One year ago, in his previous address to the UN General Assembly in September 2014, Barack Obama listed the three main threats to the world order as being the Ebola virus, Putin’s Russia, and the Islamic State.

This time Obama said nothing of the kind. He observed that Russia had only hurt itself by intervening in Ukraine but also called Moscow a partner in the Iranian nuclear deal and said that the United States was prepared to work with Moscow to resolve the conflict in Syria. 

Obama’s change in tone suggests that Russia has achieved at least a short-term foreign policy objective of no longer being equated with Ebola or ISIS.

In his speech, President Vladimir Putin said he was appealing to “common values and common interests” to fight the common enemy of ISIS: “On the basis of 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 forces that are resolutely resisting those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.”

The current goal of Russian diplomacy is to underline the point that ISIS is the greatest threat to the world and that “we are not so terrible.” 

Alexander Baunov
Baunov is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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This message is in fact consistent with Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy over a long period, at least as he relays it to the West through his speeches at the UN. Addressing the General Assembly in 2005, Putin said, “Terrorism represents the main danger to the rights and freedom of mankind, and to the steady development of states and peoples. In connection with this, the UN and the Security Council should be the headquarters for coordinating international cooperation in the struggle against terror—Nazism’s ideological successor.”

Five years before that, the relatively unknown Putin told the UN Millennium Summit in 2000, that fighting terrorism should be a common goal. The style and tone is different now (a few speechwriters have changed since then), but the substance has remained the same, whether it be in the context of the Chechen war, 9/11, the Beslan terrorist attack of 2004 or Syria and Ukraine.

Much of the content of this message dates back even further, to Yeltsin years. Russia needs to prove to the West that it and its unattractive allies should not be such a big concern, compared to threats like terrorism.

In his latest UN speech this week Putin proposed to fight the new unprecedented evil of ISIS by creating a new anti-Hitler coalition analogous to the one Stalin forged with the West in 1941.

The implied argument is, “We fought together against the Nazis and will do the same against ISIS. Besides, the West accepted Stalin as he was and even his territorial acquisitions in Europe. But modern Russia is much more civilized, freer and closer to the West than Stalin’s USSR—so why not accept it too?”

The West of course is not rushing to take up the offer. It is still watching Ukraine and mindful of the aggressive anti-Western rhetoric senior Russian officials and propagandists still employ in public.

Moreover, Westerners might say, the Soviet Union was indispensable for the victory over Hitler, but there is no evidence that Russia is so vital for victory over ISIS.

There are indeed questions as to how committed Russia really is to this fight. The current level of Russian troops and military hardware in Syria has been hyped by journalists and politicians but is negligible when compared with the Western presence there. All that could be demonstrated at the start of the UN General Assembly were a few dozen Russian fighter jets and one clearly documented military flight.

We are already getting press reports that Russian contract soldiers are refusing to go to Syria and even disputing the order to do so in a military court. The idea of saving Damascus may be a noble mission but who will guarantee that Russians will fight there till the last man? After all, they have homes to return to.

Besides, the West supposes that as soon as the evil hydra of ISIS is beheaded, Russia will want to discuss how to share the spoils of victory. That will mean a conversation about borders, spheres of influence, multi-polarity, and much else besides—which they are not keen to have.

The UN speech clarifies the nature of Putin’s global political objectives. When Putin first declared his intention to return to power in 2011, his motives were not fully clear. The explanations given when he changed places with Dmitry Medvedev and ran for office again did not sound very convincing.

Events in Ukraine gave a more convincing answer: it was done to protect our fellow Russian speakers and resist an unprecedented invasion of our historic space. The answer helped Putin to find his place in the national history—just like classical rulers in history, he has vanquished enemies and expanded the country’s territory.

But what place is Putin seeking in global history?

When he finally leaves the Kremlin, Putin does not want to go down in history as a man who left his post under pressure, and as a pariah in the eyes of the West. Instead, he would prefer to be remembered as the man who created the coalition of the willing to conquer ISIS—the new Hitler.

If this victory is won, the world will indeed forgive a great deal. But the question remains as to whether Russia is an indispensable member of the would-be winning coalition.

  • Alexander Baunov