Russian President Vladimir Putin replayed his theme of closer international co-operation under the auspices of the UN, but added the same applies to the fight against the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic this year during his speech at the United Nations (UN) General Assembly.
At the same time Putin joined China's President Xi Jinping in mildly rebuking the US for its belligerence and its withdraw from many of the UN bodies in a show that underlined the international co-operation and co-ordination of the joint Sino-Russian alliance that is challenging the US dominance of global geopolitics.
US President Donald Trump did more than anyone to highlight that conflict by going on an all-out attack on China during his speech. Trump referred to the "fierce battle against the invisible enemy – the China virus" in a full throttle attack on China, speaking by video to the assembly.
"We must hold accountable the nation, which unleashed this plague onto the world: China," Trump said, who is running for re-election in November. China has repeatedly denied it is responsible in any way for the virus, which has affected the whole world.
Xi's video message was part conciliation, part push-back. China has "no intention to fight either a Cold War or a hot one with any country," Xi said, but added: "Burying one's head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalisation or trying to fight it with Don Quixote's lance goes against the trend of history."
"Let this be clear: The world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries," Xi said, warning that China will not "engage in a zero sum game". Xi criticised the US decision to withdraw from the WHO, which he said was at the core of the pandemic response.
Xi’s comments set the context for Putin, who worked on the same themes and developed the theme of an international coalition under the auspices of the UN to tackle the world’s biggest problems that he introduced during his last major UN speech in 2015.
Putin touted the importance of the UN and multilateralism, and decried the divisions within the 15-nation Security Council, criticising the US defiance of the majority on the UN Security Council over several issues. (See the full transcript of his speech here.)
The most recent clash was the US decision to flip the UN Security Council the bird by unilaterally moving ahead with what it claimed was a legitimate reinstatement of UN sanctions on Iran despite having negligible support from other council members. The US decision to re-impose sanctions, despite Iran’s full compliance with a nuclear deal cut by former US president Barak Obama, has created an odd alliance where Europe has joined Russia to defy and dodge the US sanctions on Iran.
Putin also picked up a theme he had elaborated on during his 2015 UN speech, likening the war on terror to the fight against the Nazis in WWII and calling for a global coalition to collectively combat terrorism.
Indeed, Putin led again with references to the defeat of Hitler in WWII and the international coalition that brought that about.
“The importance of these two forever interlinked events cannot be overemphasised. In 1945, Nazism was defeated, the ideology of aggression and hatred was crushed, and the experience and spirit of alliance, as well as the awareness of the huge price that had been paid for peace and our common Victory, helped construct the post-war world order. It was built on the ultimate foundation of the UN Charter that remains the main source of international law to this day,” Putin said.
“I am convinced that this anniversary makes it incumbent upon all of us to recall the timeless principles of inter-State communication enshrined in the UN Charter and formulated by the founding fathers of our universal Organisation in the clearest and most unambiguous terms. These principles include the equality of sovereign States, non-interference with their domestic affairs, the right of peoples to determine their own future, non-use of force or the threat of force, and political settlement of disputes,” he added.
The United Nations was “duty bound” to become the basis of “a global anti-terrorist coalition”, Putin told the UN General Assembly. He added with regret that the warning he had made to the Millennium Summit in 2000 on terrorism as the enemy of the entire United Nations had been shrugged off.
Terrorism is one of the issues that Russia shares with the international community, Putin has said. The US just commemorated the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, while Russia labels its fight against Chechen separatists during the two Chechen wars at the start of Putin’s presidency as a fight against terrorism. Russia also commemorated its national tragedy of the hostage siege at Beslan last month, where over 100 children died in a Chechen terror attack on a school in the small regional town in Russia.
In his UN speeches Putin has played on these themes before. Both Russia and China are calling for a “multi-polar” world where the leading nations co-ordinate their actions and Putin has made it clear that he considers the UN the appropriate body to do this. At the same time, international co-operation has already shifted from the G7 to G20, where the emerging markets are well represented and which already is an important body for co-ordinating international actions.
As part of this move to a more multi-polar world, Putin hinted strongly that the UN Security Council needs reform and the inclusion of more countries from the emerging markets. Both China and Russia would like to see the power of the north Atlantic countries on the Security Council – a legacy of when the UN was set up after WWII – diluted by the inclusion of more of the major countries from the emerging world such as India and Brazil.
“The UN should not grow stiff, but evolve in accordance with the dynamics of the 21st century and consistently adapt to the realities of the modern world that is indeed becoming more complicated, multi-polar and multi-dimensional,” Putin said. “The current changes certainly have an effect on the principal UN body, the Security Council, as well as on the debate concerning the approaches to its reform. Our logic is that the Security Council should be more inclusive of the interests of all countries, as well as the diversity of their positions, base its work on the principle of the broadest possible consensus among States and, at the same time, continue to serve as the cornerstone of global governance, which cannot be achieved unless the permanent members of the Security Council retain their veto power. Such a right pertaining to the five nuclear powers, the victors of the Second World War, remains indicative of the actual military and political balance to this day.”
More specifically, Russia called for the world to co-ordinate its response to terror under the umbrella of the UN Counter Terrorism Committee.
"Forgetting the lessons of history is short-sighted and extremely irresponsible, just like the politicised attempts to arbitrarily interpret the causes, course and outcomes of the Second World War and twist the decisions of the conferences of the Allies and the Nuremberg Tribunal that are based on speculation instead of facts," Putin said.
Putin also likened the fight against terrorism to the Allies' fight against Hitler in his 2015 address.
The call for more international co-operation has a practical consequence as the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) missile treaty between Russia and US is about to expire. Putin told the UN that Russia and the US should enter talks to extend START, which runs out in February next year.
“Russia declared a moratorium on deploying ground-launched, medium and long-range missiles in Europe and other regions, as long as the United States of America also refrains from such actions," Putin said. "Unfortunately, we have not received any reaction to our proposal from either our US partners or their allies."
The mistrust Russia has of the US can be traced back to the 2002 US decision to unilaterally withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty (ABM), which was a cornerstone of European security and banned the deployment of short-range missiles close to the mutual borders. That was followed by the US proposed “missile shield” to protect Europe from “rogue nations” but which ended up deploying short-range missiles along Russia’s western flank in Poland and Romania.
Putin also said as part of the discussion on weapons he proposed an international agreement to ban space weapons.
“Russia is promoting an initiative to sign a binding agreement between all the leading space powers that would provide for the prohibition of the placement of weapons in outer space, or the threat or use of force,” Putin said during his speech at the UN General Assembly.
He dismissed US and British accusations that Russia has been testing weapons in space.
Free Russian coronavirus vaccine for UN staff
There is a new fight that needs international co-operation: the coronavirus pandemic. Putin repeated his offer to establish "green corridors" free from trade wars and sanctions, primarily for essential goods, food, medicine and personal protective equipment needed to fight the pandemic.
Putin commend the "central co-ordinating role of the World Health Organization, which is part of the UN system," where he joined Xi in praising the organisation, a de facto jab at Trump, who wants to take the US out of the organisation.
He pointed out Russia's registration of "the world's first vaccine, Sputnik-V" and offered it free of charge to UN staff.
Putin likened Russia's development of a coronavirus vaccine to the Sputnik 1 mission that put the first satellite into orbit. The Russian authorities have rushed through the registration of the vaccine and claim it's the first working vaccine in the world that will shortly be rolled out to the whole Russian population. After Moscow's initial poor handling of the epidemic, the Kremlin is at pains to milk the Sputnik-V vaccine as much as possible and these comments were as much aimed at Putin's domestic audience as they were at the international community.
The president said the vaccine should be made widely available and suggested an online high-level conference on COVID-19 vaccines.
“We are ready to share our experience and continue co-operating with all states and international entities, including in supplying the Russian vaccine, which has proved reliable, safe and effective, to other countries," Putin said, adding that Russia is offering inoculations to the entire UN staff free of charge.
“A dangerous virus can affect anyone," Putin said. "The coronavirus has struck the staff of the United Nations, its headquarters and regional structures. Russia is ready to provide the UN with all the necessary qualified assistance. We are offering to provide a vaccine free of charge for the voluntary vaccination of the staff of the UN.”
“I wish all the peoples of our planet peace and well-being,” Putin said concluding his speech.