration with Moscow. These would rather prop up opponents to IS via other channels, for example by arming selected groups of moderate Syrian rebels. Publicly supporting Bashar al-Assad, meanwhile, exposes Russia to terrorist retaliation at home, either by local Islamist groups or IS envoys. And the country is much less equipped than its Western peers to foil such plots.
Neither is a unilateral effort to maintain the regime alive likely to lead to a decisive victory against rebels, as this would entail costs and risks Russia is probably not ready to face. So the conflict would still last for years – with Moscow’s interests, such as the naval base at Tartus and the listening station at Latakia, all the while under threat.
But perhaps Putin doesn’t care. A number of observers believe the president will climb on stage with a single, faraway audience in mind: his fellow citizens. Some even suggest his call for a joint fight is designed to be rejected by the West, which would lend further support to the idea that Russia is an embattled fortress. As the country’s economy suffocates under the weight of economic sanctions and slashed energy prices, blaming the crisis on external forces is indeed a useful – and oft-used – Kremlin trick to rally domestic support. And the president is keen to show Russians that the world still needs Russia to solve its thorniest problems.
The bottom line is that those willing to listen Putin’s address shouldn’t expect it to change the face of the world. A rhetoric of confrontation will prevail, and the president’s proposals will remain too vague to elicit agreement from the West. The US-Russia Summit that follows could be more constructive: both countries know their best bet is to work together in the Middle East. But differences between their respective approaches to resolving the Syria crisis, among others, go far beyond semantics. Bridging them will require much more talking.