Russia Can Mess With Us, Too

Norm Ornstein explains why getting tough with Putin is tricky for Obama:

Putin saved the president from a huge embarrassment with the intervention to resolve Syria’s chemical-weapons stockpile, just before the Senate would have voted down his request for authorization to use force to punish Assad for using the weapons repeatedly against Syrians. Russia is a key player in the delicate negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Moscow can make the U.S. transition out of Afghanistan more painful and disruptive, and can be a positive or negative player in negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.

For those who immediately began calling for the harshest sanctions we can apply against Russia after its outrageous behavior in Crimea, those considerations were nowhere evident. Of course, one can make the case—and it is a powerful one—that Putin’s Russia will act in its cold, hard self-interest no matter what we do to try to appease it or cushion any reaction. But it is also likely that the harder we push, the more Russia will respond in a hard and negative way in every other area of our interest, at least in the short run. And when it comes to Russia and Syria, the short run is absolutely crucial.

In addition, Jamila Trindle warns the US not to underestimate how badly Russia can mess up our efforts to crack down on international criminal finance:

[Russia] could stop helping the U.S.-led effort to ferret out financial transactions of drug kingpins, weapons traffickers, and terrorist organizations like al Qaeda.

Russia has signed on with international efforts to combat money laundering, bribery, and nuclear weapons proliferators by stepping up oversight of the financial system, isolating bad actors, and freezing their assets. If Russia becomes a target of those same efforts, it will likely be less enthusiastic about enforcing them against others. …

If the United States tries to isolate Russia financially, Juan Zarate, formerly a senior Treasury Department official charged with overseeing the Bush administration’s sanctions program, said the effort could backfire. If Russian banks are cut off from the financial system by sanctions, they could react by slacking off on enforcement of those rules or creating financial havens for sanctions-breakers and criminals.

Rogin highlights another way Russia might retaliate:

One administration official told The Daily Beast that the White House’s National Security Council is leading an interagency process to examine all of the possible retaliatory steps Moscow might take if U.S. and European sanctions move forward. The potential counterstrikes include what this official called “asymmetric” actions by Moscow — Russian actions against the U.S. that have nothing to do with Ukraine. The NSC is preparing for potential Russian actions on all issues in its multi-faceted relationship with the United Stated: American military access to Afghanistan through Russia; Moscow’s cooperation on the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles; Russian pressure on Iran to strike a deal over its nuclear program; and much, much more.

Juan Cole points out that the Ukraine crisis is pushing Moscow and Tehran closer together:

Since Iran is under financial blockade by the United States, increases in bilateral trade with Russia would be very welcome. … [One] area of cooperation between the two is that Russia built three nuclear reactors for Iran at Bushehr, and is rumored to be considering constructing two more. Putin also referred to Iran’s observer status in the Shanghai Cooperation Council (which links Russia, China, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan) and spoke of the need to implement the decisions taken recently at Bishkek by the SCC. Iran wants to become a full member of this trading and political bloc, in a bid to escape the isolation imposed on it by the United States.