WASHINGTON – As the Russian Federation officially moved to annex Crimea on Tuesday, US Vice President Joseph Biden conducted damage control in eastern Europe, promising NATO allies the support of the United States, up to a point.
The establishment of a missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic, abandoned by US President Barack Obama in 2009, is still off the table, Biden told his European partners.
“He won’t be discussing changes in the missile defense approach,” a senior administration told reporters en route to Warsaw.
The vice president’s message came as American diplomats resumed negotiations in Vienna with Iran over its controversial nuclear program.
At the table with the US were its partners in peace, known as the P5+1 – the United Kingdom, France, Germany, China and Russia. Unity within the group against Iran’s nuclear program remains stalwart, US officials said.
And yet US options in Crimea are limited, in part due to America’s interest in maintaining that unity. Pushing Russia too aggressively – whether through sanctions, missile defense projects or expanded NATO operations – risks jeopardizing the nuclear negotiations with Iran, now at a fragile, strategically significant stage.
Throughout the Pentagon’s planning for an eastern European missile shield, officials from the George W. Bush administration insisted the purpose of the project was to protect NATO allies against improved Iranian missile technology.
Russia never accepted this line of argument.
It saw the shield as antagonistic and opposed its construction, threatening obstruction on other policy efforts.
In scrapping the shield in 2009, Obama administration officials hoped that Russia would reciprocate with accommodation on Iran. Indeed they have: Russia has not opposed four strong sanctions resolutions in the United Nations Security Council and generally obliged the independent sanctions regimes imposed by the EU and the US.
“I haven’t seen any negative effect,” Michael Mann, a spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, told reporters in Vienna on Tuesday. “We continue our work in a unified fashion.”
Robert Einhorn, a former senior Obama administration official involved in the Iran negotiations who is now with the Brookings Institution, said Russia and the international community have a strong enough shared interest in a diplomatic solution to the crisis to maintain unity in Vienna.
“We will see in the days to come whether the tensions over Crimea will spill over on Iran and make Russia a less responsible player on Iran,” Einhorn said. “But so far, we haven’t seen the Russians pulling back from the generally constructive role they have so far played.”
Russia has its own interests in a negotiated settlement to the crisis, Einhorn said: Kremlin officials want as few countries as possible to have nuclear weapons.
“They have their own concerns over the Muslim population in Russia. So they have a vested interest in maintaining stability in the Middle East.”
Asked whether the US fears the international consensus may fray on Iran over to the broad-reaching Crimean crisis, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the evidence was to the contrary.
“Russia is not a part of this because they’re doing [the US] a favor,” Psaki had said. “We fully expect – and evidence of the last week shows you this – that they will remain an active partner at the negotiating table.”