Vladimir Putin Skips U.N. Meeting to Watch Massive War Game Near NATO Border

Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin inspects the navy corvette Sovershenny during the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, Russia, on September 6. Mikhail Klimentyev/Kremlin/Sputnik/Reuters

As Manhattan locks down and world leaders fly in to attend President Donald Trump's first U.N. General Assembly in office, Vladimir Putin tops the absentee list.

Instead, the Russian president will observe the start of the main part of a war game his military is conducting along NATO's eastern border, the Kremlin told state news agency Itar-Tass Monday.

The Russian president will not make the trip to New York City this year, after delivering a polarizing speech from the U.N. podium when he last attended the annual session in 2015, in which he blamed Western leaders for the rise of extremism and hinted at Russia's soon-to-be-announced foray into Syria.

In a now-infamous side twist of his 2015 trip, CBS broadcast an interview with Putin on 60 Minutes back-to-back with a segment featuring Trump. The fact that the pair were on the program in the same episode prompted Trump to boast that he had gotten to know his "stablemate" Putin "very well" on the show.

The odd claim was rendered meaningless by the fact that the pair gave their interviews on different days and countries apart.

Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov confirmed at the start of the month that Putin would not be going to the U.N. General Assembly, stating that the trip was "not in the president's plans." Not for the first time, Putin is sending Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to lead the Russian delegations. On Monday, the Kremlin revealed Putin's actual plans for the day, announcing that while Russian diplomats take their seats, Putin will be in the command room for Russia's Zapad drill, near St. Petersburg.

The drill, held jointly with Russia's westernmost military ally Belarus, has unnerved NATO allies for months, some of whom have compared it to a simulated assault, an annexation or a bid to place troops near NATO and not pull them back.

Before Putin's arrival in the Luzhskiy training range, Su-24M front fencer bombers practiced hitting targets there Monday. The Kremlin did not say what sort of training activity Putin would personally oversee in the Leningrad region.

Putin's decision to stay away from the General Assembly is not out of character, as he keeps his U.N. visits rare, though his trips to the West have dried up from his calendar exponentially in recent years, says Roderic Lyne, former U.K. ambassador to Russia.

"Putin is traveling much less now than in his earlier years, and has made few visits to the West since the annexation of Crimea. It's not comfortable territory for him—especially the U.S.A. in the wake of the latest sanctions and diplomatic spats."

"I think this is an understandable and expected decision," says Lilia Shevtsova, associate fellow at Chatham House's Russia and Eurasia program. It is not so much that Putin is making a point with his absence, she says, but rather, he may be absent because he has no point to make.

"In order to take part in the 72nd Session of the General Assembly, Putin has to deliver some message," she says. "But what could his message be now? It looks like Moscow has not decided on whether to adopt a more confrontational approach to the West and the U.S. or a softer line."

Russian government officials have repeatedly tried to blame the continuing deterioration in relations with the U.S. at lawmakers and figures besides Trump. However, as the current administration has increased punitive actions on Russia without a push from Congress, Putin and his Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev have criticized U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump himself.

If the agenda at the U.N. is dominated by Trump's program to trim spending on the U.N. and reform the body, Russia has little to contribute.

According to Shevtsova, the Kremlin's ambivalence on Trump extends to Russia's "lack of readiness" to make a contribution to the leading topic going into the summit—U.N. reform. Thus, she says, "Putin prefers to watch the developments from Moscow."