You could be forgiven for thinking the Cold War has returned with a vengeance, what with the United States imposing sanctions on Moscow and big-power envoys like Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and her Russian counterpart, Vitaly Churkin, regularly hurling Syria- and Ukraine-related insults at each other across the horseshoe-shaped U.N. Security Council table.
But while the United States has suspended some military-to-military cooperation exercises with Russia and has threatened to take steps designed to further isolate Moscow on the world stage, the former superpower rivals are finding ways to get along, working together to contain the spread of nuclear weapons and terrorism from Tehran to Tashkent and collaborating on an international campaign to halt mass atrocities in places like South Sudan. At the United Nations, said one senior U.N.-based diplomat, "it's business as usual" with the Russians. "They have not tried to be more of a pain than usual," he said.
In April, for instance, Russia led an effort to hold up a Western-backed plan to impose sanctions on former senior officials in the violence-stricken Central African Republic, raising concerns that Moscow might be retaliating against the West for its stance on Ukraine. But Moscow dropped its objections after receiving assurances from African governments that they backed the measure.
Barack Obama's administration and the government of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin are also continuing to cooperate on arguably the most important issue facing the United States and its top allies: Iran's nuclear program.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said this week that the ongoing talks designed to find a diplomatic solution to the Iran crisis are difficult and have no guarantee of success, but stressed that Russia isn't holding up a deal, a point that was echoed by senior U.S. officials.
"Up to now, the difficulty we have with the Russians [over Ukraine] and so on have no bearing on the negotiations," Fabius told a small gathering of American reporters over croissants, fruit salad, and orange juice at the Sofitel hotel in Washington on Tuesday, May 13. "We are together."
The remarks came as the world's great powers entered talks this week in Vienna on the fate of Iran's nuclear program that would see the United States and other countries -- including Russia -- lift their crippling economic sanctions in exchange for Tehran dismantling large swaths of its nuclear infrastructure and curtailing its quest for a bomb.
Despite early reports that a deal might be in sight, Fabius and other Western diplomats cautioned that obstacles remain -- for instance, there is no agreement on the scale of Iran's acceptable enrichment capability -- and that considerable work is still required to guarantee that any final deal be implemented by Iran. Fabius said that the deal would need to include measures that ensure Iranian compliance, claiming that Iran and North Korea have previously backslid on pledges to scale back their nuclear programs. That would require that the International Atomic Energy Agency be given far greater scrutiny over Iran's nuclear program, he said, and that any easing of sanctions be reversible. "We don't want to be trapped," he said.
"I cannot make a forecast about the final outcome," he said. If there were an agreement, Fabius added, "it would be at the last moment."
Fabius did not detail precisely how Moscow was being helpful in the closed-door negotiations, but diplomats say that its decision not to do anything to undermine the talks has been helpful.
Western diplomats had expressed concerns that their confrontation with Russia over Ukraine might spill over into the Iran talks, complicating an already difficult negotiation process. For now, those worries have yet to materialize. Diplomats said they were pleased that Russia has been privately and publicly pressing both sides to close a deal. Before the talks began this week, Russia's chief negotiator, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, urged Tehran to be flexible, encouraging its leadership to grant the Iranian negotiating team, headed by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, sufficient authority to close a deal. "We hope the leadership in Tehran has given the entire delegation … the instructions making it possible to move forward," he said.
The cooperation reflects the importance Washington, Moscow, and key European governments place on preventing their diplomatic rifts over Ukraine and Syria from spinning out of control and undermining efforts to manage more critical crises in places like Iran and North Korea, where their interests more closely align. "There is tension and damage to the U.S.-Russian dialogue in a lot of areas but on some of the core issues they continue to cooperate," said Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association. "Preventing a nuclear-armed Iran by means of a comprehensive diplomatic deal is fundamentally in Russia's interest, too. They are not going to lash out at the United States in ways that fundamentally harm their interests."
Russia's cooperation on Iran, however, does not extend to Ukraine and Syria, issues on which Russia has shown no signs of reversing its annexation of Crimea and remains firmly in Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's camp. If anything, Russia has grown "more adamantly pro-Syrian than they ever have been," said one senior U.N. diplomat, noting that Moscow remains committed to preventing the West from imposing penalties on the Assad regime for blocking humanitarian assistance to Syrian civilians.
U.S. and other Western diplomats are carefully examining Russia's diplomatic behavior for signs that the diplomatic damage may spread. One European diplomat noted that his government is conducting a study to determine how much damage Russia could inflict on the international political and diplomatic system if it decided to resort to the kind of blocking diplomatic tactics it deployed during the Cold War, a period marked by diplomatic paralysis at the United Nations.
In recent years, U.S. and Russian diplomats have overcome their differences to work together to resolve a wide range of problems that threaten their interests, including combating piracy in Africa, countering Islamic extremists -- including al Qaeda and the Taliban -- from Afghanistan to Mali to Syria, and putting out smaller-scale brush fires across the African continent. They have proved adept at absorbing the blows wrought by big-power clashes over the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Russia's conquest of two Georgian provinces, and its latest meddling in Ukraine, where it has annexed the predominantly Russian-speaking peninsula of Crimea and stirred up unrest in eastern Ukraine.
"The striking thing about the Security Council in the post-Cold War period is that you have these blowups, and the council, by necessity, moves on," said David Bosco, the author of a book on the U.N. Security Council and a Foreign Policy columnist. "I think council members have gotten quite good at compartmentalizing."
Still, Bosco said that Russia, which has the power to veto Security Council actions, retains considerable power to undermine U.S.-backed initiatives at the United Nations. "If they decide to move this up a notch, they could get in the way of an awful lot of stuff that the council does without seriously damaging their own interests," he said.
But Moscow would pay a heavy price if it tried to bring the international organization to its knees, not least because its power at the United Nations serves Russian interests. As one of five Security Council members with veto power, Russia exercises enormous influence over the U.N.'s role in managing the world's political crises. For instance, Russian companies dominate the U.N.'s $1 billion-a-year commercial aircraft leasing business, supplying U.N. peacekeeping missions with transport planes and helicopters. Shutting down U.N. peace operations would dry up those contracts. It would also alienate key constituencies, particularly African governments, that are keen to see an active U.N. peacekeeping role.
If Russia were looking to play the role of diplomatic spoiler, Africa provides a variety of potential targets. The United States and France are currently spearheading efforts in the U.N. Security Council to confront mass atrocities in several countries in Africa, including in the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Russia has also expressed disagreement with U.S. efforts to impose sanctions on South Sudan's warring parties. Speaking at a May 2 Security Council meeting on South Sudan, a senior Russian diplomat, Alexander Pankin, blasted Washington for coddling the pro-Western government in South Sudan, even as it engaged in wide-scale atrocities. He also dismissed calls by U.S. diplomats, including Secretary of State John Kerry, to impose sanctions on South Sudanese combatants, saying the measures "never have been an effective instrument for achieving political settlements to conflicts."
"We must note that the current events in South Sudan are just the latest sad result of the fanciful scheming of Juba's main partners, who have sought to hide the truth and cover up for their stooges," he said.
Despite the tough rhetoric, U.N. Security Council diplomats say that Russia has actually been open to considering Western and African proposals to send more peacekeepers to South Sudan and to rewrite the U.N.'s mandate so it can focus its energies more on protecting civilians than supporting the South Sudanese government's institutions. "I don't want to fixate on sanctions; there is a great deal of unanimity," said one council diplomat. "I don't think there are any major divisions."
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