The next U.S. administration will inherit the worst relationship with Russia since Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an evil empire. Judging from the list of grievances that President Vladimir Putin has laid out, even a relatively Putin-friendly Donald Trump will have a hard time satisfying him.
Putin delivered his message to the future U.S. president Monday, just as the U.S. State Department announced it was suspending negotiations with Russia on a ceasefire in Syria and Russia-backed Syrian troops moved to take more ground in Aleppo. In a bill submitted to parliament, Putin threatened to end a joint U.S.-Russian disarmament program — in which surplus weapons-grade plutonium is processed into fuel — unless the U.S. meets certain conditions:
Roll back North Atlantic Treaty Organization infrastructure and reduce NATO personnel to September 2000 levels;
Repeal the Magnitsky Act, which imposed sanctions on Russian officials involved in human rights violations;
Repeal all U.S. sanctions against Russian individuals and businesses;
Compensate Russians for damages incurred by U.S. sanctions and by Russia’s “forced countersanctions”;
Present a “clear plan of irreversible destruction” of U.S. surplus plutonium.
Putin might as well have said the program will resume when hell freezes over. “He asked for too little,” Leonid Volkov, an anti-Putin politician, wrote sarcastically on Facebook. “He should have asked for Alaska back, eternal youth, Elon Musk and a ticket to Disneyland.”
Even if a U.S. administration were suddenly prepared to lift sanctions introduced in response to the Russian aggression in Ukraine, not even President Trump would agree to the humiliating and nonsensical demand for compensation — particularly for Russia’s spiteful decision to ban Western food imports, a move that primarily hurt domestic consumers. The NATO cuts, too, are a non-starter.
The plutonium deal was largely symbolic and on its last legs anyway. It applied to just 34 tons on each side, a small share of each country’s nuclear arsenal. The Obama administration put its side of the program “on cold standby” in 2014, after a series of disagreements over such issues as how to dispose of the plutonium and the high cost of converting it into fuel for nuclear plants. The move indicated that the U.S. was prepared to see Russia abandon its side of the bargain, too.
Putin’s choice of venue appears aimed at reminding the world that Russia remains a nuclear power with plutonium to spare, unlike most countries in its immediate neighborhood. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko bitterly regrets that his country gave up its nuclear arsenal in the mid-1990s in exchange for a now-worthless guarantee from Russia, the U.S. and the U.K. that it wouldn’t be attacked. Poroshenko wants to convince Washington that Ukraine deserves lethal U.S. weapons, having been duped into stripping itself of a powerful deterrent that probably would have kept it intact in 2014.
Putin’s message is that Russia will start acting as an equal, whether or not the U.S. wants to treat it as one. It’s a reminder to the presidential candidates that pacifying Russia will have a price tag, and that Russia’s starting position in any negotiations will be arrogantly high. Since the outgoing U.S. administration is unlikely to step up military activity in Syria, Russia is doing its best to make sure President Bashar al-Assad’s troops win a decisive victory at Aleppo before the next U.S. president is inaugurated. The U.S. decision to withdraw from talks means little to Putin, who has been playing for time rather than talking anyway.
Putin is aware that his belligerent stand will be costly. On Monday, the finance ministry suggested boosting the classified part of the budget — which includes military and security expenditures — by about 680 billion rubles ($10.9 billion), a move that will require cutting other expenditures and increasing the deficit. Putin knows from experience that Russians will put up with more economic hardship if they feel he is standing up to the U.S.
It’s hard to see how Barack Obama can respond seriously to Putin’s demands. The next U.S. president, though, will need to decide what to do with an intransigent Russia. One option is to ratchet up sanctions and wait for a weakening economy to undermine the Kremlin’s position, yet such an approach could have immediate and unpredictable consequences in the Middle East and elsewhere.