From Mark N. Katz
At the recent Moscow summit, the U.S. and Russian governments made progress on strategic arms control and on Afghanistan. Instead of heralding broader Russian-American cooperation, however, the results of the Moscow summit—and subsequent G-8 summit in Italy—suggest that Russian-American cooperation is likely to remain limited, especially regarding the Middle East.
Presidents Obama and Medvedev reportedly discussed Iran at length, but no agreement on how the United States and Russia would work together in preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons was announced. The G-8 summit leaders (which include the president of Russia) have given Iran until September to make progress on the nuclear issue, but this call is largely symbolic. Unlike the UN Security Council, the G-8 has no authority to impose sanctions on Iran. The New York Times reported on July 9 that Russian officials are already boasting that they watered down the G-8 statement.
As I have argued before, what the Kremlin really fears is the prospect of an Iranian-American rapprochement since this would result at minimum in Tehran being even less dependent on and cooperative with Moscow than it is now. Improved Iranian-American relations could also lead to America helping Iran displace Russia as a gas supplier to Europe and as a transit route for Caspian Basin oil and gas.
The Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations with Iran, then, was something Moscow feared, not welcomed. For the Kremlin, the Iranian hardliners’ crackdown on the extraordinary protest against the regime’s declaring Ahmadinejad the winner of the recent presidential elections there has been a godsend, since it has resulted in the pause (if not the stop) button being pressed on the Iranian-American rapprochement process. Unlike the United States, which has criticized (admittedly sparingly) Iranian government behavior, Russia has enthusiastically recognized Iran’s officially announced election results. In short, the Iranian hardliners’ mistaken belief that the United States is somehow behind their opponents is simply too good an opportunity for Moscow not to take advantage of.
The Moscow summit did not result in any meaningful Russian-American cooperation on the Arab-Israeli issue either. While the Kremlin will undoubtedly continue to call for a “comprehensive” solution (as well as meetings to take place in Moscow—as if that location would improve chances for a settlement), it is neither willing nor able to broker one. As with the diplomacy over the North Korean nuclear issue, Moscow seems more interested in being seen to be involved in the Arab-Israeli peace process than in actually contributing to it. Instead, Russia appears likely to continue its efforts to have good relations and balance its ties among Israel, Syria, Fatah, and Hamas. And it will probably succeed because, as Moscow well knows, while each party disapproves of Moscow’s ties to its opponents, each would prefer to have some support from Moscow rather than none.
Yet while America and Russia may not have made progress on Iran or the Arab-Israeli conflict at either the Moscow or G-8 summits, some might hope that the progress they made on strategic arms and Afghanistan could lead to cooperation in these other areas. This, however, seems doubtful, not only because Moscow and Washington simply have different interests regarding Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also because there was less cooperation than was announced on the Russian side regarding Afghanistan and strategic arms control.
The Russian decision to allow the United States to transport military equipment through Russian airspace to Afghanistan reflects a calculation that if things go badly for the U.S. military effort in that country, Russian security interests are going to suffer. Objectively (as Russians were fond of saying during the Communist era), the American military presence in Afghanistan serves to protect Russia and its Central Asian allies from the Taliban. Facilitating the transport of American military equipment to Afghanistan, far from representing a concession to the United States, is very much in Russia’s own interests. Similarly, for the United States and Russia to agree on reducing their strategic nuclear arsenals at a time when it has become far more difficult for Russia to keep up with the United States in weapons technology seems far more beneficial to Russian interests than American ones.
If they herald anything, then, the Moscow and G-8 summits do not presage improved prospects for Russian-American cooperation in the Middle East, but for a continuation of the pattern of Russia cooperating with the United States when this serves Moscow’s interests and not doing so when it doesn’t. And, as before, Moscow is more likely to see not cooperating with the United States in the Middle East as being in its interest more often than cooperating with it. Nor would it be reasonable to expect otherwise.
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