With President Joe Biden’s poll numbers at all-time lows and the midterm elections just around the corner, it should hardly come as any surprise that the Democratic Party will go back to its playbook and once again make Russian President Vladimir Putin the centerpiece of campaign season. But in order to blame Putin for Biden’s sinking presidency, the party and its media retinue are going to have to bury the fact that Biden and Putin are a team, tied together by the Iran deal.
In 2016, the Hillary Clinton campaign devised a plan to smear her rival and deflect attention away from her self-sabotaging use of a private email server—they got the press and FBI to say that Donald Trump had been compromised by Putin. In 2020, the media and former U.S. spy chiefs protected Biden’s campaign by loudly and falsely claiming that damning evidence of his family’s ties to corrupt foreign enterprises and officials found on Hunter Biden’s laptop was “disinformation” leaked by Putin’s spy services. Both attempts to blame Putin for the Democratic Party’s own messes were false.
And now the White House claims that the historic levels of inflation and surging food and energy prices that have turned voters against Biden are Putin’s fault. Never mind the insane amounts of money the U.S. government has been printing since the outbreak of COVID, or Biden’s decision to kill the Keystone pipeline on day one of his term and tell domestic energy producers to go jump off a bridge. These are Putin’s price hikes!
Up until now, the Democrats have been able to dine with Vladimir Putin and have their political cake, too. They blame Russia’s brutal despot for their domestic political screw-ups and then pay him off for doing their dirty work in the Middle East. Given that Putin couldn’t care less what lies Democrats tell on CNN, or how he is depicted by writers for The Atlantic, this arrangement has worked out just fine for all concerned—as long as campaign season bluster doesn’t affect a mutually profitable business relationship.
Unfortunately for the Democrats, the collision of Biden’s ghastly poll numbers with a real-life shooting war in Ukraine makes the enemy-by-day, proxy-by-night routine more difficult to sustain. What Biden’s protectors and validators in Washington can no longer conceal is that Biden is dependent on Putin to secure his chief foreign policy goal: reentering the Iran nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew. And once the deal is struck, Putin and his oligarchs stand to profit handsomely. As Sen. Ted Cruz put it, Biden intends to subsidize Putin’s war with a cash windfall worth at least $10 billion that will offset any sanctions Biden has imposed for invading Ukraine.
Typically, statesmen rationalize working with despots to achieve a greater good, even as these choices rankle the conscience of thoughtful men and women. Sure, Stalin is evil, but he is throwing millions of men against a greater evil, Hitler. We can work with him; we have to work with him. So surely Biden must think that Putin can help America achieve some vital geopolitical goal that somewhere down the line will foster greater things? Or else why work with a man who makes a habit of bombing schools and hospitals and other civilian facilities in Chechnya, in Syria, and now in Ukraine?
No, in this case American policymakers are countenancing havoc to beget chaos. By guaranteeing Iran’s ability to destabilize the Persian Gulf region and jolt energy markets by legalizing its nuclear weapons program, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is a direct threat to American prosperity and domestic peace, not to mention to the entire Middle East. But because the Iran deal was Barack Obama’s signature foreign policy initiative, the Biden team has made restoring it their top foreign policy priority.
Yet faced with the Biden administration’s overeager desire to reenter Obama’s Iran deal as soon as possible, the Iranians played hard to get. Their pride was wounded. And with a buyer firmly on the hook, the price could only go up. The obscurantist regime decided to teach the Americans a lesson by refusing to negotiate directly with the Biden team, even though it is staffed by Obama aides with whom it first struck the JCPOA in July 2015. The person chosen to mediate between America and Iran was Vladimir Putin.
It was not the first time the Obama-Biden team had tasked Moscow with managing Iran policy on its behalf. As the Syrian war broke out in March 2011, U.S. allies beseeched the White House to stop Bashar Assad’s bloody campaign against his own people. But since Assad was an Iranian client as well as a Russian one, Obama knew that if he stepped in against Assad, there would be no Iran deal. So he brushed off petitioners and told them to go talk to Putin instead. Obama then repeatedly used the Russians as a veto by proxy to defeat anti-Assad resolutions at the United Nations. When the Russians shot down a Turkish air force jet on the Syrian border, the White House backed Moscow’s account of the incident and left its NATO ally twisting in the wind.
Perhaps most famously, Russia protected Obama’s nuclear deal when it offered to rid Assad of his chemical weapons arsenal—an offer that kept Obama from having to enforce the redline against the use of chemical weapons. Because keeping Assad in power was an Iranian strategic necessity, the equation circa mid-2014 was clear to everyone involved: no Russia, no Iran deal. When Putin bit off Crimea and chunks of Donbas, Obama barely blinked an eye.
When Putin again escalated the number of Russian ground forces in Syria shortly after the JCPOA was struck, Obama administration officials celebrated Putin as America’s new partner in the fight against terror—that is, the war to defend Iranian interests in the eastern Mediterranean. If Iran couldn’t protect its “equities” in Syria on its own, then Russia could protect them, with American help.
It was only natural that the same people who relied on Russia to protect the Iran deal the first time around knew they could count on Putin once again when it came time for the United States to reenter the JCPOA. In December 2021, Putin and Biden aides met in Vienna to coordinate their negotiating postures over the Iran deal. Biden and Putin then discussed their arrangements together directly in a video summit. “Russia is an important partner in these talks,” a State Department spokesperson told the press in January. “We engage very constructively with Russia … on a mutual return to the JCPOA.”
The same month, Secretary of State Antony Blinken expressed his gratitude to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov for the “opportunity to discuss Iran.” The negotiations “have reached a decisive moment,” said Blinken, and “we hope that Russia will use the influence that it has and relationship that it has with Iran to impress upon Iran that sense of urgency.” It’s important to recall that at the very same time the Biden team was imploring Russia to help get Iran to accept their offer, Putin was already massing his troops on Ukraine’s borders.
In the context of America’s use of Putin to negotiate and guarantee Obama’s “legacy” foreign policy initiative, it’s not hard to see the logic behind Putin’s decision to invade Ukraine when he did: The Russian leader knew that he had America over a barrel. The timing of Putin’s decision had less to do with Xi Jinping’s reported personal request to hold off until the Beijing Olympics were over than it does with Joe Biden’s urgency to get back into the Iran deal. Even if Ukrainian sovereignty truly mattered to the American side, the White House’s diplomatic self-debasement made its priorities clear—the Americans would swallow anything to get back into the Iran deal.
In January, Biden effectively signed off on Putin’s invasion of Ukraine—and the subsequent instability in the energy market—by signaling that a “minor incursion” into Ukraine would be overlooked by the White House.
Sure, Biden talked tough about imposing sanctions on Russia and called out Putin for his fiendish actions, but the Russians knew that his words were as hollow as Obama’s meaningless sanctions over Crimea. And the Russians gleefully rubbed Biden’s nose in it. Lavrov boasted publicly that the United States had provided written guarantees that sanctions imposed over Ukraine would have no effect on Russia’s nuclear cooperation with Iran. In other words, the cash influx that the JCPOA promised Putin would be unaffected by whatever happened in Ukraine. No matter how many Ukrainians Putin murdered, Biden was going to make the man he called a war criminal even richer. Half a million dead Syrians could testify that America would keep its word.
When the Iran deal is formalized, Iran will be a Russian nuclear client. Russia’s state-controlled Rosatom energy firm and at least four of its major subsidiaries will receive sanctions waivers to finish nuclear projects in Iran worth more than $10 billion. Iran will also be buying weapons from Moscow worth billions of dollars more. By relieving sanctions on Iranian banks, the restored JCPOA provides Putin with financial channels invulnerable to U.S. financial measures.
So if Putin isn’t going to suffer from the sanctions Biden imposed over Ukraine, who will? American voters, of course—and also Ukrainians, who Putin will keep killing with the weapons he acquires with his Iranian nuclear windfall.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).