Ilya Ponomarev

Russian oppositional politician, Member of Russian Parliament, chairman of innovations subcommittee, one of the founders of Skolkovo Foundation and former vice-president of Yukos Oil Company

Sep 07, 2015
Manipulating the U.N. Putin’s flight to New York has to stop in Damascus

At the end of September, Vladimir Putin will attend the 70th General Assembly of the U.N and has asked to make a speech. He will speak amid the possibility he will be snubbed by his peers for his authoritarian rule and the invasion of Ukraine. The fact that Putin will still go to New York means that he has a trump card and feels there are more political gains than risks for him. We asked Ilya Ponomarev, Russian MP, to give his take on the reasons of Putin’s upcoming visit to the U.N. and recent increased Russian activity in Syria.

Just a couple of days ago, I read an article of a quite unique Moscow journalist Israel Shamir.  Published as a column in the largest Russian newspaper with a strong reputation of one of the top Kremlin’s propaganda outposts – Komsomolskaya Pravda (Komsomol’s Truth – this name really “goes well” with the tabloid’s content). I consider Israel quite unique for his political position: he was born in Novosibirsk and organized a Jewish dissident movement there in Soviet times. He was forced to emigrate to Israel where he gradually became disappointed in Zionist values, joined the radical left-wing, got pressured by Israeli right-wingers, was sentenced in France for antisemitism (sic!), left the country for Sweden, and later moved to Moscow where he recently became famous as “that-anti-semitic-Kremlin-Jew-who-is-the-friend-of-Assange.”  Despite all the curses by many of my friends toward Shamir, I always respected for his interesting character, readiness to fight for his rather unorthodox views and for his professionalism in obtaining valuable information.

So, that particular Israel Shamir wrote a column praising Vladimir Putin for the beginning of the full-scale involvement in Syria to fight against ISIS on Bashar al-Assad’s side. I was receiving such information from my sources in Moscow for quite a while already, but frankly speaking, I was dismissing it as improbable and conspiratorial. But conspiratorial or not, there are two things from recent Kremlin’s activities I could not find a proper, logical explanation for.

First of all, why did Putin decide to go to the UN’s General Assembly meeting at the end of September? Obviously he has a decent appeal to some of the Third World countries, and some will applaud to whatever he would say there, especially to anti-American escapades. But is it enough justification to go to New York when many other leaders would prefer not to even talk to the Russian leader? The U.S. President has already rejected a meeting with Putin during the summit, although he peacefully spoke to Russia’s Ambassador Kislyak during the recent conference on the Arctic. Besides, there are some personal implications. Putin is known to estimate himself quite high and likes to demonstrate it at every possible opportunity (like being systematically and outrageously late for meetings with his peers). By going he faces a big risk of another public humiliation when his peers snubbed him during Australia’s Brisbane G20 summit.  So there must be a big reason for his decision to speak at the U.N. that overrides the potential downside of a failed trip.

There must be a big reason for his decision to speak at the U.N. that overrides the potential downside of a failed trip.

The second thing I kept thinking about was why the media campaign in regards to Syrian refugees has started all of a sudden, especially since it started in unaffected Russia. Don’t take me wrong – I personally thought about this problem for a long time as urgent and critically important. It was clear that things were mounting up and that this situation is unsustainable for Europe. Human tragedy for hundreds of thousands and economic and humanitarian challenge for millions, it was under the surface of the usual media agenda for a long time and Europeans did not want to acknowledge the issue. Surely taking the usual Russian propaganda narrative of focusing on painful problems of Western societies, like the so-called racially motivated police violence in U.S. or failing multiculturalism in Europe, it was no surprise that Russian media, or Russia-influenced politicians, were the first to ring the bell. But still, something was obviously out of scale – being in the political world for a long time, you can always differentiate a general interest to certain topics from an orchestrated campaign. In this case everything pointed out to latter, and that was strange.

After reading Shamir’s upbeat report, which in better days of the Soviet Union would easily be made a leading article in Pravda, it dawned on me what is going on.  Putin wants to come to the UN exactly to show the case that he is now challenging the U.S. dominance as the referee in global conflicts. The Russian president always likes to raise stakes by his character. As more details have started to arrive from Moscow, I could assume that he will announce some sort of NATO-2, a new counterterrorism coalition built around Russia, China and, possibly, Iran (I understand how it sounds, but recent U.S-Iranian agreements actually paved the way to such an alliance).


Taking an example of Syria, it was clear for a long time that the current Western military approach, as in most other world locations, is more for a TV show than for a real deal. For example, during last year Syria’s air force (not the most advanced) made thirty thousand strikes on ISIS positions.  While widely advertised, US actions were limited to five thousand. Now reinforced with Russian rangers that are on the way and just passed Bosphorus, already deployed troops gladly posting their images on Facebook with the newest Russian hardware, and the Russian air forces, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad will get an even bigger advantage (although air force fights versus Islamic guerilla groups would never be as effective as a ground operation). We could even add Israel to such an alliance, which surely would not happen, but taking current tensions between Benjamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama, multiplied by skepticism toward the Syrian opposition, the support would rather be on Assad’s side.

 Secretary Kerry called Minister Lavrov to express his deep concerns. If they are as deep as during the annexation of Crimea or the invasion in Donbass – things are fine for the Russian leader.

Surely I would not assume for a single moment that Putin cares about Syria per se. It is pretty much obvious that he is up for the global influence, as well as to deter attention away from the Russia-supported war in Ukraine. President Obama declined to deliver weapons to Ukraine: now Russia by itself is looking into the possibility of military confrontation with the West, just on a different military action theater. It could have been worse though – such confrontation could have happened in the Baltic states, not in the Middle East. Putin is even postponing an already prepared advance in Eastern Ukraine and pulling some forces away from Crimea. Syria, indeed, serves the purpose of showing some muscle to the West far better than in Lithuania or Estonia, as a lot of Europeans will now see Putin not as a danger for themselves, but as a rescuer in the situation of the migrant crisis. Plus a nice icing on the cake is a possible increase of oil prices that usually follows every single destabilization in close proximity to the Gulf, and so needed for the ailing Russian economy.

It looks like the West is puzzled and stays undecided. British and French still consider joining the U.S’s activities in Syria in the coming months, but obviously with no rush. Reaction so far was pushed to a lower level of decision-makers: Secretary Kerry called Minister Lavrov to express his deep concerns. If they are as deep as during the annexation of Crimea or the invasion in Donbass – things are fine for the Russian leader.

For eight years as a member of the Russian parliament, I am used to answering questions of my constituents: why are we just talking about the international law abuses in different parts of the world? Why we as the Soviet Union upheld order and peace (at least we believed we did) and now we are just criticizing America who sticks its nose here and there without a strong justification? Ironically, as a Russian, I would myself applaud to such foreign military activities by my country just merely two years ago, as Israel Shamir currently does. I, along with majority of Russians, would have seen our forces in Syria, Libya, Serbia; you name it, as a way to support justice and global stability. And indeed, the U.S. foreign policies, especially of recent years, were pretty primitive and short-sided, and even when they were really inspired by the values I share, they were often simply wrong in the implementation and carried a critical lack of quality analysis by whoever was preparing such moves. Our invasion in Ukraine has seriously changed my approach.

The United Nations once was created precisely with the objective to prevent such global conflicts and this month the organization will be up for a serious exam.