Putin wave at Turtle Bay unlikely

Drawing by Tatyana Perelygina

Drawing by Tatyana Perelygina

For the first time in a decade, Russian president Vladimir Putin is scheduled to speak at the United Nations. Will he use this opportunity to continue to defend his controversial foreign policy stances or will he choose to mend fences with the western world?

The 70th Session of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, which kicked off Tuesday, could see rhetorical fireworks on an unprecedented scale. The high end segment of the General Debate, which begins September 28, is due to witness speeches, in quick succession, by U.S. President Barack Obama, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani on the very first day.

In the volatile current scenario, the U.N. General Assembly is perhaps the only place where such a diverse range of speakers can gather under one roof to air their opinions. The ceremonial nature of the 70th anniversary edition this year will find an imprint on the content of the speeches, and leaders are unlikely to begin haranguing others and listing their grievances without prolix preambles and platitudes. Observers will have to read between the lines and fathom their interpretations from the stream of rhetoric, allusions and evasions.

It has become common in recent years for one maverick speaker to shake up the proceedings and inject some life into the staid proceedings. Earlier, this role was played by former presidents of Iran and Venezuela.

At this 70th UNGA Session, the bookies’ odds-on favourite is Vladimir Putin.

All eyes and ears will be tuned to Russia’s President on Sept. 28, expecting juicy denunciations of the United States and its allies, and off-the-cuff solutions to international exigencies. But such expectations may well be in vain. It is possible that Putin may not make such declarations; he may even decide not to make an appearance at all, and depute a subordinate instead to give the speech.

The fact is that in today’s international climate, particularly at the U.N., it is hard for the Russian president to take the moral high ground over his opponents. And without the certainty of victory, Putin is unlikely to take on opponents and limit himself to a formal address.

Over the 70-year history of the organization, relations between the United Nation and Russia have fluctuated wildly. For most of the first decade of its existence, the U.N, in the eyes of Moscow, was an enemy stronghold and a tool for the Western countries, which had a majority in the General Assembly, to exert pressure on the Soviet Union.

The Soviet delegation actively used its right of veto during this period (as, indeed, at any period), mainly to block the accession of new “pro-American” members.

After the death of Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev’s rise to power, the Soviet attitude to the U.N. did a volte-face. Admission of new countries was now welcomed, and the Kremlin began to view the General Assembly as the ideal platform from which to spread its influence among newly independent countries of the developing world.

In the fall of 1960, Khrushchev’s visit to New York to attend the 15th Session of the General Assembly lasted three weeks, during which time the Soviet leader actively engaged in discussion and attracted global attention. Suffice it to recall the infamous shoe-banging incident in protest against what he regarded as 
“anti-Soviet” statements.

Under Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet Union sought to utilize the U.N. General Assembly largely as a platform to promote its ideas in the area of disarmament and international security. These ideas appeared more sober in comparison with the projects put forward by Khrushchev for “general disarmament in four years,” and allowed the Soviet Union to present itself as the “bastion of peace,” especially at a time when the United States was bogged down in Vietnam.

But this carefully built construct began to crumble in the late 1970s, when the aging Soviet leadership embarked on its own foreign policy misadventure in Afghanistan. As a consequence, the U.N.G.A. swiftly turned from being a champion of Soviet foreign policy into its harshest critic. Forceful intervention in the affairs of small and medium-sized countries unable to resist Soviet might did not find favour with most members.

The Soviet Union’s reputation in the U.N. was restored by Mikhail Gorbachev and his “new thinking” in foreign policy matters. Gorbachev’s speech at the U.N. G.A. on Dec. 8, 1988, was among the most memorable in the organization’s history and seemed to herald a new era of international cooperation.

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