At U.N., Putin Makes the Case for Dictators

Obama, Putin both want to defeat ISIS. But their visions for how the world should look after its defeat are unlikely to be reconciled.

Vladimir Putin. (Spencer Platt AFP/Getty)

Vladimir Putin’s theory of how to create a stable world is simple enough: Peace comes through maintaining strong states, strong leaders, and stable national institutions. At his address before the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, Putin made this point by pointing to the world’s most pressing international crises: the war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq and the refugee crisis spreading across Europe.

“Refugees undoubtedly need our compassion and support, but the only way to solve this problem on a fundamental level is to restore the statehood where it has been destroyed, to strengthen the government institutions where they still exist,” Putin said through a translator.

He traced the origins of the Syrian crisis and ISIS to what he sees as the failures of the Arab Spring revolutions. “Rather than bringing back reforms ... it has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself,” he said. “It is now obvious that the power vacuums created in some countries in the Middle East and Africa led to the emergence of anarchy areas, which immediately started to be filled with extremists and terrorists.”

President Obama spoke before Putin at the General Assembly, but his remarks may as well have been a direct response to Putin. “In accordance with this logic, we should support tyrants like Bashar al-Assad, who drops barrel bombs to massacre innocent children, because the alternative is surely worse,” Obama said. “Let’s remember how this started: Assad reacted to peaceful protests by escalating repression and killing that, in turn, created the environment for the current strife.”

Putin may have a shared interest with the United States in defeating ISIS, but his vision for how the world should look post-ISIS differs greatly from the president’s. In recent weeks Putin has upped the amount of military aid it is sending the Assad government, building up aerial defense systems and constructing a base that can hold 2,000 Russian military personnel, according to The New York Times. It’s the position of President Obama that Assad should be removed from power in the resolution of the conflict. (Recall the U.S. Congress came very close to a vote over whether it should bomb the Syrian government for its stockpile of chemical weapons). Also over the weekend, Russia announced an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran, and Syria in the fight against ISIS, further cementing the idea that Russia seeks to bolster the Iranian and Syrian governments.

“We think it is an enormous mistake to refuse to cooperate with the Syrian government and its armed forces, who are fighting terrorism face to face,” Putin said.

Putin compared the fight against ISIS to the fight against Hitler during World War II—explaining how Nazism inspired a diverse coalition of countries to unite for a common good. “It could unite a broad range of forces,” Putin said. Perhaps the comparison is apt, even though it borders on hyperbole. After World War II, the allied powers of the United States and the U.S.S.R were united in victory but at odds with their visions of what the world should look like post Hitler. A potential defeat of ISIS could open up yet another conflict: What should take its place?

“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” Obama said in his remarks. “We must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the prewar status quo.”