The Cold War-like tensions between the United States and Russia dominated the opening Monday of the U.N. General Assembly and talks between President Barack Obama and his Russian counterpart, with the pair differing over the war in Syria and exchanging blame for the Ukraine crisis.
Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin each called in speeches for cooperation in eradicating terrorism and ending conflict. But they made no apparent breakthroughs in the first meeting that they’ve held in nearly a year in a bid to find common ground on Syria, fighting the Islamic State and resolving the Moscow-backed separatist revolt in eastern Ukraine.
The evening meeting lasted 95 minutes, 35 minutes longer than scheduled. After Obama left the United Nations in a traffic-snarling motorcade, Putin took questions from the Russian media, describing the talks as “constructive, business-like and very frank.” But he blamed Obama for the iciest ties since the former Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.
“It was not our initiative to lower the level of our relationship,” he asserted, according to a translation by Russia Today, the state-run English-language television outlet.
Putin defended his deployment of jet fighters, advanced armored vehicles, artillery and some 200 troops in support of Syrian President Bashar Assad against the Islamic State and other rebels. He declined to say if Russia would launch airstrikes, but ruled out sending Russian troops into battle.
There will be “no ground operation involving Russian units or Russian troops. This is out of the question,” he said.
Putin also said that an intelligence-sharing and coordination center that Russia has agreed to establish in Baghdad with Iraq and Iran would be “open to all countries that are interested in fighting terrorism.”
The center and the Russian military buildup in Syria appear designed to give Moscow greater influence in determining the course of events in the chaos-ravaged Middle East. It would rival the coalition of more than 60 nations that Washington assembled to stage airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and to train and arm Iraqi forces.
Putin made clear that he and Obama remained divided on Assad’s fate, saying “it is up to the Syrian people themselves to decide.”
A senior Obama administration official, briefing reporters, called the talks “business-like,” but he added that there was no resolution to the dispute over Assad, who Obama says is fueling the conflict and must give up power in any political settlement.
“I think the Russians certainly understood the importance of there being a political resolution in Syria and there being a process that pursues a political resolution. We have differences about what the outcome of the resolution would be,” said the senior administration official, who could not be further identified under the briefing ground rules.
In their speeches earlier in the day, Obama and Putin both cited U.N. principles and international law in justifying their divergent policies, with Putin – attending his first U.N. gathering in 10 years - challenging the legality of the U.S.-led coalition because it lacks U.N. authorization.
In its place, he called for the creation of “a genuinely broad international coalition against terrorism” that would include Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Russia, he said, would seek U.N. Security Council consultations on a resolution authorizing such a coalition, a proposal that stands virtually no chance of support from Obama, who denounced the Syrian leader as a “tyrant.”
“Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out ISIL,” said Obama, using an acronym for the Islamic State. “But realism also requires a managed transition away from Assad and to a new leader, and an inclusive government.”
Realism dictates that compromise will be required to end the fighting and ultimately stamp out (the Islamic State).
The U.S.-Russian tensions underscored the paralysis hampering the United Nations in addressing Syria and other global challenges. The failures were decried by a parade of speakers, with U.N. Secretary General Ban-ki Moon denouncing aid shortages for the millions of refugees uprooted by wars in the Middle East, Africa and Asia and washing into Europe.
“The global humanitarian system is not broken; it is broke,” Ban told the gathering of monarchs, presidents and prime ministers, which this year marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the United Nations.
While Obama sought to refocus attention on what he denounced as Russian “aggression” in Ukraine, the speeches were dominated by the Syrian war. It has claimed some 250,000 lives, uprooted some 11 million people and destabilized the region, with the U.S. and its European and Arab allies backing rebel groups and Russia and Iran supporting Damascus.
International involvement in the more than four-year-old war deepened this month with Russia’s deployment near the Mediterranean port city of Latakia of jet fighters, armored vehicles, artillery and several hundred troops to bolster Assad, who has lost much of his country to rebels dominated by Islamist extremists.
In his nearly 40-minute speech, Obama sounded a theme that diplomacy and adherence to international law have been more successful in bringing lasting settlements to disputes, while repression and military force have fueled violence and instability.
He held up as successes his re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba after five decades and the international talks that this summer produced the deal to bar Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He pointed to Russia’s 2014 seizure of Crimea from Ukraine and the 2003-2011 U.S. occupation of Iraq as examples where the use of force fueled instability.
“Change won't come overnight to Cuba, but I am confident that openness, not coercion, will support reforms and better the life the Cuban people,” said Obama, who received his loudest applause when he asserted that Congress should lift the U.S. trade embargo on Havana.
“No matter how powerful our military, how strong our economy, we understand the United States cannot solve the world’s problems alone. In Iraq, the United States learned the hard lesson that even hundreds of thousands of brave troops, trillions of dollars from our treasury cannot by itself impose stability on a foreign land,” he said.
While decrying as violations of international law Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea and its support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, Obama sought to justify U.S. financial and non-lethal military aid to Kiev, and the imposition of U.S. and European sanctions on Russian state-run banks and firms and members of Putin’s inner circle.
“America has few economic interests in Ukraine,” the president said. “We recognize the deep and complex history between Russia and Ukraine, but we cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated.”
The United States and its allies charge that Russia instigated the civil war after former pro-Moscow President Viktor Yakunovych fled Kiev in 2014 following a violent crackdown on peaceful demonstrations over his rejection of an accord with the European Union. Some 8,000 people have died and 1.4 million people have been driven from their homes.
Putin reiterated his contention that Russia was compelled to intervene in Ukraine as a result of a threat posed by the U.S.-led expansion of NATO into the former Soviet Union.
“The discontent of the population with the current authorities was used and a military coup was orchestrated from outside that triggered a civil war as a result,” he claimed.
Putin arrived late from Moscow and didn’t hear Obama’s address. Speaking more than an hour after the U.S. leader, Putin mentioned the United States by name only once – as a veto-wielding member of the U.N. Security Council.
The main target of his criticism on Syria and other international disputes, however, was clear. He also slammed the support that Sunni Arab nations have provided Sunni rebel groups fighting the Assad regime, which is dominated by a minority Shiite sect.
Putin blamed the creation of the Islamic State on the disbanding of the Iraqi army after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, pointing out that former Iraqi officers form the extremist group’s top ranks. And he lambasted Washington and its European allies for backing the overthrow of Libya’s late dictator, Moammar Gadhafi, creating the conditions that led to the emergence there of the Islamic State.
He slammed the U.S. approach to Syria, including the $500 million effort to train and equip 5,000 moderate rebels to fight the Islamic State – but not Assad – a program that’s all but collapsed. To Putin, all rebels fighting to end four decades of despotic Assad family rule are “terrorists.”
We believe that any attempts to play games with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not just short-sighted, but ‘inflammably hazardous.’
Russian President Vladimir Putin, scolding the U.S. for equipping Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State.
“We believe that any attempts to play games with terrorists, let alone to arm them, are not just short-sighted, but ‘inflammably hazardous,’” said Putin. “This may result in the global terrorist threat increasing dramatically and engulfing new regions.”
In seeking to justify his military buildup, Putin warned of the danger of thousands of foreign fighters, which include extremists from Russia’s Chechen Republic, going home.
“We cannot allow these criminals who have already felt the smell of blood, to return back home and continue their evil doings,” he said.
Assad’s army is the only force capable of defeating the Islamic State and other rebel groups, said Putin, asserting that Damascus should be included in his proposed new international anti-terrorism coalition.
Muslim nations threatened by the Islamic State should also join the new coalition, he said, in apparent reference to Iran, which also is backing Iraq’s Shiite-dominated government and Shiite militias fighting to recover huge swaths of the country from the Islamist movement.
His proposal found support from Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.
“We propose that the fight against terrorism be incorporated into a binding international document and no country be allowed to use terrorism for the purpose of intervention in the affairs of other countries,” said Rouhani, who cut short his visit to New York and flew home to deal with the deaths of scores of Iranian pilgrims in a stampede in Saudi Arabi.
Putin’s proposal, exploiting the U.S. failure to contain the Islamic State and find a diplomatic resolution to the Syrian war, is almost certain to be rejected by Obama, although he repeated an invitation to Russia to join the U.S.-led coalition.