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Ukraine Crisis Weighs Heavy On Other Foreign Policy Issues


And our next guest is Aaron David Miller, a longtime Middle East policy advisor at the State Department. He came to our studio this morning to weigh in on the consequences of the Ukraine crisis on two other major foreign policy issues: The Syrian Civil War and the Iran nuclear negotiations.

Good morning.


MONTAGNE: Let's start with Syria. Obviously the U.S. enlisted Russia's help to rid Syria of chemical weapons, to try to bring the warring parties to negotiation. Is what's going on in Ukraine - can that kill diplomatic partnership?

MILLER: You know, it's interesting. It's not as if the U.S.-Russian cooperation in the Middle East, particularly over Syria and Iran, was ever strategic. It was always tactical. It was always about Putin trying to maneuver, trying to avoid regime change, try to create a political space for the Russians.

On the Syrian CW issue, look, the Russians interceded not because they are concerned about Assad's chemical weapons. They interceded because they saw the possibility that the United States, the Obama administration, would ineffectively enforce the president redline and unilaterally strike Syria, which was not in their interest.

So I think on the Syrian CW say, which is always a long shot, it will be implemented at episodically. The Russians will probably do enough in order to keep Assad viable, and to prevent the United States from considering, again, in response to violation of the agreement, a military strike. But at best, you're going to see episodic cooperation on that one.

MONTAGNE: Although, there's just one thing, critics say President Obama emboldened Moscow by not carrying out airstrikes on the Syrian government, after it used chemical weapons. Not enforcing Obama's own redline, is there something to that?

MILLER: Well, I think there is. I think the administration's foreign policy at times resembles a sort of mix between a Marx Brothers' movie and the Keystone Cops. But I would not hang Ukraine on Obama for this one. The Russians had vital national interest. They were piqued. Putin is a post-imperial nationalist presiding over a fading empire. He believed he needed to act in Ukraine. Nothing that this administration could have done in Syria would have altered that calculation.

MONTAGNE: But what if Russia cements its hold on Crimea or, even more, of Ukraine, would that embolden Syrian President Bashar al-Assad?

MILLER: I think, you know, small powers read the behavior of great ones very carefully in crisis. And the reality is, absolutely. The Syrians will be persuaded "particularly if Putin wins," quote-unquote, over the short-term that the bet they made on Moscow is a good one. And Assad who, right now, has no need or imperative to compromise, will only keep on keeping on being convinced that the Russians really are a horse worth riding.

MONTAGNE: Let me put you a question about Iran. here at the end. Given the Ukraine crisis, will Russia cooperate with the U.S. to get Iran to curb its nuclear program? Will that affect that, as well?

MILLER: You know, Renee, this is the most important Middle Eastern issue to the Obama administration. It's the one with the most potential domestic fallout, should there be an Israeli strike or should there be an American one.

It seems to me that the Russians never as allergic to the idea of Iran possessing a nuclear weapons capability as we are. We'll probably wait to see whether sanctions are sustained; is there way to diffuse this crisis. But I think in the end, the Russian calculation is not going to matter as much. It will sew greater disunity in the P5+1. The Russians will probably bolt from the sanctions regime which they are already nibbling at right now.

But, if in the end, the Iranians calculate that bilateral negotiations with the Americans are in their interest, and there is a way to reach a comprehensive agreement, nothing the Russians are going to be able to do will stop that train.

MONTAGNE: Aaron David Miller is a distinguished scholar at the Wilson Center. Thank you very much.

MILLER: Always a pleasure.

MONTAGNE: And this is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.