Russian President Vladimir Putin opted not to attend this year’s United Nations General Assembly, in New York City; but he nevertheless kept up the pretense of the wise statesman among bickering politicians. Every opening to present Russia as a responsible stakeholder in global affairs was keenly exploited. And in fact, United States President Donald Trump created many of those openings in the first place. Moscow indifferently shrugged off Trump’s appeal for a swift reform of the UN bureaucracy as mere rhetoric (RIA Novosti, September 19). But at the same time, this US proposal provided Moscow with opportunity to establish that any step in reforming the notoriously inefficient UN system can be taken only with Russia’s consent, which will be difficult to obtain (Fontanka.ru, September 21). After the US President’s speech to the UN General Assembly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov praised Trump for placing the emphasis on the issue of sovereignty, which indeed has been one of the key notions in Russia’s foreign policy discourse. But at the same time, Lavrov confidently asserted that there would be no UN sanctions against Venezuela (Kommersant, September 21).
Meanwhile, the fast-escalating North Korean crisis creates the perfect opportunity for Moscow to remonstrate against emotional rhetorical exchanges—in which Pyongyang always has an advantage—and to insist on dialogue, without contributing any content. The Russian Security Council continues to monitor the situation and maintains that sanctions are useless, despite China’s readiness to up the economic pressure on its maverick neighbor (Newsru.com, September 15). Moscow is even testing the sanctions regime, while loudly asserting that no military solution could possibly be invented (New Times, September 13). Russian experts have expressed grave concerns about Kim Jong-un’s personally stated commitment to stage the next nuclear test in the Pacific; but Russia’s mainstream media downplays the risks to global security (Moscow Echo, September 22). The Russian information space has been much more focused on ridiculing the bickering between the “Rocket Man” and the “deranged dotard” than to acknowledge that Russia is directly exposed to the brewing war (RBC, September 22).
Trump’s ineffectual attack on Iran during his UN speech opened another opportunity for Moscow to gain a modicum of respectability by defending the integrity of the July 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program. The JCPOA was unanimously endorsed by the UN Security Council in the US-drafted Resolution 2231. Indeed, European parties to this deal stand firmly on its merits and further implementation (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, September 20). Tehran stands on fairly solid ground as it rejects US accusations, and Russia maintains that Iran’s periodic tests of ballistic missiles, unhelpful as they are, have nothing to do with the nuclear agreement (Gazeta.ru, September 22). This position is determined to a large degree by Moscow’s need to ensure the sustainability of Russian-Iranian combat cooperation in Syria (Russiancouncil.ru, September 14). A successful offensive by Bashar al-Assad’s forces, supported by Russian air and missile strikes, adds kudos to Russia’s international reputation and justifies its military intervention; but at the same time, this brings these forces into immediate and far-from-friendly contact with the US-supported opposition (Kommersant, September 22). Communication between the Russian and US militaries works just well enough to prevent an escalation of clashes, but Lavrov found it opportune to issue a warning about “consequences” for the rebels if they dared to hamper the “counter-terrorist operation” (RBC, September 22).
Moscow is trying to turn US allegations of Russian violations of the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty into another opening for presenting itself as a diligent upholder of international rules. Besides blank denials of any violations, Russian propaganda has picked on US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s remarks at the UN Security Council regarding Russia’s attempts “to weaken the International Atomic Energy Agency’s independence” and turned them into evidence of a US desire to compromise the widely-respected Agency (RIA Novosti, September 22). Moscow also notes that the 2018 Defense Budget, approved by the US Senate last week (September 18), establishes a clear possibility for the United States to withdraw from the INF Treaty, provided that Russian violations are proven (Kommersant, September 19). Officials in Moscow argue that nothing resembling proof of a breach of obligations could be presented, because the modifications of the short-range Iskander-M missile complex remain strictly within the 500-kilometer range established by the Treaty (Nezavisimoe Voennoe Obozrenie, September 22).
Showing new flexibility, Russia has also floated a vague proposal to deploy UN peacekeepers into the Donbas war zone (Politcom.ru, September 15). Such an international mission could have been helpful in terminating the traffic of troops and armaments across the Russian-Ukrainian border, but the details of Moscow’s plan would merely consolidate the freeze of hostilities, which is a non-starter for Kyiv (Carnegie.ru, September 13; see EDM, September 22). Discussions of this quasi-initiative came against the background of the massive Zapad 2017 military exercises, which had generated such resonance in Europe that Moscow sought to downplay their scale and intensity (Gazeta.ru, September 23). The war games had been planned as a demonstration of Russia’s readiness to use its superior military force as an instrument of policy in a wide range of contingencies, including to respond to a “color revolution” in Belarus. But Alyaksandr Lukashenka, the long-sitting president of Belarus, was rather displeased with the Western reaction and opted not to supervise these exercises together with Putin (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, September 19). Instead of displaying its military might from the Arctic to the Caucasus, Moscow sought to show moderation in its defense preparations and to disprove the Western fears of its aggressiveness.
The problem with these diplomatic and military maneuvers is that no amount of political temperance and self-restraint can change the reality of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, war-making in eastern Ukraine, or intervention in support of a brutal, authoritarian strongman in Syria. Putin can try to paint himself as a reasonable and conscientious leader in comparison with the reckless Trump, but the Russian president’s track record of deceits and blunders is so rich that even the shortest of political memories would doubt this self-portrayal. As Putin approaches the long-delayed presidential campaign, the increasingly visible blend of over-confidence and cautious fickleness reveals his diminishing ability to control the feuding court factions and to satisfy the public expectations of a return to prosperity. Instead of an enlightened and benevolent autocrat, a nervous opportunist presides over Russia, which is deeply uncertain about its past and entirely at a loss about the future.