Russia has made an unexpected maneuver by declaring an ostentatious break with the United States on a broad front.

Until recently, everything seemed to be moving in the opposite direction, with Russia coveting an international “diplomatic victory” that restored its status in the West and presupposed support from the United States. In Syria, where Moscow has increasingly set the agenda over the past year, it had largely accomplished that goal.

Yet on October 3, Moscow said it was pulling out of the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, signed in 2000. The two countries have traded threats and accusations on a whole series of issues, and relations have abruptly dropped to a new low.

It looks as though the Russian leadership has obliterated at a stroke all the achievements it made in the last year. What caused this breakdown?

Of course, the situation in Syria has a lot to do with it, but that is not the whole story. Otherwise we would not have seen such unprecedented demands and grievances being aired by top Russian leaders. Russia desires to turn a new corner in its relations with the West and establish a new baseline of truth that will supersede everything that has gone before it.

It was only one year ago, in his speech to the United Nations, that President Vladimir Putin proposed that the world’s major powers should form a new “anti-Hitler coalition” to fight the so-called Islamic State, similar to the one the Allies formed during World War II.

At first, the West didn’t take the Russian proposal seriously. Then, Russia scored perhaps the most impressive victory over Islamic State to date with the liberation of Palmyra. Basically, Russia forced the West to engage with it in Syria and used that to begin to escape from the isolation it had entered into in 2014 with the Ukraine crisis. Because of Syria, U.S.-Russian negotiations on all levels became routine and the two countries moved from rejecting and ignoring each other toward some form of interaction. The blurry outlines of the coalition that Russia proposed in September 2015 began to take shape.

This was halted when the Americans ceased cooperation with Moscow on Syria, following Russia’s ferocious air bombardment of eastern Aleppo, controlled by anti-Assad forces. They suspended cooperation with Russia just a few weeks after they publicly announced it.

The catalog of disasters in Syria that ended the cooperation can easily be listed. Moscow blamed the United States for the air strike that wiped out an entire Syrian regiment near Deir ez-Zor, calling it a serious setback in the fight against Islamic State. The Americans blamed Russia for the attack on the humanitarian convoy near Aleppo. Then came the bombardment of Aleppo, which caused angry dissension between the two sides.

But Russia went further, turning a local breakdown in bilateral relations into a global one. President Putin announced that Russia was suspending the 2000 agreement on plutonium disposal—an agreement that was actually one of Putin’s first foreign policy accomplishments.

The public declarations that accompanied Russia’s withdrawal from the agreement were much more significant than the withdrawal itself. After all, the two sides have withdrawn from agreements in the past.

In his decree halting cooperation, Vladimir Putin explains the decision by “a fundamental change of circumstances and the emergence of a threat to strategic stability as a result of unfriendly actions by the United States toward Russia.”

Introducing his bill on Russian withdrawal from the treaty to the State Duma, Putin went even further. The new Duma will start its term by approving a text that condemns the United States for “taking a number of steps resulting in a fundamental change in strategic stability.” Washington is accused of building up its military presence in Eastern Europe, of training the Ukrainian far-right group Right Sector, and of “taking steps to destabilize the Russian economy.”

The kind of talk that Russian leaders have formerly kept to themselves has now burst into the open, like a solar flare. For years, Russian society has been bonded together by a kind of social glue consisting of disjointed informal views. Its core molecular formula was “the United States is always the enemy that wants to destroy Russia.” Now, Russia’s main and only decisionmaker has taken it upon himself to speak in this language.

Moreover, the conditions Russia set for rejoining the treaty amounted to not much less than the return of Alaska. Moscow demanded that the United States scale back its military presence in states that joined NATO after September 1, 2000, to previous levels and told Washington to repeal the Magnitsky Act and the Ukraine Freedom Support Act, lift all anti-Russian sanctions, and compensate Russia for the damage the United States inflicted on its economy, including the damage Russia suffered as a result of its own countersanctions against the United States.

On the American side, the harder line was reinforced by the almost simultaneous release of the Dutch Safety Board report on the shooting down of the MH-17 airliner over Ukraine. The report probably changed little politically, as most of the world already knew that Moscow was in some shape or form responsible for the disaster. But the report has a legal dimension as well. Without directly accusing Russia or its leaders, it is deeply threatening to them. It demonstrates that the judicial system has been methodically looking for evidence and gradually zeroed in on the suspects and credible evidence. The Dutch report is strong precisely because it lies outside of politics, demonstrating that the wheels of justice will continue to grind under any political realities. This process will add some discomfort to Putin’s last presidential term.

One more factor has helped trigger Moscow’s decision to break with the United States, and that is the U.S. election campaign in which Russia has been playing a prominent role. Americans, who usually don’t pay much attention to Russia at election time, are now defining Russia as a full-fledged global adversary. For Americans, the shock is not that Russia just misbehaved somewhere overseas but that it directly interfered in American domestic politics.

For the American establishment, Putin’s Russia is now viewed as a force that is capable of putting its man in the Oval Office by supporting one candidate and besmirching the other through technological warfare. The American media and politicians are essentially saying what Putin said in his October 3 decree, only the roles are reversed: now it is Russia that is named as a direct threat to U.S. security.

It will be hard to undo this rhetoric in the case of Hillary Clinton’s more than likely victory. Leaders of a new administration who just recently claimed that a powerful foreign adversary was about to destroy the country through its political manipulations will not act as though nothing has ever happened. That means that Putin will have to deal with an a priori hostile foreign policy environment during his last term in office.
So Russia decided not to wait to be punished by the United States for meddling in its internal affairs and instead seized the initiative itself to push relations down to rock bottom. The assumption must be that when relations are so low, the only way for them to go is up. It is a bold political move that Putin hopes will give him greater freedom of maneuver on issues like Aleppo and the Donbas. But the assumption could also be wrong and carries one obvious risk: the present rock bottom may only conceal another even deeper one.

  • Alexander Baunov