A great flurry of activity and concern has surrounded Russia’s diplomatic coup in Syria, with some commentators predicting Moscow's ascension to a position of influence in the region accompanied by a broader return to adversarial great power politics. Regardless of how the Syrian conflict resolves, Russia’s presence in the Middle East needs to be taken seriously. Rather than viewing Russian influence as a detriment or a challenge, however, US policymakers should feel guardedly optimistic about the prospects for a stronger Russian role in the region – especially given its benefits for nuclear nonproliferation. Here’s why:
First, a bigger role for Russia could bring negotiations over Iran’s nuclear status closer to a successful conclusion. Despite accusations to the contrary, it remains highly unlikely that Russia actually wants to see a nuclear-armed Tehran. Even if culpability for threatening the nonproliferation regime was insufficient to motivate Moscow, and even if it trusted an Iran with nuclear capabilities, the episode in Syria has taught Russia that its allies are not immune to domestic instability or international pressure. An Iranian nuclear pariah state would have few friends and face an overwhelming array of external challenges – including the threat of foreign military intervention, announced or unannounced. Russia would never make a serious calculation that its security would be improved by the introduction of another nuclear power beset by crisis, with its own diplomatic priorities and no mandate to align its foreign policy with Moscow’s.
If Russia sees negotiations as an opportunity to provide for Iran’s regional security and economic growth, it could resolve Tehran’s incentive for nuclear acquisition. Recent negotiations between the two countries, potentially involving a proposal for Russian assistance for nuclear power and missile defense, indicate that such an initiative could already be in the works. Accepting a legitimate Russian role in the negotiations may not seem pleasant, but it could move the process beyond a stalemate during a short window of opportunity presented by potential reformer President Rouhani. Gradually reducing sanctions in response to tangible progress by Iran would return flexibility to global oil markets and represent a hard-won success for the nonproliferation regime, even if Moscow can claim the credit.
Second, Russian involvement in Middle East presents unorthodox but nevertheless useful opportunities for U.S. burden-sharing and regional security. While certain responsibilities such as the protection of Persian Gulf sea lanes are likely to stay with the United States, a Russia tasked with (closely observed) WMD cleanup in Syria would relieve the United States from “boots on the ground” deployment and give Russia a stake in the containment of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons proliferation. As a result, failure to relieve Syria of its chemical weapons (or the use of weapons by another country in the region) would make Russia appear complicit or, at the least, incompetent. Forcing Moscow to become a responsible player in the Middle East by implicating its self-interest and desire for prestige may, over time, reduce the United States’ required commitment and contribute to regional stability.
Finally, a confident and accomplished Russia willing to build on collaborative success can benefit broader U.S.-Russian relations and nuclear cooperation. An insecure Russia, feeling diplomatically isolated and threatened by the West at every turn, is unlikely to help Obama save face in future diplomatic endeavors, let alone participate in future arms control agreements built on strategic assurances. Irrationally trusting Russia is neither necessary nor advisable, but alienating Moscow and blatantly ignoring its interests is not likely to pay useful dividends, either.
For better or for worse, Russia is still a great power. It may be uncomfortably autocratic, corrupt, diplomatically frustrating, and economically undiversified, but it plays an indispensable role in global nuclear affairs. Similarly, Vladimir Putin may be blunt, antagonistic, and even trollish, but as long as he controls Russia’s future, the United States would be wise to take advantage of his influence. U.S. credibility is not imperiled by Moscow’s return to regional relevance or the occasional Russian diplomatic victory; on the contrary, accomplishing long-term security goals including nuclear nonproliferation is virtually impossible without Russian participation. A balanced policy that recognizes where Russia’s strategic interests lie while carefully verifying good-faith contributions – and even letting Moscow steal the spotlight, from time to time – stands the best chance of reducing serious threats to global security.
Kyle Deming is a research intern for the Project on Nuclear Issues. The views expressed above are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Center for Strategic and International Studies or the Project on Nuclear Issues.