Russia has invaded Ukraine militarily and electronically. Already strained, P5 plus 1 negotiations over Iran’s nuclear weapons programs are breaking down.
Examined in isolation they would appear to be international outliers existing separately in their own vacuums. But are they really?
Not at all. What happens in Ukraine doesn’t stay in Ukraine.
What happens in Iran doesn’t stay in Iran. Events in the two countries are in fact closely intertwined.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has always resented the collapse of the Soviet Union and harbors ambitions in which he absorbs the breakaway sovereign satellite states – such as Ukraine – to once again become a global superpower.
At the same time, a defiant Iran continues to advance its nuclear weapons programs, expand its sphere of influence, extend its support of global terror, build its ballistic missile stockpile, and grow its cyber capabilities.
Both Russia and Iran have significant global aspirations and view the United States as the biggest obstacle to achieving their goals. Recent events have pushed Russia and Iran closer together, which will result in dangerous consequences for the United States.
Russia always had very few reasons to support the West during negotiations over lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for halting its nuclear weapons program. It now has no reason to support the coalition given its aggression in Ukraine against strong Western opposition.
The nuclear talks with Iran will now inevitably fail without Russian support, and there will be no hope of re-imposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic. Events in Ukraine will provide Iran with a significant amount of time to further work on its nuclear weapons program and build upon an already well-developed cyber capability.
The cyber capability may be the most troubling. Cyber reaches globally and crosses borders effortlessly. It can cause massive damage and is difficult to attribute.
Only a few years ago most experts rated Iran at tier two or tier three in its cyber capabilities. Today, with Russian assistance, Iran has closed the gap significantly and ranks closely behind tier one cyber powers such as the United States, China, and Israel. Experts are not only surprised, but they are perplexed at how Iran could have made up so much ground so quickly.
Iran’s cyber warfare program is now sophisticated enough to have carried out attacks on major U.S. financial institutions and penetrate into an unclassified U.S. Navy computer network that reportedly took four months to resolve.
Russia will continue its support for Iran’s aspirations of having a world class cyber warfare capability, both offensive and defensive.
Russia will also continue to extend its own global sphere of influence by antagonizing its neighbors and by moving into a perceived vacuum in Middle Eastern affairs created in part by Syria’s brutal civil war. Russia and Iran have long been suspected of sending weapons and other support to the Bashar al-Assad as the civilian death toll mounts.
The national security calculus for the United States is changing dramatically. It has at its core a developing relationship between Russia and Iran, an Iran with its nuclear program, terrorism support competencies intact, and a tier one cyber capability: none of which bodes well for the United States or the West.
Recent events should teach us that we cannot view any development in isolation, that it would be wise to consider the unintended consequences of any action or inaction.
What happens in Ukraine doesn’t stay in Ukraine. It can have ripple effects that alter the national security map around the world.
Pete Hoekstra is the former Chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and the Shillman Senior Fellow with the Investigative Project on Terrorism.
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By Pete Hoekstra