Putin's Russia is Pivotal For Future U.S. Foreign Policy

One longtime senior U.S. diplomat says Moscow and Washington share opposition to nuclear-armed Iran.

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Russian President Vladimir Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia.

Russia is back, at least in the minds of U.S. national security leaders.

From halting Iran's nuclear program to squeezing Syria's regime to listening to President Obama's hopes for fewer nuclear arms, "Russia is the key," as one former official says.

Past-and-present Russian President Vladimir Putin "still aspires for Russia to be a superpower," says one former senior U.S. diplomat.

Next week, U.S. officials will join Germany and its four other permanent counterparts from the U.N. Security Council for talks with Iranian leaders about Tehran's atomic weapons program.

But that process, known in diplomatic circles as the P5+1 talks, "is flawed," says Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state during George W. Bush's presidency. The talks are flawed because China and Russia are P5 members, and have long worked against American whims within the Security Council.

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On Iran, China has become the main stumbling block. Beijing has found ways to avoid violating U.N. sanctions on Iran while becoming Tehran's top trading partner, Burns said at a forum this week. In short, China has ample economic and security reasons to help Iran.

But in Moscow, Burns says Washington might find an ally.

"Russia does not want to see a nuclear Iran," Burns said. "Russia has a more highly strategic view of this than the Chinese do."

Moscow has also joined Beijing in rejecting U.N. council measures that would have dealt diplomatic blows to Syrian president Bashir al-Assad in his brutal war against opposition elements, which has been frustrating White House officials.

But Russia's backing of Assad gives Washington leverage over Putin because if Moscow also assists the Iranian regime, "the Russians will hurt themselves long term in the region. We should be playing on this," says Dennis Ross, a senior U.S. diplomat and presidential adviser under Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

Meantime, Putin could make or break what insiders say is a major foreign policy goal for Obama's possible second term: Continuing to shrink the number of U.S. and Russian nuclear weapons.

Obama talks often of his vision of a "nuclear-free world," and has pushed hard for nuclear weapons reductions between the Cold War foes. More pragmatic Obama administration officials simply want nuclear arsenal cuts because they feel the nation has more than enough and it would perhaps free up billions.

The United States has nearly 1,740 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, sub-based ballistic missiles, and warheads for heavy aircraft, according to the Pentagon. Russia has around 1,490.

Under a nuclear-arms reduction pact struck last year, the U.S. and Russia are in the midst of reducing their nuclear arsenals. But is Putin willing to do more?

The Russians "seem to be going the other way," says Michele Flournoy, Obama's former Pentagon policy chief, citing an renewed emphasis on nuclear arms in military doctrine and increased atomic weapons spending.

"Even though a second Obama administration might see it possible to do more reductions," Flournoy says, "the challenge is getting the Russians to that point."

John T. Bennett covers national security and foreign policy for U.S. News & World Report via the DOTMIL blog. You can contact him at jbennett@usnews.com or follow him on Twitter.

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