UNITED NATIONS — President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin clashed publicly Monday over their divergent positions on some of the world’s great crises, with Obama suggesting that Putin’s involvement in Syria and Ukraine was harmful to international order and risks greater global instability.
“… We see some major powers assert themselves in ways that contravene international law,” Obama said at the annual meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. “We see an erosion of the democratic principles and human rights that are fundamental to this institution’s mission.”
In speeches on the same day, Obama and Putin chastised each other for their handling of the Syrian crisis. “Nowhere is our commitment to international order more tested than in Syria. When a dictator slaughters tens of thousands of his own people, that is not just a matter of one nation’s internal affairs,” Obama said.
Putin, who spoke at the U.N. podium a couple of hours later, accused the United States of fostering violence in the Middle East. “The export of revolutions, this time so-called democratic ones,” Putin said, has resulted in “violence and social disaster” instead of democratic advances.
“I cannot help asking those who have forced this situation, do you realize now what you have done?” Putin said in remarks that never mentioned, but were clearly directed at, the United States. “Policies based on self-conceit and belief in one’s exceptionality and impunity have never been abandoned.”
The sparring came ahead of a face-to-face meeting between the two leaders scheduled for Monday afternoon. And to that end, Obama made an overture to Putin, saying that the United States would work with any nation to end the fighting in Syria that has dragged on for four and-a-half years.
Obama’s 42-minute speech underscored the delicate task he faces here, as he seeks to enlist Putin’s aid in ending the intractable Syrian conflict while making it clear that the United States does not condone Russia’s annexation of Crimea or support for both separatists in southeast Ukraine and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
In his speech, Obama praised the international order that has “underwritten unparalleled advances in human liberty and prosperity.”
“This progress is real,” the president said. “And yet, we come together today knowing that the marks of human progress never travels in a straight line, that our work is far from complete. That dangerous currents are pulling us back into a darker, disordered world.”
Obama took direct aim at Russia during his speech, saying, “We are told that such retrenchment is required to beat back disorder, that is the only way to step out terrorism, or prevent foreign meddling.”
“But I stand before you today believing in my core that we, the nations of the world, cannot return to the old ways of conflict and coercion,” he said. “We cannot look backward. … And if we cannot work together more effectively, we will all suffer the consequences.”
Obama said Russia’s acts of aggression had backfired, bringing Ukrainians closer to Europe and damaging Russia’s economy. “We cannot stand by when the sovereignty and territorial integrity of a nation is flagrantly violated,” he said.
Still, Obama left the door open to brokering a peace with Putin and others even as he insisted Assad — a Russian ally — must relinquish power.
“The United States is prepared to work with any nation, including Russia and Iran, to resolve the conflict,” he said. “But we must recognize that there cannot be, after so much bloodshed, so much carnage, a return to the pre-war status quo.”
Putin — here for the first time in a decade — called for Western cooperation in supporting Assad, saying it was “an enormous mistake” and a violation of international law to try to oust him given the fact that Assad’s military forces were best prepared to defeat the Islamic State.
The tensions between the United States and Russia were obvious Sunday, when Putin labeled U.S. support for rebels in Syria as illegal and mocked as ineffective a U.S. program that has been unable to train and arm rebels.
Russia also just signed an intelligence-sharing agreement with Iraq, Iran and Syria aimed at countering the Islamic State, a pact that was negotiated without American involvement.
The ongoing crisis in Syria looms large at this year’s gathering. U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon praised the European countries who have provided asylum for those fleeing unrest in the Mideast and North Africa.
“At the same time, I urge Europe to do more,” he said. “After the Second World War, it was Europeans seeking the world’s assistance.”
Mogens Lykketoft, the U.N. General Assembly president, said he and others were “impatiently” waiting the day when world powers would come together “to stop the senseless and horrifying bloodshed in Syria and in doing so, address the root causes of the refugee crisis.”
Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, the first world leader to address the General Assembly on Monday, drew applause when she noted that her country has already provided shelter to many Syrian refugees. Brazil loosened restrictions two years ago, and has issued more than 7,000 visas to Syrian refugees at this point — more than any other country in Latin America.
“We have our arms open to welcome refugees,” she said. “We are a multi-ethnic nation.”
While relations with Russia rank highest on Obama’s priority list during this visit, his agenda includes other important bilateral meetings. The president will meet privately Monday with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when Obama will press Modi to adopt a more ambitious target for cutting India’s carbon emissions in the coming decades. On Tuesday, he will sit down with Cuban President Raul Castro and Kazakhstan President Nursultan Nazarbayev.