New Zealand's Prime Minister John Key addresses attendees during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City, on Oct. 1, 2015.
Eduardo Munoz—Reuters
October 2, 2015 9:10 AM EDT

Just hours before New Zealand’s Prime Minister John Key addressed the United Nations Thursday, the National Party leader, who has been in office since 2008, spoke with TIME’s editors about Vladimir Putin, why his country needs a new flag and which world leader has had the greatest influence this year.

What do you make of Vladimir Putin’s latest political posturing?

He’s just trying to protect his relationship with Assad, and obviously his interests in Syria. So at one level, we don’t like the guy — but we’re making the point that it’s quite clever. He’s catching people a bit flat-footed. Our view is the same as the United States’. We’re not saying there needs to be a regime change on day one, but there’s no acceptable long-term position for Assad to be there.

How concerned were you with the reports that Putin is actually bombing rebels and not ISIS?

It’s hardly surprising. These aren’t the politics of someone that’s trying to make friends. They’re just the politics of someone that’s trying to prove he has some power that he perceives other don’t have.

Does the United Nations need to change in order to stop the violence in Syria?

In the end, the reason the Russians won’t allow a proper resolution to come out of the Security Council on Syria is because they’re protecting their interests with Assad. It’s not more complicated than that. They’re not looking at whether the position’s right, they’re not looking at whether millions of innocent people are displaced and dying. They’re putting at the forefront all of their interests with Assad. Well, okay, but really was that the purpose of the Security Council being formed 70 years ago? It can’t be.

Some want to change New Zealand’s flag because of its inclusion of the Union Jack, a symbol of the United Kingdom. Should the current flag go?

My view is that New Zealanders are immensely proud and patriotic people but, we don’t use our flag to demonstrate that. People are inherently adverse to change, and in the absence of anything else, the default position is to be a little more conservative about those things. The big sporting captains in New Zealand have all pretty much come out in seek change. Because everywhere they go in the world, people wave the flag. In every arena in the world except New Zealand. In New Zealand, they don’t do it. Virtually no New Zealander owns something with the flag on it. Virtually every American does.

Who should be TIME’s Person of the Year in 2015? The rules have always been that it’s the person who’s had the most influence on the news–for better or worst.

It certainly won’t be me, and it certainly won’t be an Australian Prime Minister because we’ve had a number of those. At one level, [Iran’s President Hassan] Rouhani. I just can’t help but wonder if this guy’s the real deal. If he really is the real deal, and the Iran nuclear deal is real, it’s a much more significant moment than people think. You can make the case that Rouhani’s doing it because it’s in his interest, because the sanctions are killing Iran. But anything that reduces nuclear capabilities has got to be a good thing, doesn’t it?

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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Write to Julia Zorthian at julia.zorthian@time.com.

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