Russia is not America’s “number one geopolitical foe,” as Governor Romney suggested in March, but newly reelected President Putin is definitely a pain.
His meeting with President Obama yesterday produced little or nothing on the two main issues for the United States: Syria and the Iranian nuclear program. Meanwhile, the Brits stopped a shipment of refurbished Russian attack helicopters headed for Syria, while the Iranians thumbed their noses at the U.S.-backed nuclear offer. It’s a good thing the nuclear talks, which are continuing today, are being held in Moscow, since that gives the Russians an incentive to float new ideas and prevent a collapse. The Russians will do what they can to pass the hot potato on to the next meeting, reportedly to be held in Beijing.
The problem isn’t so much that Russia is a geopolitical foe with the capacity to do America serious harm, which is what it was during the Cold War. The problem is that Moscow controls some things Washington needs, like the northern supply route to Afghanistan and the Security Council consensus on blocking Iran’s nuclear program. The U.S. can manage without these things, but it can manage much better with them.
Presidents Obama and Putin looked none too pleased with each other yesterday at their meeting in Mexico, during a G-20 summit. Putin, who is trying to re-establish Russia’s great power status, figures sticking it to Obama will help him demonstrate that Russia is indispensible. Obama has both hands tied behind his back, because–contrary to what one of my Twitter followers suggested yesterday–he needs Putin’s help on Afghanistan and Iran, even if Russia is today a middling power.
This makes for an uncivil relationship, one that could end with tragedy in Syria and catastrophe in Iran. The Russian bear hasn’t got the capacity to project power that the Soviet one had, but it is leveraging its weakened position effectively. I share President Obama’s preference for multilateralism, which has virtues in particular for dealing with Iran and Syria. But it is important to keep open other options, if only to counter a middling power seeking to leverage its assets.