Russia is president of the United Nations Security Council in September just as nearly 200 heads of state and government and even a prince or two will soon travel to New York City to attend the opening session of the General Assembly. President Vladimir Putin will not be taking part in any event this month in New York, however, so as usual, his foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, is in charge of Russia’s presence at the UN.
Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vassily Alekseevich Nebenzia, told the media on Sept. 3 (see UN video below) that Putin’s decision to not come to New York does not undermine Russia’s commitment to the UN and that Nebenzia did not wish to “comment on Putin’s agenda.” (The last time Putin came to the UN was in 2015, when he spoke mostly about respecting the cooperative role of the UN.)
While leaders from across the world, representing 193 nations, will descend at the UN headquarters to discuss climate change, burning conflicts like Syria and Yemen as well as the sustainable development goals, Russia is concentrating on the political agenda for the Security Council this month.
The Council will discuss, among other matters, the UN peacekeeping and political missions in Afghanistan, Colombia, Guinea-Bissau, Libya and South Sudan. The Council will also have a debate on Afghanistan, meetings on Yemen and the Middle East and peace and security in Africa. A special debate led by Russia is organized on combating terrorism. It will feature, among other groups, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the Collective Security Treaty Organization and the Commonwealth of Independent States.
A looming topic that is not scheduled but may come up during Russia’s presidency is the newly established UN board of inquiry to investigate the bombing of humanitarian facilities in Idlib, Syria, after Russia and Turkey agreed in 2018 to de-escalate tensions in the region. Ambassador Nebenzia told the media that Moscow has more information to provide the board on the subject.
As for a possible conversation between Presidents Rouhani of Iran and Trump of the United States during the General Assembly opening session this month, Nebenzia had no confirmation to offer. He did say that the responses from both presidents to meet have so far been “confusing and contradictory.” Nebenzia added, “I’m not a prophet,” so he can’t predict what will happen.
Each month, PassBlue profiles UN ambassadors as they step into the role of Council president and highlights important data about their countries, including their carbon-emission levels (Russia’s are high compared to the world average) and maternal death rates (Russia and United States figures are both high).
Since Nebenzia was on vacation in August, PassBlue interviewed the deputy ambassador, Dmitry Polyanskiy, who was chargé d’affaires for the month. This column follows ones on Britain, the US, Bolivia, China, Ivory Coast, Dominican Republic, Equatorial Guinea, France, Germany and Peru, among others.
The interview has been edited and condensed and includes information from Ambassador Nebenzia’s media briefing.
To hear the full interview with Polyanskiy and learn more about Russia’s view of the West, as well as details on the explosion of a nuclear test in the country in early August, download PassBlue’s podcast, UN-Scripted, or go to Apple Podcasts, Spotify, SoundCloud, Stitcher, TuneIn, iTunes or Google Play.
Deputy Ambassador to the UN: Dmitry Polyanskiy, 48
Languages: Russian, English, French, German, Polish and Arabic
Education: B.A. from the Institute of Asia and Africa, in Arabic language and history, Moscow State University. Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, specializing in international economic relations.
His story, briefly: Dmitry Polyanskiy may be the second in charge at Russia’s mission to the UN in New York, but he walks in nobody’s shadow. He had his time to shine in August, while he was filling in for Russia’s permanent representative, Vassily Nebenzia, during his vacation, visiting, among other places, Crimea.
Since 2018, Polyanskiy has been the deputy permanent representative of Russia at the UN and handles many files of his own. A native of Moscow, he joined the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1994 and was posted in Tunisia, Germany, Sweden, Austria and Slovenia. He has worked for many years on European Union economic matters and was eventually posted in Brussels as the head of Russia’s E.U. unit.
In 2008, Polyanskiy moved to Poland to focus mostly on Eurasian economic integration among Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan. He also sits on Russia’s Council on Foreign Relations. He lives in New York City with his wife and their dog, Chewbakka, a dachshund. He has one grown-up daughter, who lives in Moscow.
How do you like New York City? It’s not a place to enjoy, frankly speaking, because of the hard work we do here. The United Nations is really the center of world diplomacy. So there are a lot of very interesting things that are happening there. So here, I’m working from 8 A.M. to 11 P.M., and I have little free time. Sometimes you have to work even on days off. In August, there was a meeting called by the French suddenly on a Saturday, so these things happen. You’re always mobilized, you’re always ready to answer questions and to present positions on certain issues, and this is of course very tiring. This is not a normal diplomatic post. It’s not like in bilateral embassies; it implies much more responsibility and much more standby functions.
Was being posted in New York a dream assignment? I, frankly speaking, did not favor the idea of going to the United States. It’s a very nice country, but it’s not very much to my liking . . . because of history, because of all the bilateral relations, which remain very weird and strange. I’m not a city boy. I like nature, I like more open spaces and more green. New York is nice, but it’s very urban. And there’s only Central Park, where you can really feel that this is a kind of nature in reservation. To go where there is nature, you need to go by car . . . and it takes a lot of time. I prefer Europe, I prefer Russia, I prefer Asia. I’ve been here for almost two years. During these two years, I haven’t had a single opportunity to visit downtown, for example. You need to understand why you’re here, why it is important for your country, and you don’t spend too much thoughts on reflection about where you are. That’s the particularity of this job.
You mentioned the history between Russia and the United States. What is it like to represent Russia in the United States as an individual? It’s very challenging. In regards to relations between ordinary people and us, they’re very friendly. People are very curious. They’re asking us questions. We don’t take it personally, of course; we have problems not with the American people but with some part of the American life. It’s a strange situation because when I was a kid, I remember quite well the animosity between the Soviet Union and the United States and understand the basis for this animosity. It was more ideological, and I understand that the Communist ideology was targeting capitalist countries trying to promote the world’s revolution. I can logically understand why capitalists, let’s put it this way, countries, Western countries, were afraid of the Soviet Union.
But now, if you look at Russia, you will see that Russia is the same democratic state as all the others. It also has a capitalist economy. People are free, people can travel objectively, there are no more reasons for any animosity or any attitude towards Russia that we feel here in the United States. The only reason that jumps to mind is that it is not about ideology, it’s about geopolitics and competition; otherwise, there is no explanation to this. But again, being a Russian diplomat in Washington, I assume it’s a bit different than being a Russian diplomat in New York, because we work with the United Nations, and the United Nations is a place where everybody speaks with everybody, regardless of bilateral relations. So maybe my colleagues, as far as I hear, have problems in accessing some institutions in Washington bilaterally. But we don’t have problems here in dealing with our American or British colleagues.
Your bio on your Twitter page says you hate lies and fake news. Why did you say that? Because we are now living a kind of post-truth world, and that’s a problem. People try to claim something, and even when it is proven that it is not true, they don’t even bother to say that, yes, we were wrong. There are a lot of lies around my country, a lot of fake information, and people do not even bother to say that this information is fake. Until recently, the situation was manageable, but I think, maybe a year and a half, two years ago, it changed because of these “highly likely” criteria. Now you don’t need to prove something; you just need to say something like, “it’s highly likely that” or “it’s almost beyond reasonable doubt” that “there is no other plausible explanation,” that it is used not only against Russia.
On the other hand, everything that is being mentioned on Russia Today [the media site] is a priori considered to be Russian propaganda. This reminds me of Soviet times, when everything that was said on the other side of the ocean was considered to be propaganda. So there is a very, very dangerous distortion of these notions. . . . I think that we need to analyze any news that we have. I usually read several news sources, not only Russia Today, of course, but also BBC, CNN and many other sources of information, because they can be biased. But if you get information from different sources, you get the clear picture.
What about Russian food in New York? Any good restaurants? There are a few good Russian restaurants in New York City; one of them is very authentic, Russian Samovar. It was founded by Russian immigrants and is one of my favorites. But the fact is that in New York City, the food is very much adapted to the liking of those who eat. So I’m, for example, a big fan of Chinese food, but I can’t find very much authentic Chinese food here, because the taste is a bit different. To taste authentic Russian food, you need to go to Russia or to the Russian mission. We have receptions there, and we serve authentic Russian food.
Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vassily Nebenzia, was on vacation in August, during which he traveled to Crimea. Do you know why he went there? Crimea is a very nice place. It’s very cozy and has a very unique climate. Now that it has reunited with Russia, a lot of things have changed and infrastructure has become better. Vassily went to a children’s summer camp, which also dates back to Soviet times, and they have an international program. A lot of children from many countries come there. I myself went to Crimea several times, so I think it’s normal.
Ambassador Nebenzia went to Crimea while Ukraine is trying to reconstruct its naval force with help from the United States in the Black Sea. What does Russia think of the US helping Ukraine this way? Helping Ukraine is not a problem, helping Ukraine militarily is a problem because Ukraine is waging a civil war, and we really were appealing to our American colleagues to avoid any militarization of this assistance. We may be on different pages on certain issues, but people are dying there and there are a lot of situations when Ukrainian forces shell and target civilians. So if Americans provide weapons for these [actions], I don’t think it’s a normal situation.
As for the United States helping Ukraine, we will have nothing bad [to say] about this, everybody can help Ukraine, we would also be happy to help Ukraine. But Ukrainians, first and foremost, need to help themselves and they need to restore internal trust; they need to re-establish dialogue, first and foremost, with the Russian-speaking community [in Ukraine], which is now in a very bad situation after the adoption of the language law [giving Ukrainian language special status and requiring all public servants to speak it].
Earlier in August, you introduced to the press at the UN Russia’s collective security proposal for the Persian Gulf region. What is next for this plan? The next step is to get feedback from different countries, different actors, to understand [their] ideas, how to enhance our plan. But it’s about consultations and dialogue. So far, the reaction mostly has been quite favorable. So far, I think most journalists pretend that it doesn’t exist.
There was a nuclear explosion in northeastern Russia in early August that killed seven people. Information about the explosion has slowly emerged, and Moscow wasn’t sure whether to evacuate the city near the explosion, according to some media. Has Russia learned from its mistakes of the past, such as Chernobyl, on dealing with nuclear disasters? [For more on this topic, listen to the podcast.] This is a different thing, because this happened during some tests and we regret very much what happened. And, of course, we should have avoided it, but unfortunately, those people who usually participate in such tests, they are aware of the danger. It’s not that you live quietly in some village, and then the nuclear power plant explodes and your life is changed forever. These people, like people who are sent to space, they understand that there is a risk, sometimes a possibility that they will not return. That’s why they run this enormous risk. That’s what they are being paid for and they’re being compensated. Of course, we will try to avoid such situations in the future. But that’s that’s how these things are developing, unfortunately, and every country, when they want to test some new technology, new facilities, they always have this risk and such incidents happened, not only in Soviet Union, but in the United States and in Europe, so nobody is protected against this. And again, the contamination cannot be compared, of course, to Chernobyl.
Do you think this nuclear explosion would have happened if the INF, or Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty, with Russia and the US hadn’t just collapsed? It’s difficult for me to answer, because I frankly am not aware of what was tested and what happened because I just don’t have clearance to get this information. But as far as official sources were telling, it was not about something that would violate INF. So these kind of tests, the kind of weapons that is being introduced, that was presented by our President [Putin] some time ago. It does not violate the existing Russian-American treaties. So it’s something that goes beyond this, we really had to do this, make these precautions, because of the attitudes of the United States, because of the politics of the United States, we have to be absolutely sure that we will be able to defend ourselves and to defend our allies. Unfortunately, that’s not the logic that we would promote. And that’s not the logic that we were trying to promote many years ago. But that’s the logic that the Americans do promote. And we have to answer to such steps, to such politics, so I’m quite sure that new weapons will be tested and be put on service in our armed forces; it doesn’t mean that we will threaten anybody, but we should be ready. The whole logic of the United States, the whole logic of of NATO, is treating Russia as an enemy. So we can’t ignore this. So we have two choices: either to surrender or to defend ourselves. So we choose the option of defending ourselves.
Head of State: Vladimir Putin (President)
Foreign Affairs Minister: Sergey Lavrov
Type of Government: Semipresidential Republic
Year Russia (Soviet Union) Joined the UN: 1945
Years on the Security Council: Russia is a permanent member, along with Britain, China, France and the United States
Population: 144.5 million
2019 Contributions to UN Regular Budget: $73,703,000
2019 Contributions to UN Peacekeeping: $203,981,000
Membership in Regional Groups: European Union Customs Union, Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC), Commonwealth of Independent States, BRICS
2015 Maternal Death Rate: 24/100,000. By comparison, the US rate in 2015 was 26.4/100,000
2017 Per Capita GDP: $11,300; EU, $33,723; US, $59,531; world, $10,721
2018 CO2 Emissions (in tons, per capita): 12 (world average, 5)
Electric Power Consumption (1,000 kWh/per capita and year):6.6; US, 13 (world average, 3.1 kWh)
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Stéphanie Fillion is a New York-based reporter specializing in foreign affairs and human rights who has been writing for PassBlue regularly for a year, including co-producing UN-Scripted, a new podcast series on global affairs through a UN lens. She has a master’s degree in journalism, politics and global affairs from Columbia University and a B.A. in political science from McGill University. Fillion was awarded a European Union in Canada Young Journalists fellowship in 2015 and was an editorial fellow for La Stampa in 2017. She speaks French, English and Italian.