Putin’s United Nations speech: UN reform is unnecessary

With tensions strained between Russia and the West over the Ukrainian conflict and differing approaches to Syria, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s speech at the UN’s 70th anniversary session in New York on Sept. 28 was highly anticipated. The Russian leader touched on familiar topics in his address but also made clear his opposition to any reform of the UN.

Putin and Obama UN

Click to enlarge the image. Drawing by Alexei Iorsch

Russian President Vladimir Putin has spoken at the UN on three previous occasions, with the last time being 10 years ago, in 2005. This time, at the organization’s 70th anniversary session in New York on Sept. 28, his speech was highly anticipated. Russia's relations with the West are too spoiled, and the mutual misunderstanding – motives, goals, each other’s actions – is too large.

Almost everyone who spoke before Putin (U.S. President Barack Obama, Polish President Andrzej Duda, Chinese leader Xi Jinping) included reminiscences about World War II to some extent in their speeches. As a tribute to the anniversary, on the one hand, and on the other, as a "bridge" to the present, where the problems of preventing wars, aggression and other human tragedies remain relevant.


Opposed to UN reform

The reasons for this include the lack of effectiveness of the UN itself – the need to reform it has been talked about for a long time – but so far nothing better has been devised than the system produced by the Yalta Conference of 1945, a fact that Putin was at pains to point out. According to the Russian leader, the Yalta system "was won at the cost of […] two world wars" and "saved the world from large-scale upheavals."

As part of UN reform debate, there has been talk lately about restricting the veto power belonging to the Security Council’s five permanent members. At present there is a large slice of opportunism involved; a number of countries mean to deprive Russia of its right of veto in the context of the Ukrainian crisis.

France recently proposed that the "great powers" voluntarily suspend their veto rights when it comes to events involving massive loss of life, etc. But so far the idea is supported by only slightly more than a third of UN member states. Theoretically it is possible to reform the UN Charter by two thirds of the votes of the General Assembly, but the consent of all permanent Security Council members will still be necessary.

And if you ignore the Ukrainian crisis and any intention to "punish" Moscow, it is still unknown what impact the abolition of the veto rights will have on the efficiency of the UN as a whole. After all, even the threat of a veto serves, among other things, to coerce the "great powers" to search for compromise. As Putin noted on this occasion, the UN founders "did not in the least think that there would always be unanimity. [...] The mission of the organization is to seek and reach compromises."


On ‘exporting revolution’

Unusually for Putin, his speech included an "attack" against the Soviet Union – for attempts to push for social experiments in other countries, which often led to tragic consequences. Soon, however, the motivation for such an unusual thesis emerging from the mouth of the man who called the collapse of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century," became clear.

Putin sees the "export of revolutions" as today's equivalent of such "attempts to push."

Dislike of "colored revolutions,” of course, can be regarded as an obsession of the Kremlin, but the fact remains that modern international law, including UN documents, has turned out to be powerless against situations when as a result of revolutionary transformations encouraged from outside, entire countries find themselves in ruins, without capable state institutions.

That is the result of "democratization" in Libya, while Syria is also on the threshold of a similar catastrophe. "I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize now what you've done?" said Putin.


On ISIS and Ukraine

Contrary to expectations, the Russian president did not focus in his speech on the essence of the disagreement on Syria between Moscow and Washington, leaving it for the subsequent private meeting with Obama.

Instead, he addressed the "indisputable" topic of fighting against terrorism, in this case, against the Islamic State (ISIS) radical militant organization.

Putin's proposal to create a coalition against terrorism in which the Muslim countries will "play a key role," has become an indirect opposition to the U.S. policy in Syria (the Americans continue to put their faith in the so-called moderate opposition there – barely visible in the political field and not discernible on the battlefields with the Assad regime).

In fact, a coordination center to combat ISIS, involving the predominantly Shiite government in Iraq, Shiite Iran, Russia and the Syrian government, has already been formed with the participation of Russia.

Putin addressed the politically explosive "Ukrainian theme" only to repeat the official position of Moscow, referring to the Minsk agreements on resolving the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which he called for to be implemented.


Railing against ‘bloc thinking’ and sanctions

Putin, however, would not have been himself had he not condemned once again the "bloc thinking" (expressed in the expansion of NATO), as well as alleged attempts of the U.S. to establish unilateral dominance in the world.

And while an hour before Putin, Obama told the UN that sanctions against Russia would remain in force, the Russian leader objected: "Unilateral sanctions circumventing the UN Charter have become commonplace, in addition to pursuing political objectives. The sanctions serve as a means of eliminating competitors," he said.

Apparently hinting at plans to create Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific free-trade zones, he denounced the creation of "closed economic associations," proposing to discuss this issue at the UN and WTO.

"It seems that we are about to be faced with a fait accompli that the rules of the game have been changed in favor of a narrow group of the privileged […]. This could unbalance the trade system completely," the Russian president said.

He made it clear that he would present this thesis at the G20, from which Russia has not been excluded, in contrast to the G8. And Russia is very likely to take a stand on this issue together with China (the U.S. does not hide the fact that the Trans-Pacific Partnership is being created largely in opposition to the growing power of China).

Putin has placed his emphasis on the pursuit of global context – non-interference in the affairs of sovereign states and support of legitimate governments, overcoming "bloc thinking" in favor of economic integration, the joint fight against common threats (whether it is climate change or terrorism), and finally, adherence to the principle of "good will" set out in the UN's founding documents.

After that Putin was to meet the U.S .president for the first official talks in two years – where both needed to convince each other of having this very "good will" in relation to the other.

Judging by the tone of the speeches by Obama (where more emphasis was made on power and challenges) and Putin (who sounded more conciliatory in general), they were to have a difficult conversation.

The author is a political scientist and a member of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council.

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