Obama’s Russia Recalibration

U.S.-Russian cooperation on the Iran deal could signal a change in the wind...

With all the controversy surrounding the recently negotiated Iran nuclear deal, speculation has run rampant about the future of the U.S. relationship with Iran. For all the talk of potential long-term détente between the United States and the Islamic Republic, however, commentators have largely ignored a more immediate diplomatic opening: namely, with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Speaking to the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman in the wake of the Iran negotiations, President Obama struck a surprisingly positive tone about Russia’s role in the Vienna talks. “Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you,” Obama told Friedman. “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.”

Such measured praise does not in itself indicate a sea change in American policy toward Russia. Ukraine remains a source of fundamental disagreement, and just last month the Obama administration successfully convinced the EU to extend sanctions on Russia through January.

Still, the rhetorical shift does suggest a change in Obama’s thinking about Russia. Since the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the administration’s policy has been single-mindedly aimed at isolating Russia. Economic sanctions and diplomatic snubs, such as kicking Russia out of the G-8, have joined with disparaging anti-Russia rhetoric to paint Putin’s Russia as a pariah country, incapable of behaving itself on the world stage. At times, Obama’s rhetoric has gotten quite personal. In an interview last August, Obama dismissed Russia as a country that “doesn’t make anything,” and that suffers from a shrinking population and lack of immigration. On all three counts, Obama’s claims were demonstrably false—yet they served their purpose, both in stirring up anger in Moscow and appeasing Congressional critics who have argued for a harder line against Putin.

Such bluster may now be giving way to a more pragmatic and realistic policy toward Russia, based in selective engagement on issues of mutual interest. In many ways, this formula is not new; it was at the heart of Obama’s first-term “reset” policy, designed to improve relations with Moscow following the 2008 war with Georgia and the strained relations of George W. Bush’s second term. The new version of the policy will likely be more limited in scope and visibility. The Ukraine crisis cannot be forgotten with the push of a button, after all, and the Obama administration will surely not trumpet its new diplomacy with Putin, since Congressional critics will cry foul at the slightest hint of appeasement. Behind closed doors, though, the administration is subtly beginning to change course from its policy of isolating Moscow. Call it a recalibration, if not a reset.

Consider the recent signs of diplomatic engagement between Washington and Moscow. First, there was Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip to Sochi in May, the first diplomatic visit to Russia since the Ukraine crisis began. Meeting with Putin directly for the first time, Kerry was clearly sending the message that engagement would now prevail over attempted isolation. This idea is also reflected in the growing trend of direct telephone diplomacy between Obama and Putin. For the first time in four months, the Russian president called Obama on June 25, discussing the Iranian negotiations and cooperation against ISIS. Since then, the presidents have been speaking more consistently, with Putin delivering a cordial July 4 message to Obama and, most recently, both presidents congratulating each other on the Iran deal and pledging greater cooperation in the Middle East.

These overtures may be largely symbolic, but the Iran deal is a substantive diplomatic achievement for the administration—one that would have been impossible without Moscow’s help. In fact, the Russian role in achieving the deal extends far beyond its role in the Vienna negotiations themselves.