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Russian Envoy Says Obama’s Extremism Summit a “Mess”

Russia's U.N. ambassador says Moscow wants to join Washington in the fight against extremism, but only as an equal partner.

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Despite bitter differences over the fate of Syria and Ukraine, the United States and Russia still agree on one thing: the need to confront violent Islamic extremists from North Africa to the Middle East. But forging a coordinated strategy for combating the scourge has been complicated by the deteriorating state of relations between the Cold War superpowers.

With foreign dignitaries gathered in Washington for President Barack Obama’s conference on extremism, Russia’s U.N. envoy, Vitaly Churkin, denounced what he perceived as the latest American slights against Russia. He accused the United States of failing to seek Moscow and other capitals’ views on the event’s agenda, and said it snubbed Russia’s close allies, including Serbia, which was not invited to the conference.

“The United States believes in its exceptionalism and it has to say at every corner that the United States is going to lead,” Churkin said. “Fine, I’m prepared to listen to those statements if they want to position themselves this way.… What the hell.”

He added: “But they should not proceed from this premise in their relations with Russia and China, really, because they should take advantage of our willingness to cooperate.”

The Russian diplomat also offered a not-so-subtle warning that Russia’s cooperation on matters of vital importance to Washington, like the Iranian nuclear negotiations, should not be taken for granted. “Russia is a very responsible member” of the international community, said Churkin, noting that Moscow had worked very hard to have the Iranian nuclear talks succeed. “It would not take much for Russia to do some mischief in those talks, to make agreement even more difficult.”

Speaking Wednesday night on a panel on the state of U.S.-Russian relations at the Harvard Club in midtown Manhattan, Churkin predicted that the American conference would dissolve into a “mess.”

His remarks at the panel discussion — which was moderated by former Serbian Foreign Minister Vuk Jeremic, and included Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs, former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, and former German economy and defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg — underscored the strength of official Russian resentment against the United States.

Churkin bridled at what he characterized as American moralizing about Russian conduct in the world. It’s very hard, he said, to engage in discussions of moral equivalence with Washington “because [with] the United States, of course, you always have the moral superiority.”

A week ago, Russia championed the passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution aimed at helping to strangle the ability of the Islamic State and al Qaeda to raise money through the sale of oil, gas, and antiquities and the kidnapping of hostages. Following the vote, Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, voiced strong U.S. support for the resolution in remarks to the council. But she made no mention of Moscow’s contribution, and instead took a swipe at Russia and China for blocking an earlier resolution that would have subjected Syrian leaders to the International Criminal Court.

Churkin accused the United States of pushing the United Nations to the sidelines, saying the international body should be the one that is leading in countering extremism.

America’s insistence on staking out a leadership role in the fight against terrorism would only embolden jihadis to take up the fight, Churkin said. It will “attract the extremists, you know, to fight that American-led coalition,” he said.

He also complained that while the Obama administration claims to be launching a broad international fight against extremists, it “did not consult us” about the substance of the meeting. “Originally, they did not even invite us,” Churkin said.

He lambasted the White House for inviting envoys from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe to the counter-extremist event but ignoring Serbia, which currently chairs the group. Meanwhile, he said, Kosovo was asked to participate, even though it is not a member of the U.N.

And though Russia is eager to work with the United States on battling extremism, Churkin had low expectations on what the White House conference would yield. “As far as I’m concerned, it’s going to produce a mess,” he said.

The U.S. mission to the United Nations and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment on Churkin’s remarks.

The United States did invite a delegation from Russia, which was headed by Moscow’s top spy, Alexander Bortnikov, the director of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB), Russia’s modern-day KGB.

The three-day meeting began Tuesday with a focus on the domestic threat of extremism in the United States, and shifted on Thursday to the international effort to combat terrorism. Speaking Thursday morning at the State Department before representatives of more than 60 countries, President Obama painted a grim portrait of a world buffeted by terrorism.

“As we speak, ISIL is terrorizing the people of Syria and Iraq and engaging in unspeakable cruelty,” he said, using an acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.

He said extremists linked to the Islamic State “murdered Egyptians in the Sinai Peninsula, and their slaughter of Egyptian Christians in Libya has shocked the world. Beyond the region, we have seen deadly attacks in Ottawa, Sydney, Paris, and now Copenhagen.”

Obama pressed the delegates, who were joined by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, to return to the U.N. General Assembly next September to “take concrete steps … together” to tackle terrorism. “We are all in the same boat, and we have to help each other.”

Churkin said the “possibility” of Russia and the United States “working together is out there.” But, he said, “We need to overcome this crisis” in relations and “we need to learn some lesson[s] and we need to start with a new beginning.”

Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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