Let’s look at President Putin’s UN speech, as given by the Kremlin website in English here. For public-speaking fanatics it’s interesting to compare the Kremlin English version with a version as it came through the interpreters – here.

He quickly gets into his stride, explaining why the veto power of the UN Security Council permanent members makes sense:

When the UN was first established, nobody expected that there would always be unanimity. The mission of the organization is to seek and reach compromises, and its strength comes from taking different views and opinions into consideration. The decisions debated within the UN are either taken in the form of resolutions or not. As diplomats say, they either pass or they don’t. Any action taken by circumventing this procedure is illegitimate and constitutes a violation of the UN Charter and contemporary international law.

That last sentence of course is simply not true. The UNSC is one vital source of international law and legitimacy, but there are many others.

Of course, the world changes, and the UN should also undergo natural transformation. Russia is ready to work together with its partners to develop the UN further on the basis of a broad consensus, but we consider any attempts to undermine the legitimacy of the United Nations as extremely dangerous. They may result in the collapse of the entire architecture of international relations, and then indeed there will be no rules left except for the rule of force.

Russia of course strongly favours the UN system as it gives it a huge political power it otherwise might not deserve. Still, it’s hard to see how to move from where we are now with an imperfect UN to something self-evidently better.

It seems, however, that instead of learning from other people’s mistakes, some prefer to repeat them and continue to export revolutions, only now these are “democratic” revolutions. Just look at the situation in the Middle East and Northern Africa already mentioned by the previous speaker. Of course, political and social problems have been piling up for a long time in this region, and people there wanted change. But what was the actual outcome? Instead of bringing about reforms, aggressive intervention rashly destroyed government institutions and the local way of life. Instead of democracy and progress, there is now violence, poverty, social disasters and total disregard for human rights, including even the right to life.

I’m urged to ask those who created this situation: do you at least realize now what you’ve done? But I’m afraid that this question will remain unanswered, because they have never abandoned their policy, which is based on arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity.

This glides over the fact that many of the worst regimes in the Middle East and N Africa have had active support from Moscow for a very long time. Their political and social problems did not ‘pile up’ in thin air, but emerged from decades of decaying corrupt ‘Arab socialism’ rotten with KGB penetration. Had Moscow actively used its weight to help manage transitions to a new sui generis pluralism after the Cold War, above all in Syria, Libya and Iran, everything would be a lot better now. NB That does not mean that Western interventions have been wise or efficient. But Moscow’s studied cynical non-intervention too has carried a huge human cost.

We also remember certain episodes from the history of the Soviet Union. Social experiments for export, attempts to push for changes within other countries based on ideological preferences, often led to tragic consequences and to degradation rather than progress.

Cleverly self-deprecating. The stupid West is actually repeating mistakes made by the USSR!

The situation is extremely dangerous. In these circumstances, it is hypocritical and irresponsible to make declarations about the threat of terrorism and at the same time turn a blind eye to the channels used to finance and support terrorists, including revenues from drug trafficking, the illegal oil trade and the arms trade. It is equally irresponsible to manipulate extremist groups and use them to achieve your political goals, hoping that later you’ll find a way to get rid of them or somehow eliminate them.

I’d like to tell those who engage in this: Gentlemen, the people you are dealing with are cruel but they are not dumb. They are as smart as you are. So, it’s a big question: who’s playing who here? The recent incident where the most “moderate” opposition group handed over their weapons to terrorists is a vivid example of that.

This is a powerful swipe at the Obama administration’s incoherent attempts to support groups opposing Assad. Excellent, direct language that gets right to the heart of the real negotiations going on across the region: who’s playing who here?

Now that those thugs have tasted blood, we can’t allow them to return home and continue with their criminal activities. Nobody wants that, right?

Message to Russian Islamist fanatics joining ISIS: you can’t come home, and if we get the chance we’ll kill you!

Relying on international law, we must join efforts to address the problems that all of us are facing, and create a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism. Similar to the anti-Hitler coalition, it could unite a broad range of parties willing to stand firm against those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind. And of course, Muslim nations should play a key role in such a coalition, since Islamic State not only poses a direct threat to them, but also tarnishes one of the greatest world religions with its atrocities. The ideologues of these extremists make a mockery of Islam and subvert its true humanist values. I would also like to address Muslim spiritual leaders: Your authority and your guidance are of great importance right now…

Of course, any assistance to sovereign nations can, and should, be offered rather than imposed, in strict compliance with the UN Charter … Above all, I believe it is of utmost importance to help restore government institutions in Libya, support the new government of Iraq, and provide comprehensive assistance to the legitimate government of Syria.

A bold assertion of a substantive and potentially far-reaching new Russian approach. Enough is enough! Stop dithering with ISIS and wider Islamist terrorism, o West. It’s now more than clear that you’re blundering blockheads, making everything worse. Let’s wipe out extremism together. But of course that means identifying key partners for future stability. Such as, say, Mr Assad! And working via the UN so that Russia keeps a tight grip on both process and outcomes. You now talk about ‘realism’, Mr Obama. This is realistic!

On Ukraine, the standard specious Russian argument sets the scene:

Nevertheless, NATO has kept on expanding, together with its military infrastructure. Next, the post-Soviet states were forced to face a false choice between joining the West and carrying on with the East. Sooner or later, this logic of confrontation was bound to spark off a major geopolitical crisis. And that is exactly what happened in Ukraine, where the people’s widespread frustration with the government was used for instigating a coup d’état from abroad. This has triggered a civil war.

On the contrary, there is no ‘false’ choice between West and East. The actual choice is bringing in substantive stodgy Euro-pluralism that steadily demolishes Russian GRU and other intelligence interference across the post-Soviet space, or not. Moscow can’t bear to see that happening. The ‘civil war’ in Ukraine is in fact a clumsily illegal Russian invasion. But is there a note of potential strategic compromise here?

Ukraine’s territorial integrity cannot be secured through the use of threats or military force, but it must be secured. The people of Donbas should have their rights and interests genuinely considered, and their choice respected; they should be engaged in devising the key elements of the country’s political system, in line with the provisions of the Minsk agreements. Such steps would guarantee that Ukraine will develop as a civilized state, and a vital link in creating a common space of security and economic cooperation, both in Europe and in Eurasia.

Important that here in the UN President Putin signals explicitly that Ukraine’s territorial integrity must be secured, albeit with some significant devolution to the Donbas area. That of course works only if the leaders purporting to represent the Donbas area deal in good faith with Kiev and not act as spoilers dancing to Moscow’s tune. Possible? Maybe, but definitely not easy, and (of course) workable only with Moscow’s close cooperation here and in other areas.

President Putin even found time to indulge in some oddly mystical ideas about climate change:

I suggest that we take a broader look at the issue. Admittedly, we may be able to defuse it for a while by introducing emission quotas and using other tactical measures, but we certainly will not solve it for good that way. What we need is an essentially different approach, one that would involve introducing new, groundbreaking, nature-like technologies that would not damage the environment, but rather work in harmony with it, enabling us to restore the balance between the biosphere and technology upset by human activities.

Good plan. Abandon nasty Gazprom and instead invent ‘nature-like technologies’ to meet our energy needs instead!

An elegant rhetorical flourish to end, recalling words used when the UN was set up:

On January 10th, 1946, the UN General Assembly convened for its first meeting in London. Chairman of the Preparatory Commission Dr. Zuleta Angel, a Colombian diplomat, opened the session by offering what I see as a very concise definition of the principles that the United Nations should be based upon, which are good will, disdain for scheming and trickery, and a spirit of cooperation. Today, his words sound like guidance for all of us.

Note how using that example nods graciously in favour of Columbia and by implication the wider UN membership.


A good speech in its own terms, with some sharp lines making key points with a definitive verve. Far shorter than President Obama’s (3000 words as opposed to nearly 5000 words), and all the better for it: gritty analysis and no rambling ‘rhetoric’. His implicit and not-so-implicit message was no doubt appealing to much of the UN membership on the day: The facts speak for themselves. Moscow projects Leadership and Deliberation and Restraint: the West alas projects erratic incompetence. Only teamwork based strictly on UN rules can work.

Why this new cooperative tone? Is President Putin rattled by the rise of ISIS (including the fact that Russia has its own concerns about homegrown Islamist fanaticism) and the fact that Russia is getting nowhere fast in Ukraine, and so ready to cut some deals? Russia in any case has taken a Decision to send heavy weaponry to Syria to prop up Assad, thereby helping create new uncompromising facts on the ground while the USA mulls over how best to respond and the EU bickers with itself over the refugee/migrant fiasco.

Diplomacy is a funny thing. As diplomats say: either things get stuck, or they move forward. Does Putin see Obama entering his final months and see an interesting opportunity for new deals on Middle East and Ukraine and even wider European security: Cut Russia fully and fairly into the process, and we’ll work fully and fairly with you on reasonable outcomes?

Can Obama and European governments trust Putin to deliver on reasonable outcomes. Do they have any better options?