Monday could end up being remembered as the moment when the years-long deteriorating relationship between the United Sates and Russia went from terrible to unsalvageable.
First, the State Department finally followed through on days of threats by Secretary of State John Kerry, announcing that the U.S. is suspending its participation in talks with Russia to try to establish a ceasefire in Syria. Those discussions were supposed to eventually lead to jointly coordinated strikes against ISIS and other terrorist groups. This comes after days of punishing Russian and regime airstrikes on rebel-held areas of Aleppo, including several bombings of hospitals and one on a humanitarian aid convoy. According to the State Department, these attacks demonstrated that Russia was always more committed to propping up Assad’s regime than reaching a political solution—something that has been clear to most observers for some time.
Russia, meanwhile, recently accused the U.S. of supporting and controlling an “international terrorist alliance” through its backing of anti-Assad rebel groups.
Also on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended a treaty with the U.S. on the disposal of plutonium, negotiated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov in 2010. The draft law halting the treaty, which Putin submitted to Russia’s parliament, calls on Washington to lift Ukraine-related sanctions and to reduce the U.S. military presence in NATO member states in Eastern Europe.
The day’s events serve as a sad bookend to the fraught but occasionally productive era that began when then Clinton presented a mistranslated “reset” button to her Russian Lavrov on March 6, 2009.
The moves also come amid widespread allegations of Russian hackers tampering in the U.S. presidential election and several days after a report by a Dutch-led investigation confirmed that the missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 over Ukraine in 2014 came from Russia.
The suspension of the plutonium deal, one of a number of arms control agreements between the two countries, may be less dramatic in the short term than the final collapse of the Syria ceasefire process. But in the long run its implications are more alarming.
Even in the halcyon days of the reset, Obama administration officials claimed that they never anticipated a new era of friendship would flourish with the Russians, but that they were simply hoping to “de-link” issues of disagreement from those where productive cooperation might be possible. This strategy did actually achieve some real successes, from Iran sanctions, to logistical support for the war in Afghanistan, to nuclear disarmament. But Monday’s events indicated that Russia is now willing to use arms control agreements—the cornerstone of post-Cold War cooperation between the two countries—as leverage in other disputes. And it’s hard to say what—if any—areas of potential cooperation might be on the table going forward.
Still, given the frightening potential for clashes between American and Russian forces in Syria, Washington can’t afford to cut off Moscow entirely: Monday’s announcement noted that the channel of communications aimed at “de-conflicting” the two parties will remain open. And while the day’s news could result in new American sanctions against Russia, those already in effect over the war in Ukraine haven’t had much of an impact on Russian behavior despite damaging the country’s economy.
Even if the tangible results of this catastrophic day might not be immediately felt, we could see an urgent shift in the tone of the administration’s rhetoric towards and about Russia. Obama has been happy to use Putin as a cudgel to attack Donald Trump on the campaign trail, but the administration has been reluctant to publicly blame Russia for the recent cyberattacks targeting the Democratic Party, for fear that Russia would respond by escalating those attacks. Officials have tended to be vague in public while explicitly blaming Russia when speaking anonymously. According to the New York Times this caution “has led to something of an uprising in parts of the White House and the State Department.”
If we start seeing more explicit public accusations leveled at the Kremlin, it could be confirmation that the administration has given up on any kind of productive cooperation with Russia in the short time it has left.