Russian President Vladimir Putin will address the UN General Assembly on Monday, September 28, the same day as U.S. President Barack Obama. With Russia’s controversial involvement in Syria, the ongoing crisis in Ukraine, and tensions high between the United States and Russia, Putin’s speech is sure to be one of the most watched and newsworthy at this year’s general debate.

The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace hosted a media call to discuss this topic with Andrew S. Weiss and Andrei Kolesnikov.

You can listen to the call here.

This transcript is not checked against delivery. 

Tom Carver:​ Hello, good morning, this is Tom Carver here at Carnegie Endowment with a 9 o'clock Eastern daylight time call on Putin at the U.N. I'm pleased to have with me here Andrew Weiss, the head of our Russia Eurasia program in Washington D.C., and from Moscow Andrei Kolesnikov, who is the head of our Russia domestic politics program and a long time well-known commentator in Russia as well as a journalist.

So we have 30 minutes, we have a lot of people it looks like on the call calling in from all over. And this is on the record, and obviously please identify yourself if you have a question. So why don’t we go straight into it, start with Andrew and then go over to Andrei for a comment.  

Andrew Weiss: Sure. Good morning everyone. I appreciate the chance to talk to you again.  

I'll be really fast about what we're expecting next week from Russian President Putin and then turn things over to Andrei who has a very good eye on how all this is playing back in Moscow. From the latest information I've received, Putin is supposed to land in New York on the evening of the 27th and then he'll be at the general assembly with the other (P5) members on the 28th. As people probably saw overnight The New York Times is indicating that there will be a Putin-Obama meeting if they can get the scheduling hashed out. 

There's no doubt that Putin is coming to New York in a very different guise than it would have been just a couple of weeks ago when people were portraying him as an isolated and you know bordering on pariah figure. And he'll be in the spotlight in many ways I think overshadowing any of the other world leaders who are going to be in New York. This demonstration of independence in Russian foreign policy based on the recent moves in Syria I think has big political knock on benefits at home as (Andrei) will explain. And then this is all very important at a time when the war in Ukraine isn't going terribly well from the Russian perspective.  

As people may have seen, there's a sort of surge of Russian focus and media activity – media activity about what's going on in Syria, and it's all under this sort of rubric of, "We're independent and we're a force to be reckoned with." We can come back to that theme in a bit and why that's so important politically in Russia. The deployments on the ground in Syria are being pretty well covered.

There have been some reports that are still unconfirmed over the last 48 hours about Russian military personnel participating in military operations over the Palmyra ISIS stronghold and the Syrian government's airbase in Quieres. The Russian – the Syrian government is saying it's using Russian drones for the first time. I'm not sure that's actually true, and Syria's ambassador in Moscow yesterday said it expects that Russia will launch air strikes if those are requested by Assad.

Overall, I still think it's very hard to portray what Russia's doing in Syria is anything other than a clear attempt to bolster Assad after the series of military setbacks he's experienced throughout 2015. I don't have any doubt this has been well coordinated with the Iranians. But at the same time the U.S. is trying to keep the door open to some form of cooperation with the Russians in the fight against ISIS.  We can come back to that during your questions.  

I think that we'll see Putin use his U.N. appearance to flash out the idea of this grand coalition which somehow is going to include Assad and he'll marry that with a diplomatic – a diplomatic initiative to promote a political solution. It's hard for me to imagine many regional actors jumping at this opportunity to join forces with the Russians particularly the Turks who were in Moscow yesterday with their president Erdogan or the Sunni monarchies in the gulf. And then I think it's – and I'll maybe wrap up here before I turn to Andrei, there's still zero trust in the west about Putin about what he's doing or what he says.

So you can see a little of a fuzziness in the U.S. response to Putin's efforts. I think that's more of a reflection frankly of the fuzziness of U.S. policy objectives towards Syria at the moment rather than focus on what the Russians are doing. We've seen the Pentagon say that there's no clarity about what the right next step will be for the military to military dialogue.

And I think you know at the moment people are still saying, "We don’t know what Russia's intentions are", I assume the next meeting with – the meeting next week with Obama and Putin will try to clarify that a bit. But The White House is going to be attained to say, "This is not about Syria this is really primarily about Ukraine", and we can come back to that in the Q&A. So anyways, with that I'll turn things over to Andrei.

Carver: Andrei

Andrei Kolesnikov: How can I begin this?  I totally agree with Andrew and his assessment of the situation. And I think that the forthcoming Putin speech, this is an offer to America's establishment with I think absolutely predictable refusal and you know there's also we can see maybe some kind of a trick from Putin.

The Russian leader really knows that his suggestion to cooperate in a deal of supporting Assad in order to fight world terrorism is politically unacceptable for the USA. But he will insist on it as if saying to the world and domestic audiences; you can see a medal of peace but the Yankees they don’t want to help me. At the same time the speech would be an attention speech from some domestic problems especially in the context of the economic deterioration which is now obvious for nearly everybody in Russia.

And in political sense, this is an addition to the some kind of a social contract crime here in exchange for freedom, a substitute for (inaudible) Russia project and (exposing) action of territorial extension. In a sense (it's touching) one more symbolic spiritual bond with a taste of soviet nostalgia. I mean that Soviet Union was mighty it solved its problems in his zones of influence, zones just like Middle East for example. And modern Putin's Russia is (inaudible) successor of the USSR and is ready to dictate new rules of the new world order. It could be the game changer, it can manage the situation in 1,000 kilometers from Russia's borders. It can provide (inaudible) diplomacy and in that sense Putin is strong not weak.  

So this is very important for Putin in the circumstances of upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections. And this is for him one more the elections war. This war must be just, just like for Russian's war in Donbass in a sense that we are ready to fight with terrorists with Islamic state.

And the second point of this war is self defense just like the war in Donbass. We defend our borders facing the threat of terrorist attacks and if U.S. don’t want to cooperate what can we do with it? You can see the real face of American policy, American hegemony. So in that sense we can say that we have double effect of Russia's presence in Syria of this new Russian project. An appeal for the cooperation with the west was predictable, refusal from the other side with consecutive lamentations from Putin and his establishment concerning unfriendly position of the west and the USA.

And the most important thing is that this is a clear signal to the domestic audience. We are defending our country, we must be ready for defense, consolidate once more closely around (our leader) in the situation when our western partners are not trustworthy and so on so on. So this is one more step which Putin made especially for – especially for domestic audience and this will be the main things I think in his speech in this – in the U.N. So maybe it will be for the beginning it will be enough.

Carver: OK great, thanks Andrei. OK, let's open it up to questions.

Reporter: I just had one question. Do you have any sense either Andrei or Andrew about anything more specific? I mean this is a pretty general idea this sort of forming a coalition or finding some sort of agreement about Syria. Do you have any sense of anything more concrete that would be proposed or any ideas of what that could look like?

Weiss: It’s Andrew here. You know the Russians keep saying there's this initiative and they've been portraying it this way for some time now. It's there's just not a ton of they're there. They you know have made some small inching progress in saying that there might be moderate groups Islamists who are fighting in Syria who aren't all terrorists and they're starting to – so they're starting to widen the lens a bit.

But as far as there being some sort of big you know diplomatic push that Putin is going to be able to share – drive home, there's just no I don't think there's frankly a moment in the mess on the ground that would be auspicious for that.

Reporter: OK.

Weiss: It really is I think driven by the fact that the outside players and the forces on the ground are still in the military phases of conflict and not really ready to talk. So there's always been I think a sort of hope that the Russians might be able to put pressure on Assad. I think those hopes have been routinely disappointed. And they've always been predicated on this idea in part that the Russians have a lot of influence over Assad.

I don’t see the Russians as Assad's main patron, I think that role has been largely played by the Iranians. And I don’t think either the Russians or the Iranians are at the moment thinking that it's time to shove Assad onto an airplane and say, "You're on your way to Minsk", you know, "Your plane leaves in an hour." I don’t think we're anywhere near that point.

Carver: Andrei.

Kolesnikov: I think that I can (inaudible) the suggestion of Putin could be more politically broad. I mean it must be unacceptable for the west in order to have some efforts for the domestic audience. This is only one addition to the answer of (Andrew).

Carver: Andrew, could you comment a bit more about the Obama meeting? I mean what tact do you think Obama should take at a given strategy of Putin?

Weiss: So the big issue is really I don’t think Syria for this meeting even though that's where the attention has been focused, the U.S. has clearly decided they can't stop or slow down the Russian military deployment in Syria. Where the real focus I think is getting ready for the meeting of the so called Normandy four; Putin, Hollande, Merkel and Poroshenko the president of Ukraine in Paris on October 2nd. And those negotiations are not going well by all accounts.  

Clearly chancellor's attentions are distracted by the migration crisis and Ukraine has really unfortunately tumbled to second, third tier priority for the west. Putin knows this and I think what the president needs to really do is demonstrate that if Russia does things such as stage regional elections in their occupied parts of eastern Ukraine that aren't in agreement with the Kiev of authorities, that the Minsk process could become totally unglued and that that is a situation that no one wants to see.

There's I think a real problem which is the U.S. has not been able to play a meaningful role in the diplomacy on Ukraine. That's been a problem now for quite some time. There's a variety of reasons and factors why the U.S. has been sort of a second – a backseat player on the diplomacy on the Ukraine crisis. This is a chance I think for the president to assert himself more forcefully on this issue.

But as I said at the outset; without trust, without a regular dialogue with Moscow there's only so much that can be accomplished.

Carver: Questions.

Reporter: My question was really the one you just answered about Obama. So is it – did it just get to the point where I mean we've seen him obviously bag off meetings with Putin before. But OK so Putin is on U.S. soil, Kerry did meet with him in Sochi.  

So was it just sort of, "Well can't get out of this one", or is there you know, is he trying to send some other kind of message like, well maybe we're not going to get really far but you know Russia is a player on the – you know so many issues of the day?  What – if it's clear nothing is really going to come out on Syria or Ukraine you know, why go ahead with this meeting from Obama's perspective?

Weiss: I think from Obama's perspective this was a close call. He doesn't want to look timid, or reluctant or avoiding Putin. But the big problem here has been that the U.S. strategy since the crisis started was that yes we were going to isolate Russia diplomatically and basically say that dealings at a high level with Russians were off the table. Many of our European allies have followed in that spirit and really cut ties with the Russians down to the bare minimum.

The U.S. has also been very upset about Russian attempts to say see there's really you know – we've basically trying to page on Ukraine, there's no real big crisis here and there's no lasting arm to Russia's international standing. We're not isolated; world leaders are flocking to Moscow to have tête-à-têtes with Putin. I have no doubt that they're going to use this meeting next week if it happens in a similar light and I think that's going to make The White House very uncomfortable.

Reporter: Great, thanks.

Carver: OK, other questions? Press star 1.

Reporter: I've got a question to Andrei. I've – I'm still wondering if your the scenario you've outlined for Putin's proposal that Putin's proposal has to be unacceptable to the west in order to be useful for him domestically. Is there any other potential scenario, what if we really get the two sides moving closer in some kind of (inaudible) or some kind of movement towards the deal on Syria or not a deal but some kind of new track opening up for a solution, wouldn’t that be a success as well?

I mean I'm just wondering because we're asking so – around so much on the foreign policy track and there obviously we're hearing a whole different message from Moscow here.

Kolesnikov: Yes, but the resolution of this Syria crisis is not one track song. I mean the question is in what extent is Putin's suggestions – suggestion (is an answer) to the Islamic (state) (inaudible) and I guess that he understands it and he's threatened in reality.This is one side of this question.

And in what extent this is – the gamble with the west the trick and to what extent this is a matter of mobilizing domestic audience in the context of the (exhausting) action of Crimean deal. So yes really he raised the question of foreign policy of Islamic (state). So we have the mixture of artificial political incentives and the reality, the very hard reality. In that sense Putin is not only in a gamble there are some real problems with him for him.

Reporter: OK, thanks.

Kolesnikov: Yes.  

Carver: OK, next.  

Reporter: Oh thank you. Sorry I missed the very beginning so I missed what (Andrei) said about the proposal being unacceptable to be useful.  But what I wanted to ask is just following up from what (Andrei) just said, does Putin really have any cards in this or is it inevitable that his proposal is just political and that his move in Syria is just political?

Because Moscow made a proposal a couple of two or three months ago over the summer for a solution, one that would have included us having a tradition and – in a transition and it was turned down cold by Tehran which has more cards than Moscow does in some ways in Syria. And so – and so my first question is can Putin really make a proposal that matters or is it inevitable that the proposal is just political? And secondly, if Obama goes into this meeting if he has one with no clear strategy for Ukraine and no clear strategy for Syria how can he come out of this with anything except egg on his face?

Carver: Andrei?  

Kolesnikov: I think that's – I really think that the main point is Putin's proposal is political point. He's trying to make some tricks from it and he really knows that he'll get refusal from the USA side. And in that sense there are some problems for Obama; he can't create some proper strategy or tactics in order to negotiate with Putin in some effective way.

So in that sense you know Putin wins in this spurring I mean. So but in his heart of hearts maybe Putin thinks that Russia and the USA can cooperate on some practical issues, not political but practical issues in Syria and this is a really possible it seems to me.

Weiss: And then I'll probably just add to that. On the Ukraine piece of this, I think there's a short game and a long game. The Obama administration's long game here is simply to hand off this problem to its successors and basically hope that the sort of semi-stable status quo can persist. The short term issue is, the push to do something on bolstering the ceasefire by promoting new moves on withdraw of tanks and weapons that are below 100 millimeters in caliber and to have some sort of avoiding of collision on these competing regional elections.

Ukraine has regional elections scheduled for the 26th and the occupied regions in Donetsk and Luhansk are talking about having their elections on different dates and there's an attempt to bridge that. Overall I think the U.S. and the Germans to a lesser extent are going to basically try to keep Minsk afloat and then by yearend they'll still be in a position to say, "Well the Russians didn’t really adequately support Minsk." The sanctions that expired, the EU sectoral sanctions that are due to expire at the end of December of this year should be rolled over for some period of six months or so for the future.

So I think at this point the administration in part is really just trying to mount a (college) try to show that we've done everything we can, we're still trying to keep this diplomatic. A very small flicker burning that if it doesn’t work out it just provides the predicate for the continuation of the sanctions program.

Carver: How much are the sanctions biting, Andrew? I mean is how much of a factor is this – the sanctions in this calculus?

Weiss: I think that the real damage that's been done to the Russian economy is largely the significant correction in global commodities and energy prices. But there's no doubt that liquidity has dried up for Russian corporate names, there's no doubt that this has put the Russian economy in a basically sort of state of suspended animation. And that Putin's main tool is going to be budget cutbacks, tax hikes and playing whack-a-mole as various interest groups come to him looking for financial support.

If you're looking at this through the lens of Putin's desire to be reelected in spring 2018, it doesn’t seem that – it doesn’t seem that he's got an obvious vision. And I would really commend the people – the two articles that (Andrei Kalashnikov) has published; the most recent one on Russian ideology which came out this week and another piece that came out two weeks about the lack of any strategy in the – in the Kremlin. And I think it really captures the dilemma Putin has put himself in of you know basically trying to say Russia is a big fortress and the world can go to hell. That's a great you know short term political strategy but I think (Andrei) really points out that over the long term it doesn’t leave Putin with that much to work with.

Carver: OK. Other questions?   

Reporter:  Hi. I don’t want to belabor this point since we have gone over but I would want to make sure that I understand it correctly. The as I understand it that the Russians have a proposal before the security council and they've been negotiating with others on it. But what you all see the contents of that proposal aren't really important, they're not – they don’t have a clearly defined diplomatic idea that they're pushing here. Do I have that right?

Weiss:  I think that they do have a diplomatic idea which is that the west needs to basically chuck its idea of Assad Moscow, join forces first with Assad and the Syrian government's military forces to defeat the Islamic radical Islamic threat on the ground and then pull the parties together on some kind of grand bargain on Syria's future. You know they've been if you look at it even the most recent couple of days, the Russian foreign ministry has basically tried to portray the anti-ISIS coalition as a great façade.

And there is this bizarre historical reference, their statement from about two days ago where they said basically, what the west is doing is the equivalent of the phony war – not the phony war but the strange war in the 1930s where basically the Russians were fighting the (Finns), the Brits and the French weren't doing very much to challenge Hitler. So they're just throwing out sort of weird and I think completely non-workable ideas that there needs to be a legal mandate that the anti-ISIS coalition needs to operate there only with the consent, explicit consent of the Assad government stuff like which is clearly going to be a nonstarter for all concerned.

Kolesnikov: Can I add something? I think that the problem with negotiations is that putting a secret desire moving on diminishing sanctions but (without) demonstration of the weakness.  And because of that that is going nowhere in these negotiations. But I think that west is trying to find the way to cooperate with Russia as well you know. Merkel suggested some cooperation in (midland) crisis with Russia and this is one more step towards Putin.

It's we can understand (it's not only) shaking hands but diplomacy but maybe it's better than (inaudible) diplomacy.

Carver: OK, next question.

Reporter: Just one more follow up on the Russian plan, excuse me. Do you think Russia has any intention of fighting ISIS or that Russia has any belief that Assad's military will or could fight ISIS? Or is this just a charade given that Assad's military is totally overstretched and has shown almost no interest in fighting ISIS until now?

Weiss:  Hi, Trudy again. I don’t think there's a lot of clarity about what the Russians are actually prepared to do. And you know that (inaudible) (commented) have repeatedly stressed is that you know we just don’t know if the Russians are going to start running air combat missions and the like in support of the Syrian army. It's unfair, I don’t think anybody will be surprised if it happens but there's no –there's no certainty either way.

Kolesnikov: I think Russia is not ready to fight in a thousand kilometers from its borders just like – it would be a repetition of the Afghanistan story. I think it's more PR story than real military operation.

Carver: OK, anymore questions? We're just pretty much up on 9:30. If not, thank you very much Andrew and Andrei. And there will be a transcript available of the call and we will also circulate – Andrew  mentioned a couple of Andrei's pieces which we can circulate to you as well.

So once again it's on the record and we will do follow up calls as we think warrants it. Thank you and take care. Have a good day.