Russian President Vladimir Putin never had any intentions of diplomacy with regard to Crimea, despite a last-ditch full-court press by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in London last week.
That’s how a story this week in The Wall Street Journal detailed it. When Kerry met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for about six hours last Friday, Lavrov stepped away from the discussions to call Putin. When the Russian president refused to take his diplomat’s call, it became clear that Lavrov was not in London to cut a deal — he was presenting the illusion of diplomacy.
This is one way the U.S. has played into the hands of Russia on key foreign policy issues over the past few months. With respect to the crisis in Ukraine, the Obama administration has struggled to respond on the fly and calibrate a strategy that sends a clear message to Russia while keeping in mind the necessity to keep Putin as a diplomatic partner.
This is where Putin’s greatest leverage lies in Ukraine. The U.S. needs him as a partner to complete major objectives with regard to Iran nuclear talks, the Syrian war, and negotiations between Israel and Palestine.
“Everyone wants to avoid confrontation with Putin, pretend he’s an ally or at least that he can be worked with,” Garry Kasparov — a former grand chess master and loud critic of Putin and the Obama administration’s strategy toward Russia — told Business Insider. “This has always been a myth, and now everyone is finally realising what a dangerous myth it was.”
The crises are blending some of the thorniest issues of President Obama’s second term. On Wednesday, Russia Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov warned the U.S. of the consequences of further sanctions, saying it could recalibrate its position on Iran.
The administration has not been deterred in imposing further punitive measures on Russia, as Obama announced new sanctions on 20 Russian officials and other individuals on Thursday, as well as one “crony” bank. Russia took notice, and the sanctions had a noticeable first-day effect on markets.
Senior Obama administration officials signaled Thursday they believe Russia is bluffing over its Iran threat. But it was also clear from a conference call with these officials that there’s no contingency plan if Russia is serious.
“We will evaluate Russian actions. We take note of their words, but we have not seen a change in the P5-plus-1,” one senior U.S. official said, referring to the group of the six world powers. “Now, that may not stay the same. They may act on the words of the deputy foreign minister yesterday. But all we can say is what we’ve seen to date, which is the P5-plus-1 is continuing a regular rhythm of political directors meetings and technical expert meetings.”
The official didn’t answer follow-up questions asking for a direct response to Ryabkov’s comments, which cannot be taken lightly.
“If you’re Putin and you think you’re going to be a target of sanctions, the most obvious leverage is in the Iranian file, where Russian cooperation is so important,” Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, told The New York Times.
A Russian shift in position on Iran, after months of cooperation, would dramatically deteriorate the possibility of a diplomatic end to the issue.
We’ve seen this play out before. Putin called the shots last September, when Obama said he had made the decision to surgically strike targets in Syria in response to the gassing of more than 1,000 civilians in the suburbs of Damascus.
Moscow provided an alternative, jumping on an offhanded comment by John Kerry. The subsequent process of removing Syria’s chemical weapons has been full of missed and extended deadlines, while Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces continue to bomb Syrian civilians into oblivion with Russian weapons.
Why did the U.S. abandon its original plan to strike Assad? Much of it had to do with the fact that it needed Russia as a crucial partner in Iran nuclear talks.
Now, Moscow-Washington relations are crumbling, while Assad takes advantage of the Ukraine crisis to crush the rebellion to his rule. And Putin’s continued support of ousted President Viktor Yanukovych, in particular, has reinforced to Assad that Putin will protect his interests in Syria.
Basically, the “Russian reset” policy of engaging the Kremlin to pursue shared goals “has been a serious foreign policy failure for the Obama administration,” Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, told Business Insider.
It’s not clear whether Russia will carry out its threat on Iran — after all, it also has interest in a comprehensive deal. It doesn’t want a war in its backyard and, as one U.S. official said, if Iran develops a nuclear weapon it would be “whole lot closer to Russia” than the U.S.
But in the weeks to come, the U.S. will clearly be walking on a fine line as several of the world’s most pressing geopolitical problems become increasingly intertwined.
“On Ukraine, again, I am confident that we will all approach this negotiation to get our work done and our job done,” one official coming out of the latest Iran talks told reporters Tuesday.
“And I continue to hope that ongoing events in Ukraine and actions that may be taken will not change that. 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.”
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