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.
Five years ago, Russian support was crucial in securing passage of UNSC Resolution 1929, the crippling Security Council sanctions bill that drove Iran to the bargaining table in the first place. This support was never a guarantee, since Russia’s top arms and energy industries had substantial ties to Iran. Russia had sold both Tor-M1 missiles and the S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran, for instance, and Russian contractors had built the Iranian nuclear plant at Bushehr. Despite these Russian-Iranian economic ties, however, the United States convinced Russia to support the sanctions and halt their weapons deliveries to Tehran. Although there have been bumps in the road in Russian cooperation with America’s Iran policy—notably Moscow’s decision to reapprove the delivery of the S-300 system to Tehran, after suspending it in 2010—Obama is correct to note that the Vienna deal would have been impossible without their help.
After Iran, the question remains: where might U.S.-Russian cooperation happen next? Syria and Ukraine have long been areas of stalemate between the two countries, but even on those fronts, there is renewed possibility for compromise. Four years into the Syrian Civil War, the United States has effectively abandoned any ambitions of actively ousting Assad from power, a move that Russia has long opposed. At the same time, Russia has begun to acknowledge the weakness of the Assad regime and the potential for a jihadist takeover of Syria. These realities bring the United States and Russia to a closer understanding, creating the possibility of cooperation in Syria. Indeed, Syria has been a prime topic of discussion between the two presidents, and President Obama said he was “encouraged” by Putin’s proactive outreach about resolving the conflict.
Even in Ukraine, there are faint signs of progress. Earlier this month, Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland visited the Ukrainian parliament to urge passage of a controversial provision allowing for “special law” in the war-torn Donetsk and Luhansk regions of eastern Ukraine. Nuland is no friend of Moscow; she has often been perceived in Russia as an American architect of the Ukraine crisis. Yet her official support for greater autonomy in Donetsk and Luhansk may well signify a shift in the administration’s Ukraine policy.
By supporting the provision, vague as it may be, the United States is encouraging Ukraine to implement its side of the Minsk agreement and signaling to Moscow its openness to greater autonomy for the rebellious regions, which has been a sticking point for Russia. This in turn may change Putin’s calculus in eastern Ukraine, motivating a drawdown of Russian troops in the region and a gradual resolution of the conflict. This scenario is feasible enough that some nationalistic Ukrainians have worried that Obama is “selling out” Ukraine to Putin in exchange for cooperation on Iran.
As that accusation suggests, none of the Obama administration’s future diplomacy with Russia will be uncontroversial. Nor will it inevitably produce successes. Ukraine and Syria remain intractable problems, and there is no guarantee that diplomatic engagement will translate into a mutually agreeable solution.
For the time being, though, one thing remains clear: the Obama administration will at least try to engage with Russia, after a largely fruitless attempt at isolating it. There will be no reset button photo-ops to tout this new diplomacy, nor will it lead to a fundamental transformation of the U.S.-Russian relationship. Still, recalibrating the United States’ Russia policy toward a more pragmatic agenda could produce meaningful results that align with the interests of both countries.
Sean Keeley is a research assistant at the Center for the National Interest.