US and Russia: Axes of expediency

What is going on between Moscow and Washington beyond malaise in Ukraine and missiles to Iran?

Kerry and Lavrov
The rapport between Kerry and Lavrov has helped the way for cooperation between the US and Russia [AP]

Last week, the US media reported that the United States and Russia are involved in a “dangerous game of military brinkmanship in Europe”, one that “raises the spectre that either side could misinterpret a move by the other, triggering a conflict between two powers with major nuclear arsenals despite a sharp reduction from the Cold War era”.

But in the real world, the US has conducted a four-week war games stretching from Estonia to Bulgaria, to reassure its East European allies that it takes Russian threats seriously.

So is the operating word here “war” or “games”?

Russia has been a helpful partner – or at least not a spoiler – during the P5+1 negotiations with Iran that culminated in what the Obama administration refers to as a historic nuclear deal.


Since the Ukraine crisis, conservative ideologues and so-called strategists on both sides have dwelled on the dangers of new Cold War, citing the occasional recrimination between the White House and the Kremlin.

And it all does seem confusing at times. One day the US is thanking Russia for evacuating its citizens from war-torn Yemen, and the next day, it’s complaining about dangerous Russian interception of a US reconnaissance plane.

Be that as it may, the US and Russia have maintained open channels of consultation and coordination, and even a “non-coordinated coordination” in the Middle East and beyond.

So have Obama and Putin finally agreed to disagree on certain core issues all the while synchronising their efforts on the main threats facing their nations? 

Moscow’s pursuits

The speed and boldness of this week’s Russian decision to transfer missiles to Iran underline Moscow’s firm pursuit of its geopolitical interests regardless of the cost to Middle East security and stability.

Russian officials claim that the delivery of the sophisticated-but-defensive missile system to Iran will advance regional stability. While that’s doubtful at best, there’s no doubt the sale will advance Russia’s own military and economic interests in Iran and beyond.

The Kremlin’s decision to “promptly” transfer the S-300 missiles does not violate existing UN Security Council sanctions, but will pave the way for the sale of more conventional weapons that threaten another Middle East arms race.

The Russian defence ministry is also trying to sell Iran Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems, a similar but more advanced system than the S-300.

Russia lifts ban on delivery of missile defence system to Iran

Washington’s quest

The US has predictably voiced its dissatisfaction with Putin’s arms decision. But the Obama administration’s official reaction has been underwhelming at best.

Raising “concerns” about the “unhelpful” sale does not exactly add up to a condemnation or denunciation of the Russian move.

All of which begs the question why after applying great pressure on Moscow to refrain from delivering the missiles, is the Obama administration making no fuss about the sudden Russian decision?

The immediate answer came in less than 24 hours at the UN Security Council. Contrary to initial expectations, Russia did not veto the draft resolution that imposes arms ban on Yemen’s Houthi rebels but does not extend the same ban on the rest of the country, as Russia would’ve liked.

Instead, it abstained allowing UNSC resolution 2216 to pass with a 14-0 majority.

And there’s more.

Russia has been a helpful partner – or at least not a spoiler – during the P5+1 negotiations with Iran that culminated in what the Obama administration refers to as a historic nuclear deal.

And this week, Moscow has sided with Washington and against Iran spiritual leader Ali Khamenei’s interpretation of the interim deal.

The Obama administration is aware that it will continue to count on Russia’s help in getting a final nuclear deal sealed by the end of June.

It also realises that the delivery of new anti-aircraft missile defence systems does not threaten Israel and won’t change the balance of power in the region, but could help Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sell the benefits of a final deal at home.

Cold calculus, not Cold War

The US and Russia are making themselves visible once again when it comes to the Middle East and the world’s hotspots. But that’s not to say the world is falling back on the old bipolarity.

Yes, Obama and Putin are two very different political animals with different visions for their countries.

Yes, Obama thinks Putin sees the world through Cold War lens, and yes, their relations have gone from “frosty to frozen”, but in reality their differences are not divided along the lines of the contradictory and transformative ideologies that governed the Cold War.

As I have long argued, the Cold War is passe. And Russia is an eclipsing power in more ways than one. Expect to hear more from China and the P5+1 in the future.

But thanks to their apparent good working relationship, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov have helped broker a chemical weapons deal with Syria, a ceasefire in Ukraine, and a nuclear deal with Iran.

These and other diplomatic initiatives might still be reversed, but they’ve already defused much of the past two years of pent up tension between the two capitals and showed how they could work together to achieve certain diplomatic breakthroughs.

Indeed, Russia and the US have come a long way on Iran and visitors to Moscow reckon the same applies to Syria as Putin is less inclined to continue supporting Assad.

Similarly, Moscow might be showing more interest in Libya, where it agrees with the US on the need for a political solution for the North African nation that’s descending into a full-fledged civil war. It doesn’t seem the US and Russia will apply Yemen’s approach to Libya.

In short, US and Russian leaders reckon violent extremism, notably Middle Eastern or Islamic extremism, poses the major threat to international peace and security. 

They also seek to contain the chaos and work with regional players in the pursuit of carefully guided regional stability. Nowhere has this been as pronounced as when Egypt’s General-cum-President Abdul Fatah el-Sisi played both sides for arms. 

Indeed, Obama and Putin are increasingly pursuing not so dissimilar strategies towards areas of conflict. Their relationship is a combination of clash of interests and reciprocated expediency.  

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst at Al Jazeera.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

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