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Markus Ziener Headshot

Russia: Not a Quick Fix

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Was the building of a missile shield in close proximity to Moscow ever a good idea? Hardly. Not only because it is technically dubious. But most of all it politically produced so much bad blood that the costs and potential benefits never came anywhere near a reasonable ratio.

So Mr. Obama is doing the right thing to correct this mistake. But is it realistic in return to expect the Russians to cooperate on the issue of Iran? Same answer: Hardly.

Why? First of all because the U.S. and Russia do not share the same threat assessment in regard to Iran. If anything became clear during the years of negotiating sanctions against Teheran it is this. At its core the Russian leadership does not believe that Iran's nuclear program poses an existential threat. Sure, even Russia would rather see an Iran that has not gone nuclear. But still this scenario is not something that defines Russian security policy. Moreover, other than the US, Moscow does not need to worry much about Israel's security. Against this backdrop no one needs to wonder that inside the Kremlin many US proposals do not bite.

Since the fall of the Shah in 1979 almost every U.S. government overestimated the influence Moscow can exert over Tehran. They seem to forget that Russia and Iran share a troubled and at times bloody history. Whether it was tsars or dictators, Moscow had always tried to subjugate or at least control the Persian Empire. This applies even to the recent past when the Soviet Union supplied Saddam Hussein in Iraq with weapons to fight the Islamic regime of Ayatollah Khomeini in Iran. The mere fact that Russia today is doing business with Iran does not at all mean that Tehran would accept any advice.

Besides, there is a real danger that Moscow takes Obama's move as remission for past sins, i.e. that everything related to the Georgian crisis is already forgiven and forgotten. Furthermore, abandoning the missile shield could signal that Washington does not want to interfere in Moscow's backyard and implicitly accepts the Russian concept of near and far abroad. If this would be the result of Obama's first major foreign policy initiative then there is reason to be concerned.

At the security conference in Munich, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden announced that relations with Russia will be "reset" to enable a new start. But the withdrawal of the missile shield alone won't do the trick. Before the NATO summit is due in April Obama will have to come up with a couple of more ideas.