Relations between Russia and America have reached the highest point of tension ever in modern history. The risks of the start of an American military operation in Syria have also increased sharply, something that effectively makes Russia and America potential military opponents.
The inability of Russia and America to reach agreement on Syria, which has always seemed an extremely difficult task, lies at the heart of the current sharp deterioration in Russo-American relations. Russia’s initial aim in Syria was «matryoshka-like». On the one hand, Moscow has its own traditional geopolitical interests in the region, which amounted to minimizing the risks of the situation becoming chaotic: the civil war in Syria and the sharp increase in the activities of terrorist organizations did not only create a security risk, but also risks that Russia would be squeezed out of the region and Western partners would seize the initiative. At the beginning of September 2015, these interests were «enveloped» in the Ukrainian geopolitical crisis: suggesting the creation of an international anti-ISIL [Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] coalition at the UN General Assembly, Vladimir Putin was first and foremost seeking an opportunity to impose partnership on the West in the fight against a single threat, emerging from isolation. This task was partially accomplished: The Ukrainian agenda was placed on the back burner, Russia again attracted interest to itself, and those who in 2014 had advocated the toughest approaches to putting pressure on Moscow over the Crimean episode and the downing of the Boeing-777 started to meet the Russian president regularly. And it was then that it became clear that Moscow’s policies were not only a regional matter but also affected international security.
However, as soon as the «envelope» of the Ukrainian crisis was set aside, it became clear that in practice a joint antiterrorist struggle, primarily between Russia and America, was de facto an impossible task. The main problem is the exceptionally deep lack of trust between the Russian and American military, which blocked any rapprochement. There was no success in carrying out work effectively on separating moderate opposition figures from radicals, or in exchanging military data, or in reporting the positions of «their own people» to one another out of fear of exposing them. Strategically, the parties proved to be even further apart: for America it was critically important to remove the blockade on Aleppo, establish a truce, and prevent the routing of the anti-Asad opposition. Russia was against a truce (agreement to this was perceived by Moscow as a big concession), thinking that the military operation must be continued and Aleppo «cut off» from external supplies (where not only civilians get food but also the opponents of al-Asad, who are at the same time supplied with weapons as well). Russia thought that by supporting the moderate opposition America was also assisting the radicals at the same time, seeing them as allies in the fight against the al-Asad regime. America thought that Russia was using the war against ISIL (banned in Russia) as a cover to rout the moderate Syrian opposition.
As a result, as soon as agreement was reached on the truce that was critical for America it immediately fell through, leaving both sides without any hope of a return to cooperation. It seemed that everything possible had been done, and even more than that, but despite the efforts a real rapprochement had not actually occurred.
After this, each side began to look for their own way of «going it alone». In America, people started to talk about new sanctions, and they also started to discuss a possible military operation in Syria at a meaningful level. In Russia a step was also taken to hit at American interests in the nuclear sphere.
The PMDA [Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement] is a document of great significance, however not from the point of view of the confrontation between Russia and America, but rather that of the responsibility of both countries for the stocks of weapons-grade plutonium accumulated during the years of the nuclear arms race. The objective of the agreement is to agree on neutralizing the stocks, which as surplus should not fall into the hands of extremists or unpredictable states within the framework of the policy of nonproliferation. The agreement was suggested by America in the 1990s and signed in the year 2000. It concerned the disposal of 34 tonnes of plutonium by each side. Experts on nuclear security maintain that around 20 tonnes of plutonium are required for the warheads that America has today. Over 50 tonnes remain in the arsenals of each of the two nuclear powers, excluding the 34 tonnes that were supposed to be destroyed.
This means that both America and Russia have a full supply of weapons-grade plutonium with a large reserve and this will not change even after both parties hypothetically meet their obligations under the agreement. However, Moscow’s public position is that America is sabotaging the agreement by suggesting rewriting it to include a different method of disposal, preserving «breakout potential». «This means that it (weapons-grade plutonium) can be extracted, processed, and converted again into weapons-grade plutonium. That is not what we agreed on,» Vladimir Putin snapped.
Putin is right when he says that America is not meeting its obligations, while Russia has moved a long way towards implementing the accords. However, nuclear security experts stress that the alternative method of disposing of plutonium did not present any threat to Russia. «As a result of the reductions made over the past two decades the level of nuclear weapons has decreased many times over and the declared surpluses of weapons-grade plutonium cannot in any way create a basis for the reversibility of this process,» Anatoliy Dyakov, chief researcher at the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, and Vladimir Rybachenkov, senior researcher at the Center for Arms Control, Energy and Environmental Studies, wrote in February 2014 in Voyenno-Promyshlennyy Kuryer.
Moreover, Russia has its own long-term strategic programs to dispose of weapons-grade plutonium, which should then be used in the civilian atomic industry. So the further implementation of the agreement by Russia will be continued, irrespective of America’s actions.
America has tried to change the agreement for almost 10 years, in 2010 an addition to the agreement was signed, which, however, was still not implemented by America. The main reason was financial. The initial estimated cost of the construction at the Savannah River nuclear center (South Carolina) of a plant to produce MOX fuel (the very disposal method that Russia insisted on) increased from 4.8 billion dollars to 7.7 billion, and the planned date for it to be commissioned was postponed from 2016 to 2019, moreover, 3.7 billion dollars has already been invested in the construction of the site.
It was reported in 2016 that America would carefully bring Russia to rewrite the agreement again. However, Pavel Podvig, the head of the Russian Nuclear Forces research project and fellow at the UN Institute for Disarmament, told Radio Liberty: «officially, America has not settled on any one method of disposal, they do not have any proposals that they could take to Russia and say… There is a technical aspect to this case, it is very complicated and confusing… But from the point of view of use in weapons – neither Russian nor American plutonium, we can be one hundred percent sure, will ever be used in weapons again.»
Thus, Moscow has withdrawn from a treaty, which was de facto being implemented by it alone. However, we cannot ignore another aspect – the subject of disposing of nuclear waste is of great significance for America, which claims a special role as the architect of international security. Even despite the fact that America put the brakes on the implementation of its own obligations, the priority of disposing of weapons-grade plutonium in some way has never been in doubt. Russia, in withdrawing from the treaty, is effectively trying to show the world community that the conflict with Moscow initiated by America carries a nuclear threat to the entire world community (a reduction in the strategic monitoring of the reserves of weapons-grade plutonium). Since the PDMA envisaged not only the practical disposal of weapons-grade plutonium but also the development, analysis, and testing of the mechanisms for such a disposal and monitoring of the surpluses. Without joint efforts in this sphere, the level of world security will inevitably be reduced. Russia is also trying to place responsibility for this with America. It is another issue that Russia’s motive here might also be the desire to hurt America, its role as global leader in nuclear disarmament processes, as well as subjective motives based on a very contentious assessment of America’s intentions to use its nuclear potential against Russia.
On 4 October, Moscow went even further: the government announced the suspension of agreements between Russia and America on cooperation in scientific research and development in the nuclear and energy spheres. «In 2014, notification was received from Washington that America was suspending such cooperation with Russia in connection with the events in Ukraine… In this situation, Russia is halting the implementation of the agreement in response to the unfriendly actions of America,» the Russian Foreign Ministry reported. This step was more of a formality simply recording the reality and at the same time stressing once again the toughness of Russia’s stance.
Simultaneously with its withdrawal from the plutonium disposition agreement, Russia also put forward a number of deliberately unrealistic political demands. As a condition for the restoration of the agreement, Putin demanded that the military infrastructure and numbers in the contingent of American troops in countries that joined NATO after 1 September 2000 (effectively devaluing the consequences of the expansion of NATO that were negative from Russia’s point of view) be reduced, the «Magnitsky Act» and all of the sanctions be repealed and in addition to this – that compensation be paid for damages both from America’s sanctions policy itself and from Russia’s «forced» counter-sanctions.
These demands should be seen as the final sentence passed on cooperation between Russia and the Obama administration. Understanding that the American president is departing, Moscow has permitted itself to take such a radical step hoping that it will be possible to maneuver with the new American administration here, since it does not automatically consider it the successor of Washington’s former policies. Even if no American administration will meet the declared demands (which is clear), in the future any friendly gesture can be seen as a revision of the anti-Russian policies and a step in the direction of reducing tension. In connection with this, the rigidity of the policy chosen by Moscow should probably not be overestimated either.
Both Russia and America have reached a breaking point in their relationship, where emotions and not the most rational of gestures are coming to the fore. America is refusing to cooperate with Russia in Syria, raising the question of new sanctions, sharply stepping up the rhetoric, which in emotional terms is not very different to the language spoken by the Kremlin. Moscow has withdrawn from the PMDA, something that runs counter to the interests of both countries, and is also going it alone in Syria without taking the interests of its partners into account. It seems that the current skirmish with America is becoming irreversible under the administration of Barack Obama (with a very high risk of the high level of confrontation being maintained under any following administration as well).
The situation is to some extent reminiscent of Moscow’s style in relation to the post-revolutionary regime in Ukraine in February-May 2014: at that time Moscow cut off all contact, showing that it did not see any future in dialog with the new regime. In the current situation, the Kremlin also seems to be cutting short all hopes of dialog with the outgoing administration and de facto entering into bargaining with the future head of state, sharply raising the stakes. However, in contrast to Ukraine where the elite and the political trends were highly susceptible to prevailing conditions and policies were relatively movable, historically in America a stable consensus has developed on the need to contain Russia (the question is only what style and to what extent). The more unpredictable and destructive Moscow’s actions look (and that is precisely how recent steps have been perceived by the American establishment, playing into the hands of the «hawks»), the higher the chances are that the policy of containment will be tightened under any administration.