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Russia: note to presidential candidates

This week's U.S. reversal on Iranian nuclear aims is a wake-up call on multiple fronts for those who will run American foreign policy for the next few years.

Among them is this: Vladimir Putin isn't a simple gadfly. Instead, he's one of the most important leaders the U.S. can cultivate over the next few years. Why? Because he's engaging and challenging the U.S. on issues that both countries care about, and happens to get it right -- and the U.S. wrong -- at important times.

As we learned this week, Iran is one. For years the U.S. tried to stampede him into supporting ever-escalating sanctions, leading to possible war, against Iran. But he resisted, asserting that President Bush's claims about Iran's nuclear weapons capability were overblown, and according to the new U.S. intelligence estimate it is Putin's judgment that was correct.

The new Iran intelligence highlights another needed correction: Putin in fact isn't inaccurate -- nor belligerent -- when he asserts that the U.S. presumes to know the only way on foreign policy.

U.S. policy on Russia currently amounts to this: You hurt my feelings.

It would be better to focus on issues, and the main one is energy, the foundation of Russian -- and Putin's -- power, how he's asserting Moscow's prerogatives in Europe and elsewhere.

As readers of this blog know, I think that one of the most potent instruments of power in Europe today is control of the flow of oil and natural gas. Putin has learned the lesson of the momentous U.S. foreign policy triumph last year with the completion of the Baku-Ceyhan oil pipeline and is conducting his own, much more ambitious pipeline policy.

Putin's strategy is market-oriented -- to cement and increase Russia's current control of 30% of Europe's natural gas market. It so happens, in my opinion, that that aim is incompatible with European and U.S. interests in a more diversified natural gas supply so that no one can dictate terms.

The U.S. is attempting to counter the Russian pipeline thrust, but is late to the game. U.S. energy bureaucrats led by Steven Mann are meeting in Sofia tomorrow and Friday to talk over how the U.S. can polish its strategy, and it'll be interesting to know the outcome.

I personally think that the new intelligence assessment on Iran -- like the previous one -- sounds too smugly certain. Anyone who has read Tim Weiner's excellent Legacy of Ashes can see that the intelligence business is barely manageable at best, like herding cats as the saying goes. But the fact that the intelligence services did not have rock-hard evidence before on Iran's intentions gives little comfort to those reading this week's abrupt, contrary assertions.

And it's equally discomfiting to those who have watched American policy on Russia amount to finger-pointing.

Photo: a2gemma
Rights: Creative Commons

Editorial Notes: Author Steven LeVine has been a correspondent in Central Asia for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and Newsweek. He recently published The Power and the Glory ("The pursuit of empire and fortune on the Caspian Sea"). I'm partway through the book now - with the various plots and colorful personalities, it reads like a novel. (Excerpt from the book at Energy Bulletin.) His website has much material and regular postings on energy, Russia and Central Asia. -BA

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