The last time Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke at the United Nations General Assembly, exactly 10 years ago, he made do with a five-minute speech extolling the UN’s virtues. On Monday, it was a different, much more aggressive Putin. He spoke for 20 minutes and presented a clear and forceful foreign policy for his country.
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Putin chose a very evocative way to open his speech, reminding delegates of the summit between the leaders of the allies, leaders of “the countries that defeated Nazism,” which took place “in our country – in Crimea, in Yalta.”
Yes, Crimea which Russia invaded and annexed last year in response to the pro-western revolution in Ukraine. Crimea, he was saying, will remain part of Russia, no matter that the west will not recognize it as such. He may agree to be a bit more flexible regarding the other areas of eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists are operating, along with the Russian soldiers who Russia denies are there.
Neither was the mention of the war against Nazism coincidental. It never is. Only hourse before the speech, Russia’s ambassador to Poland expressed “regret” for the anger caused by his words last week in which he said that Poland had “prevented the creation of an anti-Nazi coalition” and therefore shared responsbility for the outbreak of World War II.
This breathtaking rewriting of history, airbrushing the Soviet Union’s Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact with Nazi Germany out of existence, is in tune with Putin’s talk of creating a coalition against ISIS, one which include Syria’s Assad and will be like “the anti-Hitler alliance.”
For all Putin’s talk, however, the Sukhoi fighter-jets that were deployed in recent weeks to the Latakia region in Syria have yet to take any meaningful part in the international bombing campaign against ISIS. But they are serving to prove another point. Only Russia’s president will decide if, how and when his local ally, Syria’s President Bashar Assad will end his blood-soaked reign.
This is the Putin of the UN General Assembly 2015. The leader of the country that claims the mantle of beating Hitler in the Great Patriotic War (which according to authorized Russian history books began only in 1941.), A Russia which will not repeat the mistake it made according to Putin in its years of weakness following the disintegration of the Soviet Union, when it allowed NATO to expand the western alliance to countries such as Poland and the Baltic states which rushed to take cover under America’s umbrella.
Two days before Putin left for the UN, Russia participated in a spy-exchange in which an Estonian intelligence officer who had been kidnapped a year ago in a stage-managed border incident was released. Some observers interpreted the release of Eston Kohver as an attempt to appease the west before asking for its cooperation over Syria. Others felt that Russia was deliberately recreating a scene so reminiscent of the old spy-exchanges at Checkpoint Charlie during the Cold War.
Kohver was abducted a year ago, two days after U.S. President Barack Obama visited Estonia’s capital to promise that NATO would stand by its Baltic allies. Now Russia is talking of boosting its military presence in neighboring Belarus and in the Kalinigrad enclave. If the reinforcement includes anti-aircraft batteries, it will make it much more difficult for NATO to come to the aid of the Baltic states, should they be threatened.
That probably won’t happen soon. Russia is still reeling from the accumulated damage of a weak ruble, the crash in oil prices and western sanctions over Ukraine. This isn’t the time for more military adventurism, not when the Russian military is being stretched to cover both eastern Ukraine and the new outpost in Syria. Coffins coming home from Syria could reawaken the traumas of Chechnya and Afghanistan and put his domestic popularity at risk. But Putin is setting out his red lines, which could also be the limits of his power.
The impotence of the Obama administration and its failure, along with the rest of the west, to bring any sort of resolution to the Syrian civil war or to curb ISIS significantly, has opened the way for Putin to take the initiative. Obama and the west’s other main leader, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, are already proving flexible on the demand that Bashar Assad must leave as part of a solution in Syria. Obama in his UN speech spoke of a “managed transition.” British Prime Minister David Cameron is also shifting and only French President Francois Hollande is sticking to his guns. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon named Russia as the first nation among five “which hold the keys to Syria’s future,” along with the U.S., Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia. The coalition is ready and it’s being led by Putin.
It seems that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was the first to recognize the new reality, when he rushed to Moscow last week to discuss coordination methods which would allow Israeli forces to continue operating in Syria, alongside the new Russian presence. For now, Putin is in charge.