Russia, Iran standing off from Obama’s showcase events

The times are a-changin’.

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.

J.E. Dyer’s articles have appeared at Hot Air’s Green Room, Commentary’s “contentions,Patheos, and The Weekly Standard online.

Note for new commenters:  Welcome!  There is a one-time “approval” process that keeps down the spam.  There may be a delay in the posting if your first comment, but once you’re “approved,” you can join the fray at will.


27 thoughts on “Russia, Iran standing off from Obama’s showcase events”

  1. No doubt the Russians would like to spend holidays in Greece, sipping ouzo while looking out over a Russian fleet anchored off Piraeus, but that’s not the same as wanting to pick up the tab for the bankrupt Greek government, an obligation that nobody can afford. We’re watching the crumbling of the European social-democratic welfare state, unsustainable from the start, beginning with the Greeks but moving just as surely across the continent. It should be a lesson to the neo-Bismarckians attempting to purchase the votes of an American middle class that thinks it’s suffering now but ain’t seen nothin’ yet. The Russians will probably be content to stand around and see how this all shakes out before they move in to pick up the available pieces.

    1. It seems to me, Chuck, that the Greeks are looking to the rather successful, and much more social democratic Germans to bail them out. Significantly, it is the northern europeans with the most developed welfare systems that are doing very well at the moment, and the southern europeans with far less generous welfare systems that are being bailed out.
      But that’s because the European fiscal crisis is about productivity and failed banking-regulation rather than welfare. If you have a productive economy, and your banks haven’t gambled everyone’s money down the toilet, you can afford generous welfare. The Germans and Swedes are proof. On the other hand, if you are corrupt and improvident (Greece), or you allowed your banks destroy the economy (Ireland) you are going to be deep in the doo doo.

      And good luck to the Ruskies if the’re prepared to dole out the Greeks. From the point of view of the other EU nations it would be like a neighbour offering to take a relative with an incorrigible gambling problem to live with them.

      (And wasn’t it just great how GWB (in contrast to his limp-wristed successor) manfully took out both Bin Laden and the Iranian nuclear programme, and persuaded the Poles to install a US funded missile shield on their territory. The only thing you could say about Bush is that after the Iraq debacle, he never took a risk on anything that might go wrong and make him look bad)

  2. >> The Russians will probably be content to stand around and see how this all shakes out before they move in to pick up the available pieces.

    I don’t think so. Greece may be the first domino to fall, but this works to their advantage — they’ll have first choice of the “allies” who’ll come forward to fill the vacuum. The bailout needn’t be financial. Greece has no oil, Russia does. They might part with a few barrels in exchange for a naval presence in the Aegean. Just a small one, of course, motivated by deep solicitude for the suffering Greek people. Kumbayah.

  3. Nice article, but proposals to split the Kuriles two for two are not unprecedented and have been around for a long time. I apologize for subjecting you to Gregory Clark, but if you can overlook his opinions the actual summary of the history of negotiations seems reasonable.

    Clark is very anti-anti-communist, BTW, and always gives the Russians and Chinese the benefit of the doubt. Also, the idea that Suzuki Muneo was railroaded is fantasy; his jail term was the longest of any Japanese Diet member in history, and he was then prosecuted and sent back to jail a second time.

    About Hokkaido: another Japanese researcher looking at State Dept. files wrote a (Japanese language) book arguing that Truman gave the Soviets the four islands in exchange for them staying out of Hokkaido.

    1. Dear Amp,

      Your interesting comment led me to your own thoughtful and well-written blog on Japan. Loved the “too long in Japan” page! You’re just what I need — another must-read blog to fill my abundant spare time. (Sigh.)



    2. Thanks, Ampontan. I appreciate the history, although given its details, I stand by the assessment that the two-for-two split is not a standard baseline or the perennial position of the Japanese government. It seems to be deployed rarely, when the urgency of resolving the issue appears high. The main point, that Japan is more than nomrally worried about the power politics of resolving both island issues, is valid. I think Tokyo wants to get the Kurils dispute settled, in a manner with some semblance of equity for Japan, because the government expects to need more resources and will to defend the Senkakus.

  4. “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.”

    Excellent point Optcon, my compliments.

    I don’t fully agree with your comments on Greece/Eurozone/Russia though.
    It’s certain Germans that essentially want to force Greece out of the Eurozone. Problem is once Greece is forced out, the rest of Southern Europe will not be far behind. The upcoming Greek elections and whether the rest of Europe can sway the German position will determine if Greece stays, or is forced out/voluntarily leaves the Eurozone. A Greek exit will be the catalyst for a major global economic crisis any way you slice it. The Greek elections are crucial, there is a strong possibility of the far left coming to power, but I doubt Russia is in a strong enough position to capitalize on it. Russia will have enough leverage to muddy the waters though. Short of a commitment for a full scale Russian rescue of the Greek economy, (doubtful); the Greek population will not feel comfortable with a reorientation away from Europe and into the embrace of a Moscow adversarial to the West. Moscow aligned with the West would be another story.. The Greeks are very independence minded and have a tradition of chafing under any potential overlord, you could say it’s in their genes. Cooperation with Russia is one thing effective vassalage is another.
    IMHO Greece will not be leaving the Eurozone, a modified European rescue package is the most likely outcome. Of course the wily Greeks will play off the Great Powers to their benefit as best they can..

    On the other issues you touched upon I believe Moscow is sending very clear signals as to how high the cost will potentially be to the West and its interest, if Russia’s interests aren’t fully taken into account. In a way, I believe this shows a level of desperation and insecurity in Moscow, Their long term security lies with the West, but they can’t get the West to play ball by the way they interpret the rules. A good referee is needed. Any ideas?

    BTW, great post.

    1. The Germans don’t want the Greeks out of the Eurozone, they just don’t want to subsidize their failed socialist state. In fact, Greece has been essentially a communist country since before WWII and probably has a more Marxist orientation today than Russia does, never having had to endure full-blown Stalinsim. That’s all history to the Euro-elites, though. They’ve got to deal with the present. Millionaire socialists like Francois Hollande have to convince first the unwashed peasants and then the miserly but realistic Germans that infinite amounts of chartalist fiat money can rescue their imploding utopia. The Greeks deserve every hardship they’re about to endure, as does the rest of Europe. As Ben Franklin supposedly said, “Experience is a hard teacher, but a fool will learn from no other.”

      1. I thoroughly agree with your last sentence in relation to your good self – particularly in view of the consequences to our own economy if our biggest trading partner gets into even more serious trouble. There is an old saying that’s aposite – “cutting off your nose to spite your face”.
        BTW, Hollande isn’t a millionaire like Obama – or a multi-millionaire like Romney. But his partner is probably quite wealthy (Having risen from very modest circumstances)

        1. The biggest trading partner of the US is Canada. But you might be an Albanian so you could be talking about someone else.

    2. No, I don’t think Moscow wants to pay off Greece’s debt either, jgets. But it won’t take that to keep Greek governments afloat if Greece leaves the Eurozone. The unaccountable business of great powers patronizing the corrupt, ineffective governments of smaller ones is what I would expect from an arrangement with Russia.

      Sadly, more Russian influence on the continent would mean more corruption and less transparency and accountability — in this case, to Greek citizens as well as to world bodies like the IMF. Russia has never been an eager participant in multilateral bookkeeping regimes. She deals with them ad hoc, cooperating with one and exploiting another as part of her security policy. For a payoff, Russia can help Greece leverage and triangulate her financial position, at least for a while — which is not the same thing as paying off Greek debt or achieving fiscal soundness.

      1. All True, Optcon. But, MSM and bankster hype aside, the chances of Greece leaving the eurozone are small. In the Greek case, this seems more akin to game of chicken between creditor and debtor. Both are using their available tools to strengthen their bargaining positions. It is well known that Greece cannot possibly pay off her debts without another massive writedown. And a Grexit from the eurozone would be a disaster to the tune of 1trillion on global financial markets.

        It will take much more than a few Russian billions to convince Greece to leave the Western trough, in or out of the euro. I’m not sure the West is ultimately dumb enough to let that happen in the first place.
        Nonetheless, I find the point you bring up in regards to Russia and the continent disturbing

        1. Pretty accurate summing up, jgets. Except for the final sentence. It would only be disturbing it theree was a grain of reality in it. There isn’t.

  5. I said certain Germans cm, not all. The Germans making money off captive European markets from their exports with an artificially valued euro are very happy with the current situation. If Germany were to leave the Eurozone today, the new D-mark would at least double in value against the Euro. Tell me now, would you rather buy a BMW 520i or a Ferrari for the same amount of dollars? You can’t have it both ways, and deep down the Germans know that, Europe and Germany are inexorably tied together, the alternative is.. well you know, and Germany eventually pays the cost. Whether she likes it or not, that’s geography for you. As for chartalist economics, while I’m no expert on the matter, it seems to me there is no better example than the US dollar.
    Your information on Greece is very erroneous. Greece has been a quasi-socialist economy since the 1980’s, more akin to state capitalism, It was actually on par with South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong in economic development until then. The difference arose when the Greek people finally “rebelled” (ala Iran, Spain, Portugal, etc.) against the heavy handed political regimes imposed by the cold war. They then overcompensated, so to speak, by implementing such foul behavior as “freedom of speech”, “the right of assembly” and so forth….Of course it was mostly US trained, demagogues and opportunist politicians, than took advantage of this and led the country to its current state.
    Knowing the Hellenes and their cohesive nuclear-family based society very well over the course of decades, they will get over this much easier than might first be apparent. Better to be concerned with populations that haven’t a clue as to what real hardship entails.

      1. A superfluous comment solely written to illicit a response Paulette. My intention was to illustrate that German goods would be priced out of the world market. Something you well understood in the first place. You have my clarification, let’s leave it at that.

  6. “Knowing the Hellenes and their cohesive nuclear-family based society very well over the course of decades, they will get over this much easier than might first be apparent. Better to be concerned with populations that haven’t a clue as to what real hardship entails.”

    I very much hope you’re right, jgets. If they had a running start and a respectful, effective government, I definitely wouldn’t bet against the Greeks.

    1. The Greeks will only get over it if their economy is forced to completely reform itself – something it is incapable of doing without outside help and “incentivization” from the rest of the EU during a long period of adjustment.
      The problem the Greeks have is that they work drachmas while paying themselves in hard-currency euros. The Greeks are about as productive as Ukrainians and about half as productive as the Spanish. Stupid French and German bankers have been making up the difference. No one in Greece ever thought that the party might some day come to an end.
      Me – I wouldn’t put my money on the Greeks. They still believe they are entitled to be corrupt and lazy, and that everyone else will have to pay up to “save the euro”. Someone needs to tell them that the waggons are being circled to preserve the euro – and that Greece isn’t necessarily part of the plan.

  7. The Siloviki, of which Putin is the most obvious representative, is basically
    a gang, like Ivan the Terribies’s oprichina, back in the 16th Century, it threatens pillages, and makes no apologies,

  8. A word of advice to leftist liberals on avoiding a Greek tragedy..

    Greece’s current economic plight can be traced back to the responsibility of one man.

    He was an American citizen, a Trotskyite in college, received a PhD from Harvard in economics, was a US Naval corpsman WWII (sorry JD), taught economics at Berkeley, worked on Adlai Stevenson’s campaign, then returned to Greece.
    A legendary CIA Intel officer (of Hellenic descent) advised the then Greek Junta to “shoot the mf because he’s going to come back to haunt you”. American liberals pressed for his release, they succeed, He later became Prime Minster on a wave of demagoguery not seen since Alcibiades, government and social programs grew enormously, cronyism and corruption flourished, he indebted the Greek state to the point where it had to borrow money to pay the interest on previous loans This American trained economics PhD liberal politician destroyed the economy of a whole country single-handed.

    The failed policies of one leftist politician in an economically minor country now haunt the world’s financial system.

    So know; when your opinionated co-ideologues, point to laziness and corruption in oversize state sectors and their oversize self-serving bureaucracies;. Look in the mirror then tell them “but it was our leftist ideology that made it so”.

    For undecided voters: Even if you believe the choice is between the candidates is between Scylla and Charybdis, vote wisely in November.

    One man really does make a difference

    Heed this advice,

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: