The Obama administration claims it isn’t worried that escalating tensions with the Kremlin over Crimea will wreck U.S.-Russian cooperation in other parts of the world. But there are already signs pointing in the other direction. And that could be very bad for any attempts to solve the civil war in Syria or keep Iran from going nuclear.
U.S. officials at this week’s talks with Iran in Vienna admitted that they were worried the process, which is now in the second round, could fall victim to the greater dispute over what’s going on in Ukraine. “I continue to hope that ongoing events in Ukraine and actions that may be taken will not change that,” one official in Vienna said. “But I can’t tell you today for a certainty that that will be the case because all of the events happening in the world are not under our control.”
Just before President Obama announced new and additional sanctions against 20 Russian political and business leaders Thursday and issued a new executive order (PDF) paving the way for even more sanctions, top Russian officials promised that if Obama continued to escalate, they would start to raise the stakes by halting their cooperation with the West on negotiating a comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran.
“We wouldn’t like to take advantage of these negotiations [with Iran] as an element of gambling with a higher ante,” Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told Interfax Thursday. “But if we are forced to do so, we will take retaliatory measures, as well. Because, in the big perspective, the historical significance of… Crimea’s reunification with Russia is incomparable with what we are dealing with on the Iranian track.”
Russia also announced entry bans against 11 U.S. senators, congressmen, and officials Thursday, as The Daily Beast reported earlier this week.
One Pentagon analyst on Russia told The Daily Beast that the intelligence community was divided to date on Russia’s response when it comes to Iran and Syria. “We have seen a willingness on their part to compartmentalize Ukraine away from the Middle East. There are some of us who think Putin will do everything he can to spite us.”
But four senior Obama administration officials said Thursday that they were not going to blink in the face of the Russian threat to undermine the Iran talks. They argued that the Russians should be just as worried about a nuclear Iran as the West is..
“Were Iran to develop a nuclear weapon, that weapon would be a whole lot closer to Russia than to many of us,” said one senior official,.
The Russians “are invested in the diplomacy with Iran because it’s in their own interests, it’s not a favor to us,” a second official added. “Were they to amend their posture, they would only be further isolating themselves.”
The Iranian government would still be under pressure from the West even if Russia stopped cooperating, the official said.
Nobody knows if and how Russia will follow through on its threats to sacrifice the Iran talks to try rob Obama of the main diplomatic accomplishment of his second term as president. Russia could pull out of the so-called “P5+1” group—the world powers currently negotiating with Iran. Or Moscow could stop cooperating on international sanctions on Iran, easing pressure on Tehran and helping Russian businesses.
The administration has to make a calculation how likely Russia is to follow through on its threats and a calculation about how bad the damage would be if they do, said James Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Obama administration will be judged by history in hindsight how well Obama made those judgments,” he said. “Crimea is no longer solely about Crimea. It involves bedrock U.S. interests and principles.”
The Obama administration has to walk a fine line in the weeks to come, Lindsay added. They must simultaneously be realistic about possible ripple effects from the Crimea crisis—but not shy about standing up to Putin’s threats.
“The Russian annexation of Crimea can’t go unanswered,” he said. “The White House understands that the Russians have a lot of ways of retaliation. In high stakes diplomatic confrontation, you never blink at the start. We never know how these things are going to end.”
Besides Iran, Russia could seek to unravel some of President Obama’s foreign policy accomplishments from his first term, many of which Moscow participated in at the time. In its early years, the Obama administration touted a new nuclear arms treaty known as New START as its principle foreign policy success. Obama administration officials also often talked up Russia’s cooperation in allowing supply routes to Afghanistan—routes that Russia could now close down as U.S. troops withdraw.
Russia is also a key actor in Syria—cosponsoring political negotiations between the opposition and the Bashar al-Assad regime in Geneva, and helping craft an agreement to rid the country of its chemical weapons. The Geneva talks were already in trouble, even with Russian involvement. But if Moscow eases up pressure on Assad, he could easily back away from his commitments to hand over his chemical stockpiles.
“It’s in their interest for those weapons to get further away from someone who could take them to Chechnya,” said Heather Hurlburt, a senior fellow at Human Rights First and an expert on European security affairs. “On the other hand, Russian history is filled with examples of the leaders cutting off their people’s nose to spite their face.”