By Matthew Schaller
On October 3, Russian President Vladimir Putin suspended a bilateral treaty with the United States on the disposal of weapons-grade plutonium. The latest move by the Russian strongman showcases his newfound leverage over Washington with regard to the ongoing row over Ukraine and Syria.
According to CNBC, the Kremlin’s action was in response to Washington’s announcement that it was suspending talks with Russia on trying to end the Syrian bloodshed. The agreement does not represent a cornerstone in U.S.-Russia relations, but its connection to a range of other issues that the two superpowers share carries newfound weight and significance.
“Putin’s decree could signal that other nuclear disarmament cooperation deals between the United States and Russia are at risk of being undermined,” Stratfor, a U.S.-based intelligence consultancy, suggested. Russia may be attempting “to convey to Washington the price of cutting off dialogue on Syria and other issues.”
As reported by Reuters, Putin submitted a draft law to parliament laying out a list of grievances towards the United States and stating the conditions for which the plutonium accord can be resumed. They included the lifting of EU and U.S. sanctions, and a reduction of U.S. forces in North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member states.
“The Obama administration has done everything in its power to destroy the atmosphere of trust which could have encouraged cooperation,” the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement.
The treaty on the disposal of plutonium was adopted in 2000 as one of the framework decommissioning agreements of the early post-Cold War period. According to the New York Times, the deal concerned 34 tons of plutonium in storage in each country and acted as an insurance policy against the materials falling into the wrong hands.
Russia and the United States reaffirmed their commitment to the agreement in 2009, when Obama signaled his pursuit of a “reset” policy with then Russian President Dmitri Medvedev.
During the reaffirmation talks, the Russians interpreted the agreement as requiring the plutonium to be sent to civilian nuclear power plants in order to be transformed into non-explosive materials.
Issues with a plant in South Carolina have led to numerous delays on the American side of the deal and President Obama proposed shutting down the program in the 2017 budget. His alternative plan was for long-term storage at a nuclear containment facility in New Mexico.
This has become a point of contention with the Russians as Putin has made known in his draft law recently submitted to parliament.
As U.S.-Russia relations have become increasingly strained under Putin, numerous analysts in Moscow and elsewhere have floated with the idea of Russia falling back on its side of various agreements dating back to friendlier times between the two countries.
In the chaos and fragility that occurred in the post-Cold War landscape, the United States faced considerable pushback from the ‘Russian Bear’ with regard to the securement of their nuclear arsenal. It seems very unlikely that getting the Russians back to the table under the current Russian administration would bear anything different.