Putin at the UN

Note kindly translated by Anne-Marie de Grazia

The speech given on Monday September 28 at the UN General Assembly by President Vladimir Putin has been at the centre of debate [1]. This speech even eclipsed President Obama’s and was followed, the fact is rare enough to be signalled, by a storm of applause from delegations which only thirty years ago, were referred to as the “Third World”. This speech has been followed by some dramatic events. Russian President got the legal authorization from the Federation Council to begin air operation over Syria, something the French or the US government have not dared to ask to their own Parliament, and then received a formal demand for military assistance from the Syrian government. Following this Russian military aviation begin a high-tempo campaign against all Bachar el-Assad opponents, be they considerate as “moderate” or ISIS.

A fighting speech ?

This speech was significant even if, in its content, few things new were said. From this point of view, it does not have the programmatic dimension of the Munich Speech of February 2007. We must add that the frame of the UN is not adapted to this. In a clocked speech, one must go straight to the essential and cannot develop all aspects of one’s thoughts, especially regarding International Law. [2]. This speech does not have the density of the one spoken by Putin at the conference of the Valdaï Club in October 2014[3]. There, Putin had brought up the question of hegemony. It was no longer a question of a multipolar organization of the world, although this remains a long-term goal for Russia, but of what he then called “economic leadership.” However, this question comes down in reality to the question of hegemony. It immediately brings up the question of war and peace. The dramatization of the stakes were in keeping with the new period opened by the intervention of the Western powers in Libya.

Yet this speech is important because it confirms what we have known for years but which is today becoming evident: the powers said to be « Western, » even if this terminology is quite imperfect and is making an implicit reference to the « cold war, » no longer have mastery over international affairs. The reception given Putin at the UN General Assembly is proof of this. We have indeed entered a world fashioned by the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the end of the Soviet Union, a XXIth century born of an aborted attempt of the United States to establish their hegemony [4]. But this world is not the one of the American hyper-power. It has become a multipolar world, and this is owed in particular to steady action of Russia and of its President since the beginning of the years 2000. The Russo-Chinese alliance is only one manifestation of this new state of the world.

From this point of view, Vladimir Putin’s speech is a fighting speech.

Vladimir Putin’s address to the UN General Assembly


Putin, or compromise as a foundation

The speech begins with a reminder of the reasons of the constitution of and of the organizing principles ruling over the United Nations. He calls up the conditions which presided to the constitution of the UN, i.e. the « Great Alliance » of the fight against Nazism: « The 70th anniversary of the United Nations is a good occasion to both take stock of history and talk about our common future. In 1945, the countries that defeated Nazism joined their efforts to lay a solid foundation for the postwar world order. Let me remind you that key decisions on the principles defining interaction between states, as well as the decision to establish the UN, were made in our country, at the Yalta Conference of the leaders of the anti-Hitler coalition.”[5]. But he immediately adds one particularly important point. The member states of the UN cannot agree on everything. Divergences, expressing national interests, can oppose them. This is why «…the veto right has been regularly used by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China and the Soviet Union, and later Russia. It is only natural for such a diverse and representative organization. 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». In putting forward the necessary search for compromise, Vladimir Putin only extends to international politics a principle, which we have inherited from Guizot[6]. Compromises are the foundations of institutions, and the process of institutionalization of the world is the very process of the extension of civilization.

However, the temptation exists, especially in international policy, to adopt postures of rupture, postures which very often only serve to mask the expression of self-interests. He says so from the standpoint of his own Russian experience:

« Nations shouldn’t be forced to all conform to the same development model that somebody has declared the only appropriate one.

We should all remember the lessons of the past. For example, we remember examples from our Soviet past, when the Soviet Union exported social experiments, pushing for changes in other countries for ideological reasons, and this often led to tragic consequences and caused degradation instead of progress. ».

But he takes advantage of this to remind us of the fundamental importance of states. We are still living in a world which can be qualified as « Westphalian », in reference to the treaty of 1648. From this point of view, his speech contains a radical critique of the American position, such as it had expressed itself in 2003 at the occasion of the invasion of Iraq : « We all know that after the end of the Cold War the world was left with one center of dominance, and those who found themselves at the top of the pyramid were tempted to think that, since they are so powerful and exceptional, they know best what needs to be done and thus they don’t need to reckon with the UN, which, instead of rubber-stamping the decisions they need, often stands in their way.

That’s why they say that the UN has run its course and is now obsolete and outdated. 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. The world will be dominated by selfishness rather than collective effort, by dictate rather than equality and liberty, and instead of truly independent states we will have protectorates controlled from outside.”

This latter point is essential.

The Syrian crisis

This question of « protectorates », Vladimir Putin then develops it about the Syrian crisis. He begins, of course, in reminding us of the dramatic consequences of the American intervention, undertaken outside of any international legal framework. Addressing those in charge in the United States: « 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… Power vacuum in some countries in the Middle East and Northern Africa obviously resulted in the emergence of areas of anarchy, which were quickly filled with extremists and terrorists. The so-called Islamic State has tens of thousands of militants fighting for it, including former Iraqi soldiers who were left on the street after the 2003 invasion. Many recruits come from Libya whose statehood was destroyed as a result of a gross violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1973. And now radical groups are joined by members of the so-called “moderate” Syrian opposition backed by the West. They get weapons and training, and then they defect and join the so-called Islamic State.”

This thinly veiled criticism of the policies of the United States leads him to advance the positions of Russia about this crisis. Russia wants a coalition capable to engage the terrorist danger represented by the organization called Islamic State » on all the terrains where this organisation is building up forces and developing itself. Russia also wants that this coalition include the forces on the ground fighting against the so-called « Islamic State, » meaning, the regime of Bachar el Assad and the Kurdish militias. This is clearly stated in another part of the speech of Vladimir Putin: « We think it’s a big mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian authorities and government forces who valiantly fight terrorists on the ground.

We should finally admit that President Assad’s government forces and the Kurdish militia are the only forces really fighting terrorists in Syria.» The point here being not so much the support to the forces of the Syrian regime. This support was expected, and we know that this is what is dividing the international community. The truly important point is the mention of the Kurdish forces, for it is tantamount to a condemnation of the policies lead by Erdogan in Turkey who, under cover of fighting against the militants of the « Islamic State, » has reopened the conflict with Kurdish organizations. This mention of the Kurdish forces, even if they are not precisely identified and if one is left in a diplomatic ambiguity about them, is here important. It is equivalent to a support of Russia for the Kurdish national movement which is presently spread over the various states on whose territories the Kurds are living. And one can understand that this is an implicit threat as much against Erdogan’s Turkey as it is a warning to the Iraqi government not to roll back on the very broad autonomy, a de facto quasi-independence, which the Kurds are enjoying in Iraq.

Vladimir Putin is very clear about the principles to be adopted: « In other words, our Organization should support any measures that have been, or will be, taken in this regard in accordance with international law, and reject any actions that are in breach of 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.

Dear colleagues, ensuring peace and global and regional stability remains a key task for the international community guided by the United Nations. We believe this means creating an equal and indivisible security environment that would not serve a privileged few, but everyone.”

Well, this is indeed a large part of the question. As long as countries such as the United States or the European countries will nurse the illusions that they may not apply to themselves the rules which they want others to apply, no international security will be possible. In this regard, Vladimir Putin is unquestionably right: either there will be a framework allowing for a global security, or we will have to deal with a multiplication of local conflicts with all the consequences which the latter imply. Security cannot be divided.

Western hypocrisy

This allows Vladimir Putin to go back to one of his favorite themes, Western hypocrisy. Here, again, without naming the countries in the name of diplomatic custom, he is in reality being most clear: « …Dear colleagues, I must note that such an honest and frank approach on Russia’s part has been recently used as a pretext for accusing it of its growing ambitions — as if those who say that have no ambitions at all. However, it is not about Russia’s ambitions, dear colleagues, but about the recognition of the fact that we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world.

What we actually propose is to be guided by common values and common interests rather than by ambitions. 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 ».

The accusation is clear, and it has been understood as such in Washington as well as in Paris. While advancing under the mask of morality, the United States and France give to think that they may be serving other masters than Human Rights. For the Russian government does not hide, either in its public texts or in private meetings, that it hatches only scant sympathies for the government in Damascus. But politics is the art of the possible, and every conflict compels one to “choose one’s camp.” One will not be able to fight against the so-called “Islamic State” without a coalition including the forces of Bachar-el-Assad.

From this point of view, the history of Western hypocrisy about the Syrian civil war remains to be written. Be it the propaganda operation around the gas attacks of August 2013 of which we presently know that they were very probably not the actions of the forces of Damascus but indeed of the insurgents themselves [7] (and even if operations implying the use of combat gas may have been carried out by the forces of Damascus), or on the question of the « refugees » were one is all too ready to condemn one country (Hungary, as it were) when the same barbwire fences are being erected in Calais as well as in Ceuta and Melilla.

Document 1

Text of the Global Security Working Group[8] about the gas attacks attributed to the Syrian army

A – possible-implications-of-bad-intelligence

This hypocrisy is particularly visible on Syria, but it exists also about Ukraine. Rather than considering the problem globally, the countries of the European Union preferred to cast the totality of the blame on Russia. So that, considering the tragic incidents which happened in Ukraine at the end of February 2014, and about which we know today that they were largely the result of a provocation on the part of the opposition[9], if one admits the fact that the constitutional norm had disappeared and that the Parliament was legitimate in toppling President Yanukovitch, one must also admit that the Parliament of the Autonomous Republic of Crimea was just as legitimate in its decision to separate from Ukraine and to join Russia. Either the general rule applies to all or it applies to none. The only point on which there can be an agreement here is the fact that there can be no partial application of the general rule. This implies that one should have admitted that the Constitutional question had come up, and that one cannot do « as if » the general rule has to be applied when it has just been violated. These are not merely judicial subtleties. For not having understood these, and having believed that one could carry out a coup d’état without putting into question the Constitution, the leaders in Kiev have provoked the secession of Crimea [10] and a civil war. Of this, Vladimir Putin is taking act: « …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 ». But Western hypocrisy still has fair days ahead, be it in the matter of Ukraine or of Syria, if we are to judge by the attitude of the French President, François Hollande.


Vladimir Putin has, therefore, given an important speech. This speech also contains other points, such as precise engagements, although probably too limited, on COP-21. He is positioning himself as one of the persons who, in international politics, are incarnating some form of reason. One can judge of this in the following passage, where he states: «However, unilaterally imposed sanctions circumventing the UN Charter have all but become commonplace today. They not only serve political objectives, but are also used for eliminating market competition.

I would like to note one more sign of rising economic selfishness. A number of nations have chosen to create exclusive economic associations, with their establishment being negotiated behind closed doors, secretly from those very nations’ own public and business communities, as well as from the rest of the world. Other states, whose interests may be affected, have not been informed of anything, either. It seems that someone would like to impose upon us some new game rules, deliberately tailored to accommodate the interests of a privileged few, with the WTO having no say in it. This is fraught with utterly unbalancing global trade and splitting up the global economic space.”

Beyond the very clear allusion to the mechanism of sanctions decided by the United States and implemented by the European Union, one cannot miss perceiving a criticism of the Eurozone and of the EU in this reference to unions imposed against the will of the peoples. We are now left to hope that the theological discourses of the ones and of the others will give up some ground, and that the voice of reason will finally be heard.



[1] http://www.lecourrierderussie.com/2015/09/direct-discours-vladimir-poutine-nations-unies/

[2] See the declaration of the Russian President at the conference on security held at Munich on February 10, 2007 the text of which has been translated in La Lettre Sentinel, n°43, March 2007.

[3] Sapir J., « Un discours programme » note published on the carnet RussEurope on 29 October 2014, http://russeurope.hypotheses.org/2967

[4] Sapir J., Le Nouveau XXIè Siècle, le Seuil, Paris, 2008

[5] The citations in italics link to the French translation of the text of the speech, http://www.lecourrierderussie.com/2015/09/direct-discours-vladimir-poutine-nations-unies/

[6] Guizot F., Histoire de la civilisation en Europe, re-edition of the text of 1828 iwth a presentation by P. Rosanvallon, Paris, Hachette, coll. « Pluriel », 1985,

[7] Lloyd R. and Postol T., « Possible Implications of Faulty US Technical Intelligence in the Damascus Nerve Agent Attack of August 21, 2013 » Cambridge, MIT, Global Security Working Group, January 2014.

[8] The Science, Technology and Global Security Working Group is a group of experts constituted at MIT tightly linked with scientists in Russia, China, Germany, Israel and Pakistan (as well as links with individuals working on questions of national security in Great-Britain, France and Norway) and working on technical aspects of disarmament in the world after the Cold War. Their work can be consulted on : http://web.mit.edu/stgs/Research.html

[9] As shown by Ivan Katchanovski, http://www.academia.edu/8776021/The_Snipers_Massacre_on_the_Maidan_in_Ukraine

[10] Vogt J., « Western Narrative of Crimea a Pack of Lies Born of Failed Policy and Historical Ignorance » in Russian Insider, 12 June 2015, http://russia-insider.com/en/politics/crimea-work-progress/ri7794


Jacques Sapir

Ses travaux de chercheur se sont orientés dans trois dimensions, l’étude de l’économie russe et de la transition, l’analyse des crises financières et des recherches théoriques sur les institutions économiques et les interactions entre les comportements individuels. Il a poursuivi ses recherches à partir de 2000 sur les interactions entre les régimes de change, la structuration des systèmes financiers et les instabilités macroéconomiques. Depuis 2007 il s'est impliqué dans l’analyse de la crise financière actuelle, et en particulier dans la crise de la zone Euro.

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