Russia is already using Iran talks to try to extract something for itself

November 26, 2013

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. (Roman Yandolin/Host Photo Agency via Getty Images)

No one trolls harder than Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who waited less than 48 hours after joining the United States, Europe and China in signing a nuclear deal with Iran to see if he could extract something from the deal for his country. Lavrov argued on Monday that, if Iran adheres to the deal restricting its nuclear program, then the U.S. and NATO should abandon their plans for installing missile defense systems in Eastern Europe. Here's the state-run news agency RIA Novosti:

ROME, November 25 (RIA Novosti) – Implementation of a deal on Iran’s nuclear program reached in Geneva this weekend will make the US missile defense system in Europe unnecessary, Russia’s foreign minister said Monday.

“If the agreement on Iran is implemented, the reason named as a necessity to establish a missile defense system in Europe will drop away,” Sergei Lavrov said while speaking at a media forum in Rome.

There are three different ways to read this. Maybe, (1) Lavrov is making a good-faith argument that the U.S. and NATO will no longer need the planned missile defense systems, which Russia just coincidentally happens to oppose because it sees that system as about deterring not just Iran but Russia as well. Or, (2) Lavrov is hinting that Russia may link its support for the Iran deal to its opposition to Eastern European missile defense, an implicit threat that Moscow could withhold its support for the Iran deal if it doesn't get what it wants on missile defense. Or, (3) Lavrov is just fishing here, trying to cause some trouble, as he often does.

The ambiguity here is precisely what makes Lavrov's statement such high-level geopolitical trolling – and what makes Lavrov the Platonic ideal of Russian foreign minister. The protocols of diplomatic nicety and the implicit threat of interpretation (2) means that everyone, including the United States, has to take Lavrov seriously and respond as if he were making good-faith gesture (1), even though the truth may well be closer to (3) just causing trouble.

The entire episode is a wonderful little encapsulation of Russian foreign policy in the Lavrov era (he's been foreign minister since 2004, and was Russia's ambassador to the United Nations for 10 years prior). The New Republic's Julia Ioffe put it nicely when she described Russia as a "geopolitical racketeer" that often looks for a way to profit from some international incident. The Guardian's Andrew Rykin also wrote that Russia loves to "photobomb" American foreign policy, finding low-risk but high-publicity opportunities to assert its significance, a strategy that allows it to maintain its self-image as a superpower rival without actually flexing superpower-level muscle.

Americans have seen a lot of this lately from Lavrov's Russia. He and Russian President Vladimir Putin turned the international crisis over Syria's use of chemical weapons against civilians to their advantage, for example pushing through a deal to dispose of those weapons in exchange for canceling U.S. strikes. But maybe the all-time pinnacle of Lavrovian trolling has been l'Affaire Snowden. Russia's decision to shelter NSA leaker Edward Snowden, followed by endless back-and-forths over what they'd do with him, guaranteed Russia weeks of high-profile attention and countless thumbs in the American eye.

Anticipate much more of this as Iran negotiations continue.

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Max Fisher · November 25, 2013