I am not suggesting there is any such formal Iran-Ukraine trade-off between the Obama administration and Putin. I am suggesting that the Russian leader has a keen eye for American weakness and an exquisite sense of timing. The abrupt flaring of new fighting in eastern Ukraine, and the abrupt Russian readiness to help on Iran ahead of the Nov. 24 deadline for nuclear talks, are not a mere coincidence. They are part of a Russian strategy and, for now, the United States is playing along.
An Iran nuclear deal would be good for the United States, Iran and the world. President Obama understands its importance, hence his recent reported letter to the Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. An accord could place all Iran's irreversible nuclear capacity in a limited and verifiable box, ensuring there is never an Iranian bomb, while ushering the last sizeable emerging market nation into the global economy. It would change the blocked politics of the Middle East, confounding America's enemies and forcing sometimes manipulative allies to think in new and perhaps constructive ways. The deal, at this point, represents the last hope for any significant Obama legacy in the Middle East. It is clear that he wants it.
But the unspoken price of an Iran deal, vital as it is, cannot be the loss of Ukraine and the unraveling of NATO. Putin has already annexed Crimea despite Russia's signed agreement in 1994 "to respect the independence and sovereignty and the existing borders of Ukraine." There is every reason to believe he has designs on all Ukraine. The West's mistake has been to think that Putin is not serious in wishing to reconstitute the Soviet Union in new guise.
The current Russian buildup has all the signs of preparation for an offensive. Large, unmarked convoys of heavy weapons and tanks manned by personnel without insignia on their uniforms (like those who took over Crimea) have been seen rumbling toward the front lines in rebel-held territory. Sophisticated artillery and ground-to-air missile systems have been moved into position. Units all the way from the east and far north of Russia have been massed. You don't move military units thousands of miles for nothing.
A retired NATO general who recently held talks with the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, told me that intelligence estimates are of some 45,000 regular Russian troops on the border; tens of thousands of Russian irregulars of various stripes inside Ukraine organized by a smaller number of Russian officers and military personnel; some 450 battle tanks and over 700 pieces of artillery.
"Ukraine has no real fighting capacity to face all this," he said. "They think we're their friends and don't understand why we won't help them. They are frustrated and afraid because they can see a hammer coming at them."
In response to Putin's hammer, the West has expressed concern. The United States National Security Council spokeswoman has said, "We are very concerned." The European Union has called the reports of convoys of heavy weapons "very worrying." Concern and worry do not stop a hammer. Poroshenko's requests to Obama for substantial American military assistance should not have been rejected.
Watch Putin's actions. Be very wary of his words. That is the lesson of the past year. It has not been learned. It is nice that the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, and Secretary of State John Kerry have just agreed to exchange information on Ukraine and called for respect for a September cease-fire that is unraveling in the smoke and fire of Donetsk. It is also meaningless. Lavrov feigns the innocent on the military buildup. That's his good-cop role.
The reality is dangerous. A quarter-century after the fall of the Berlin Wall, as balloons go up in the German capital, a nation of 45 million people that wants to enjoy the fruits of European freedom is being abandoned to Russian dismemberment. If that happens, if Ukraine is lost, America's promise to its NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe is not going to be viewed as credible. A core Russian strategic objective since 1945 - the decoupling of American and European defense - will be on its way to realization.
I just hope the refrain inside the White House is not: "We can't annoy the Russians on Ukraine. They're being helpful on Iran. We won't get a deal without them." But I wouldn't bet on it. An Iran-Ukraine affair is plausible.
Roger Cohen, The Op-Ed Columnist, The New York Times