Russia Won’t Block Iraq Extension at the UN

Hard to know what went on in that high-level timeout in Helsinki the other day between JCS Chief Adm. Mike Mullen and his Russian counterpart, but I’d be surprised if today’s declaration by Russian FM Sergey Lavrov that Russia will not veto a UNSC resolution extending American troop presence in Iraq in the absence of a deal between Baghdad and Washington is just a happy coincidence. Mullen went on talk tough in Lithuania about the need to better integrate Baltic defense into NATO’s architecture. But the Baltic is already a done deal.

To my mind, Russia’s major strategic blunder in the Georgia War was recognizing the independence of Abkhazia and S. Ossetia. But I suspect its motivation was that the UN peacekeeping mandate under which its forces were stationed in the two provinces was set to expire in mid-October. Given the circumstances last month, it’s unlikely that mandate would have made it past a U.S. veto in the Security Council. But Lavrov’s announcement makes me think it’s a safe bet to look out for some sort of quid pro quo, with the U.S. offering its assurances for a continued Russian troop presence in the provinces (under preexisting conditions), in exchange for Russia walking back its recognition, perhaps in face-saving stages conditioned on security guarantees.

The key here is that it’s really a situation where zero-sum is the much less attractive option, because in reality everyone can potentially come out a winner (except for Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili). Russia gets its prestige back, and the U.S. the chance to demonstrate that its influence, in combination with a firm but reasonable EU, can achieve results that reinforce the global governance system.