US-Russia Relations: Compartmentalization of Issues

23 July 2015

I have tried for long to underline the need for US-Russia cooperation in finding peaceful solutions to problems which top the international agenda, in particular in the Middle East. Ever since the Ukraine conflict became a major obstacle to such cooperation, I have expressed the view that “compartmentalization” of issues could help. Now, there seems to be a glimmer of hope in this direction with the finalization of the Iran nuclear deal.

It is worth remembering in this connection that the Snowden affair led to the cancellation by Washington of an Obama-Putin summit that was to take place during the G-20 meeting in St. Petersburg on 5-6 September 2013. Yet their brief encounter there paved the way for the 14 September 2013 agreement on the elimination of Syrian chemical weapons only to be followed by the crisis in Ukraine. The elimination of Syrian chemical weapons was a major example of US-Russia cooperation.

Since then, Secretary Kerry and Minister Lavrov have often raised hopes of cooperation between Washington and Moscow on international issues; they have referred to their countries’ ability to “make a difference”, “make things happen”.

The Iran nuclear deal provides yet another and unquestionably more important example of such cooperation.

On July 14, President Obama making his case on the Iran nuclear deal told Thomas Friedman of The New York Times that:
“Russia was a help on this. I’ll be honest with you. I was not sure given the strong differences we are having with Russia right now around Ukraine, whether this would sustain itself. 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.
“I was encouraged by the fact that Mr. Putin called me a couple of weeks ago and initiated the call to talk about Syria. I think they get a sense that the Assad regime is losing a grip over greater and greater swaths of territory inside of Syria [to Sunni jihadist militias] and that the prospects for a [Sunni jihadist] takeover or rout of the Syrian regime is not imminent but becomes a greater and greater threat by the day. That offers us an opportunity to have a serious conversation with them.”

It is clear that different aspects of the Iran nuclear deal and the role played by the countries sitting across from Iran at the negotiation table will come under even closer scrutiny as the debate in the Congress starts to unfold. Some observers already draw attention to Russia’s ambivalent position during the negotiation process attributing this to its concerns over Iranian oil flooding the market on the one hand and the prospect of increased arms sales on the other hand.

There can be little doubt that all P5+1 countries have their own national interest perspective of the Iran nuclear deal and the lifting of the sanctions. What is equally if not more important is the fact that they were united in their endeavor to prevent nuclear proliferation.

With the Iran nuclear deal the members of the UN Security Council have proven that they can make a difference when they join forces. Syria, Yemen, Libya conflicts and combating ISIL require similar endeavors with US-Russia cooperation remaining the key.

Compartmentalization of issues can prove to be a realistic method in dealing with today’s diverse international challenges. It does not mean giving President Putin a blank check over Ukraine.
(*) US and Russia Need to Cooperate, 31 May 2015
US and Russia Need to Cooperate (2), 11 June 2015

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