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Not So Fast

Russian "national leader" Vladimir Putin met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in October 2007.

Russian "national leader" Vladimir Putin met with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in October 2007.

The reports of U.S. President Barack Obama’s private talks in New York yesterday with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have generally optimistically highlighted the two leaders’ apparently growing agreement on the need to step up pressure on Iran over its nuclear program. Speaking to reporters after the talks, Medvedev repeated a statement he’d made earlier in Moscow that “sanctions are seldom productive, but they are sometimes inevitable.”

I have long been skeptical of the Kremlin’s interest in cooperating with the United States on Iran and should confess that I remain so. Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an analysis arguing that Moscow’s interest in weakening the United States and destroying the so-called unipolar world order trumped its interest in resolving the Iran dispute. The Kremlin views Iran’s nuclear program as the West’s problem:

Clearly, it is not in Moscow's interest to have a nuclear-armed Iran on its southern border with the capability of striking targets within Russia. However, this danger is remote -- it is hard to imagine a scenario in which Iran would risk total annihilation by destroying, say, Russia's Black Sea Fleet or leveling Volgograd with a nuclear strike. And that remote danger is made even more unlikely by repeated U.S. and Israeli declarations that a nuclear-armed Iran is "unacceptable." The refusal of the United States to pull the military option off the table means the worst-case scenario for Moscow, in the event talks fail, is not a mushroom cloud over Kuban but seeing Washington become bogged down in yet another military involvement with the inevitable further sapping of its strength and prestige. The facts that oil prices would also likely skyrocket under such a scenario and that Moscow would emerge as a "reliable energy partner" are probably also not causing Kremlin strategists to lose any sleep.

I still find this analysis compelling. So I was pleased to find the same arguments put forward in an interview with former KGB turned Putin critic Konstantin Preobrazhensky on the website

Preobrazhenksy is an old acquaintance who wrote occasional commentaries for “The Moscow Times” when I was the opinion-section editor there back in the 1990s and early 2000s. A lot of what he wrote then seems quite prophetic now. For instance, in December 2000, he wrote: “Russia is once again on the path toward establishing a totalitarian state. Instead of communism, a sort of nationalism is fast becoming the ideology of this new structure, which is waging open warfare against civil society.”

In a July 1998 piece called “A New Era For The FSB,” he rightly noted that the appointment of the little-known Leningrader Vladimir Putin to head the resurgent security agency was a watershed event, although he was uncertain then whether Putin would be able to overcome the resistance of the Moscow-based elites entrenched within the organization.

In his September 2 interview, Preobrazhensky throws cold water on the idea that Moscow will come to the United States’s aid on Iran:

Americans still cannot get rid of the illusion that Russians are thinking like them. For Americans, it goes without saying that Iran is a dangerous country which can hurt them with its nuclear weapons. But for Russians it is not so at all. They are fine with the current situation. Weakening America is a strategic goal of the current Russian regime.

Asked directly whether Moscow is afraid of Iran’s missiles, Preobrazhensky was direct: “No, it’s not.”

He goes on to offer informed speculation about the extent of covert cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. He concludes that “the intelligence services of Russia and Iran are cooperating. Not only on Afghanistan, but on America too. And on Armenia and Azerbaijan and also on the interior situation in Russia.” By the latter, he has in mind Russia’s Islamic minority.

I concluded my analysis of Moscow’s Iran policy last year with this argument:
While combating terrorism and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction are broad goals to which virtually every international actor can subscribe, they encompass myriad specific cases and issues, any one of which may be sacrificed to broader strategic interests. Moscow has declared the erosion and eventual replacement of what it defines as the unipolar global structure as a key security priority. Moscow's Iran policy is a clear example of a situation where, for the Kremlin, getting the right result -- an end to Tehran's nuclear-weapons ambitions -- is not as important as getting there by a process that promotes its broader agenda.

But Preobrazhensky’s formulation is a lot clearer: “Weakening America is a strategic goal of the current Russian regime.”

-- Robert Coalson

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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