July 5, 2012
The return of Russia; Mercurial Putin might be the best chance for progress in Iran and Syria
By Nicholas Burns
President Barack Obama has made the reset with Russia a priority, while Governor Mitt Romney has called the Kremlin America's "number one geopolitical foe." Who's right? Was it smart of Obama to put so much emphasis on getting along with Russia when the results are mixed, at best? And, why would Romney point to Russia, and not Iran, North Korea, or Al Qaeda as our most dangerous adversary? One thing is certain Moscow has emerged as the key power broker in this summer's two hottest foreign policy crises Syria and Iran. That means Washington can't afford to ignore the complex, difficult, and often inscrutable Vladimir Putin.
The Russian president for life is a complicated and brooding presence on the international scene. He has brought a gigantic chip on his shoulder to negotiations with Obama, and did the same with George W. Bush. When I served in government, it seemed he woke up each morning determined to block the United States at every pass. As a former KGB officer, he is still very much a Soviet man, memorably citing the USSR's collapse as the greatest calamity of the 20th century. His cynicism and capacity for brutality is evidenced by his mistreatment of opponents such as the still-imprisoned tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky and vetoing, with China, UN Security Council resolutions to aid suffering Syrian civilians.
Like Bush, Obama has found ways to work with the mercurial Putin when necessary. During the past decade, Russia has helped the United States to counter Al Qaeda, disrupt drug traffickers, and resupply American troops in Afghanistan through Russian territory. Can Obama now build on those successes by convincing Putin to help resolve the nuclear crisis in Iran and the civil war in Syria?
That will, of course, be a tall order. Iran has shown little inclination to negotiate seriously in this summer's nuclear talks. The major obstacle is Iran's historic animosity toward the United States and its myopic belief that it can escape the increasingly tough EU oil and US Central Bank sanctions that take effect this week. The one leader who might possibly break through to Iran's reclusive and suspicious supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, is Putin. Unlike China, which prizes its energy ties to Iran and refuses to deliver a tough message, the Russians have a much more nuanced and strategic view. They arm Iran and often protect it but don't want it to end up as a nuclear weapons power. From Obama's perspective, Putin might just be the best choice to convince Iran to make a deal.
The same may be true on Syria. If its embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, will listen to any foreign leader, it will likely be Putin. Russia has influence in Damascus and has thwarted US attempts to pressure Assad until now, calculating that Assad will survive the bloodiest fighting in any Arab country. Obama's challenge is to convince Putin that Assad will eventually be overwhelmed by an increasingly ferocious insurgency and that Moscow should change course. In return, Putin will likely ask the United States to agree that Assad be given refuge overseas and a guarantee of no prosecution for war crimes. While far from perfect, this is a deal the United States should consider seriously.
Why would Putin agree to help on Iran and Syria? In part, I suspect Putin wants respect from the United States and an acknowledgment of Russia's remaining relevance as a world power. On Iran, a Russian-mediated deal would be far preferable to Putin than an American or Israeli military attack. And, as a tough poker player, he will surely ask for additional US compromises on issues like missile defense.
One of the toughest calls to make in diplomacy is when to compromise with anti-democratic leaders like Putin. While progress on Iran and Syria is a long shot, he may be our best choice. There are times when we have to deal with the world as it is to eventually get the world we want. This is a big set of issues, worthy of debate between Obama and Romney on the campaign trail. Russia is surely not, as Romney said, our leading adversary, but it still has the power to make or break US policy on important issues. The road to progress in the Middle East may now lead through Moscow.
Nicholas Burns is a professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. His column appears regularly in the Globe.