Vladimir Putin decided not to attend the recent NATO summit in Chicago – although probably not out of petty pique at our president. Regardless of his sentiments about Obama, he would have attended if he had thought it was in his interest to do so. Now Iran has abruptly ended the scheduled talks on her nuclear program in Baghdad, affirming no interest in continuing this round without some lightening of sanctions up front. The next round of talks is to be held in Moscow.
If they occur, as promised, in June – before the US election – the most likely outcome is more stalling and no progress. But that is not because there has been no prior interest on the Western side in making big concessions in order to get an agreement. What Iran is doing actually amounts to avoiding being presented with a favorable agreement. The abruptness of the talks’ end indicates mostly that Iran doesn’t see it as advantageous to stick around and talk anymore, in spite of – or perhaps because of – the P5+1’s anxiety to negotiate a good deal for Iran.
As for Putin, his proximate reason for not attending the summit is obvious. Missile defense was – as always, over the last decade – to be one of the two main topics in Chicago, the other being Afghanistan. The collective NATO missile defense system for Europe was to be declared operational at the summit. It was. Russia’s main bone of contention with NATO is missile defense. Although Russia has been invited to be a missile defense partner with NATO, and has participated in extensive talks on the matter, there remain fundamental disagreements between the parties over how to operate and orient a collective missile defense.
Putin had no intention of being present for photo ops under a “NATO missile defense” banner – in spite of President Obama’s assurance to Dmitry Medvedev that the US would be more “flexible” about the whole thing after our November election. Putin’s reluctance is partly because Obama’s NATO allies have a different view. They aren’t interested at all in more “flexibility”: the Europeans, in their own special way, have actually been quite stringent on the need for missile defense, determined to go ahead with it for political purposes if not for the capabilities of the inaugural system. The initial capability relies entirely on US Aegis warships being stationed in the Black Sea or Eastern Mediterranean, along with an early warning radar in Turkey whose data the Turks – against NATO policy – don’t want shared with Israel. The vulnerabilities of this initial set-up are obvious, but for the Europeans, the point is the show of commitment.
Writing at NRO earlier this month, Daniel Vajdic assessed Putin as increasingly detached from reality. I’m not so sure it’s Putin who’s in that condition.
If Greece leaves the Eurozone rather than staying in and swallowing some very nasty-tasting medicine, who will come to Greece’s aid? The door will be open to Russia, in a way it wasn’t in 2010 when reports abounded that Russia offered Greece a 25-billion-Euro loan, but was rejected by the Greek leadership due to opposition from the EU and US. Russia is already keeping Cyprus afloat, and has for centuries had a national interest in maintaining the principal geopolitical influence over Southeastern Europe. Russia and Greece have begun a significant naval rapprochement – but that’s not the only rapprochement going on between the two Orthodox Christian nations. Russian businessmen promised in September 2011 that Russian investment in Greece would be increasing dramatically, a credible promise given the level of investment Russia (and China) already had in Greek infrastructure. As the Eurozone crisis rages – literally, at this exact moment – the second Greece-Russia Investment Conference is unfolding on the island of Evia.
The leaders of Europe have a problem. If they effectively force Greece out – a move that would be understandable from a fiscal and monetary perspective – they will have to outbid Russia if they want to turn around and buy Greece back. The implications for NATO are as uncertain as anything else. A NATO missile defense, opposed by Russia and relying on the nations and waterways around Greece? America has to be acting like the alpha dog to make that one work.
And we’re not. There are a couple of potential factors in the decisions of Putin and the mullahs not to treat seriously with the US, for the time being, on the most important security matters. One of them is that the US has little credibility as an enforcer. What are we going to do if Iran cuts off nuclear talks? Demand more talks? Obama pre-neutralized US credibility on missile defense with his “flexibility” promise to the Russians; why come to the NATO summit when you can just wait for a collapse of American will after the US election?
Waiting could turn out to produce much bigger benefits than trying to fit into today’s American-sponsored multilateral efforts. The second factor, which is both cause and effect of all the others, is that the world’s correlation of geopolitical power is changing. It’s already happening. The strong potential for Greece’s departure from the Eurozone is just the best publicized, most urgent of the current developments.
But there are others, like Japan’s growing concern over the predations of Russia and China on islands long claimed by Tokyo. In early May, Japan made the unprecedented move of proposing that Russia return only two of the four northern islands – the Kuril Islands – claimed by Japan but occupied by Russia since World War II. This is a major concession, and is undoubtedly related to the growing belligerence of China over the Senkaku Islands on the other end of Japan.
It may well have been encouraged in part by the Russian strategic bomber exercise in April that saw 40 bomber aircraft flying just outside Japanese airspace, along with the near-simultaneous naval exercise between Russia and China in the Yellow Sea (the first such exercise ever conducted). Japan can ill afford to be in armed disputes on both ends of her archipelagic territory, but neither can she afford to suffer humiliating losses in those disputes. Asia is not a good place to appear weak or friendless; Japan will want to be on better terms with one of the land powers at any given time, and it appears Russia is Tokyo’s first choice.
In theory, Japan should be able to rely on the support of her principal ally, the United States. Our posture on the Senkaku Islands dispute is that it must be resolved through negotiation, not through force majeure. On the Kurils, we have explicitly supported Japan’s claim since 1952 – but early in 2011, when Russian plans to upgrade the weaponry on the islands made headlines, our embassy in Moscow hid behind the claim of a media misstatement, when the Russian foreign ministry complained about our position on the matter.
If Obama is shifting our security focus to the Far East, one thing he will have to understand is that the resolution of our allies’ territorial problems is the hinge-point of our effectiveness. We don’t weigh in on the negotiations; that’s for the parties to work out. But we do back our allies up. The problems may not seem big or important, but the security context we set for the resolution of these issues is what makes it useful – or not – to be an ally of the United States.
The questions are (a) whether Obama can understand and act on that reality, or (b) whether it even matters all that much at this point. There will be no magic pill in the election of anyone to the Oval Office this fall; a switch of administrations will probably produce a brief hiatus, but will also represent an opportunity for status quo-busters. Things have changed so much already that the political constructs within which the US and Europe operate too frequently come off now as complacent, head-in-the-sand pieties. The holiday from history is over, although we may be the last ones to see it. Neither Russia nor Iran – nor China, North Korea, or Syria, for that matter – is very interested in signing anything with the West right now. Good deals based on the old assumptions aren’t as tempting when better ones seem to lie just over the horizon.
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