By David K. Shipler
Washington may regard Vladimir Putin as the world’s Number One Nuisance, but he came through in the Iran agreement, just as he did in 2013 by negotiating the removal of chemical weapons from Syria (minus chlorine, unfortunately, which has industrial uses but has been weaponized). Before its thinly disguised invasion of Ukraine, Russia also shared intelligence on terrorism and other security matters. Unpublicized contacts among Russian and American military and civilian intelligence officials were reportedly frequent and productive; perhaps they still are.
So, a new overlay of common ground should be drawn onto the map of conflict between Washington and Moscow. President Obama, answering a well-placed question by Thomas Friedman Tuesday after the deal restricting Iran’s ability to develop nuclear weapons, said this:
“Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. Putin and the Russian government compartmentalized on this in a way that surprised me, and we would have not achieved this agreement had it not been for Russia’s willingness to stick with us and the other P5-Plus members in insisting on a strong deal.”
Quite an endorsement. But he shouldn’t have been surprised. Preventing Iran from going nuclear is as much in the Russian interest as it is in ours. Look at a map. Iran is in Russia’s back yard. If there is any constant in Russian history (and there are several), it’s the importance of the back yard. Ukraine is also in Russia’s back yard. You mess with the back yard, you mess with house and home. And while Putin can certainly be faulted for his aggression against Ukraine, for exaggerating Western designs on Russia’s security, and for fostering jingoism among the Russian public, his country and the United States share important overlapping interests.
Nuclear non-proliferation. The Soviet Union was more careful than the West in preventing the spread of nuclear know-how, until the Soviet collapse released underemployed scientists and technicians to sell their expertise. After the breakup, Russia made sure, with a vigorous push by the U.S., that nuclear warheads and missiles stationed in Belarus and Ukraine—former Soviet republics that became independent countries—were withdrawn to Russian territory.
Curtailing Islamic totalitarianism. Soviet authorities were alarmed by the fall of the Shah and the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, fearing a radicalization of the Muslim population within Soviet borders. Russia has as much to lose as the U.S. as the Islamic State gains ground in Syria and Iraq, and it has learned faster than we have that a secular dictator (Assad, Hussein, Qaddafi) is a lesser evil than a crazily zealous religious movement. Indeed, long Russian cultural tradition abhors disorder unless it can be exploited to Moscow’s advantage (as in Ukraine); there is nothing in Russian perceptions equivalent to the American faith that orderly democracy will naturally arise after a despot is toppled.
Counter-terrorism. Russia and the United States, both targets of terrorism for different reasons, have every motive to share intelligence as thoroughly as their professionals think prudent. Had the flow of information on Tamerlan Tsarnaev been more complete, perhaps the Boston Marathon bombings could have been avoided: The Russian FSB sent the FBI a warning about him in 2010 but failed to follow up on requests for further information.
European security. Contrary to the current impression, Russia has a stake in a peaceful central Europe, as do the United States, NATO, and the European Union. Granted, Putin laments the breakup of the Soviet empire as a national tragedy and aspires to weave former republics back into the tapestry of Moscow’s heavy influence or outright domination. Furthermore, as former U.S. Ambassador James F. Collins observed in a recent talk, Russian leaders have embarked “on a new course” away from the immediate post-Soviet period of “westward-looking orientation and in favor of an inward focused Russia/Eurasia based option.”
Putin has played to the belligerent nationalistic wing of his domestic audience, enhancing his approval ratings and smothering dissent—a sad and dangerous development for Russians themselves. But the West shares responsibility. The expansion of NATO to include the three former Baltic republics looked aggressive to Moscow, which is easily alarmed by the specter of encirclement and has suffered, through the Soviet breakup, from a loss of dignity as well as territory.
Humiliation may seem too touchy-feely to be a calculation in international affairs, but it’s often a factor, and a powerful one, especially in Russia, which has long imagined itself as being mocked by the West. Watching Putin’s attempts at a muscular rebound from weakness, I keep remembering an incident in 1977 when policemen stopped a West German television crew from filming outside the huge Rossia hotel, where a fire had killed at least twenty. The correspondent, Fritz Pleitgen, asked why he couldn’t film. The officer explained, “We do not want to let foreigners laugh at our misfortune.”
Consider the pain anyone would have to carry to think that foreigners would laugh at the misfortune of a hotel fire, and you have a glimpse of one level of grievance against the advance of the NATO alliance to Russia’s borders: As the West took a triumphalist pose on the rubble of the Soviet empire, some in Moscow surely heard derisive laughter. This is no excuse for Russian aggression in Ukraine, but it’s part of the explanation.
Moreover, the West hardly gained security by inviting Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia into NATO. Since the North Atlantic pact regards an attack on one member as an attack on all, membership amounts to a deterrent as long as cool heads prevail in Moscow. But it’s a bluff. If Putin sent troops to retake those Baltic states, who believes that the NATO countries would go to war against a nuclear Russia?
Last spring, Dimitri Simes and Graham Allison put it bluntly: “Many ask whether President Obama would risk losing Chicago, New York and Washington to protect Riga, Tallinn and Vilnius. It is a troubling question. If you want to either dumbfound or silence a table next to you in a restaurant in Washington or Boston, ask your fellow diners what they think.”
Yet each side takes actions that provoke the opposite of what it wants. Russia grabs Crimea and foments civil warfare in eastern Ukraine and gets severe economic sanctions from the West, which challenge Russia’s pride and bolster right-wing pressure on Putin to stand tough, which prompts tightening Western sanctions, which trigger intrusions into European airspace by Russian warplanes, which induce NATO to pre-position military hardware in the Baltics, and so on. This is a risky road.
Obama said that Russia had “compartmentalized” by helping on Iran. That’s a good word to describe pragmatic foreign policy. It displeases people across the political spectrum when morality is in question, because it’s more satisfying to take revenge across the board for bad behavior. During the Cold War, liberals disliked America’s cozy relationships with Latin American dictators who violated human rights but were valued for being anti-communist. Conservatives disliked nuclear arms agreements with Soviet leaders who violated human rights, yet the U.S. used a lower-cost approach by denying most-favored trade status to the Soviet Union as long as Soviet Jews were denied exit visas to Israel.Sometimes linking disparate issues is effective, as were the economic sanctions against South Africa and Iran. Compartments don’t have to be hermetically sealed. But they should exist, and now that both Russia and the U.S. have seen one in the Iran case, perhaps other opportunities for compartmentalization will become more obvious.