Vladimir Putin’s Overreach

The decree signed by Vladimir Putin suspending cooperation with the United States on disposing of weapons plutonium set excessive conditions for resuming cooperation. Cooperation was ended, it said, because of “hostile actions” by the United States. The conditions for resumption of the agreement are for the United States to decrease NATO’s presence in Europe, revoke the Magnitsky Act, end sanctions imposed because of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and compensate those hurt by those sanctions.

That’s a big imbalance. Disposing of plutonium from decommissioned nuclear weapons is an element of arms control between the United States and Russia, but it is of much lesser importance than NATO’s presence in Europe and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, let alone equivalent to all of Russia’s demands.

Later in the day, it was announced that the Russian Duma would vote on a permanent military presence in Syria, and that the United States was withdrawing from talks with Russia aimed at a peace agreement for Syria. “Permanent,” of course, can mean anything, but the vote will pave the way for a more continuing Russian military presence in Syria.

After a mistaken American-led attack on Syrian army soldiers on September 17, Russia and Syria increased their attacks on Aleppo, hitting a humanitarian aid convoy, hospitals, and civilians. Another disproportionate response, especially when peace talks provided a venue for dealing with the American mistake, which was admitted by the Americans, who launched an investigation. The assault on Aleppo has been continuous, with no aid allowed into the city.

After a year in the Syrian war, Russia has not achieved a decisive victory for its client, Bashar al-Assad. Nor has it achieved the goal of forging a partnership with the United States against terrorism and thus persuading the United States or Europe to lift the sanctions imposed as a result of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for insurrection in Ukraine’s Donbas. Recent peace talks over Syria involved mainly the United States and Russia, in the sort of great power negotiations that Russia seems to want to boost its status.

No partnership against terrorism has been possible because Russia’s definition of terrorists in Syria appears to be any faction opposing the Assad government. Russia and Syria have peremptorily attacked a variety of groups, often in apparent contradiction of agreements reached. Civilian targets are common. Little to no good faith is displayed. As Russia and Syria commit probable war crimes without acknowledgement or apology, partnership becomes more difficult, and linkage to sanctions resulting from Russia’s aggression in Ukraine fades.

It is no longer possible to make the kind of great power agreement that Putin seems to want on Syria. There are too many factions for either Russia or America to fully control, and it is not clear that Russia can control Assad’s actions. Additionally, the United States and Europe are unwilling to play Putin’s game to grant him that status.

It has been a year since Russia entered the Syrian war. Before entering a war, it is easy to believe that one more player, with great firepower, can make the decisive difference. Another mistake is to believe that airpower alone can defeat the enemy. The intensified battle for Aleppo has been going on for two weeks now, with Russia and Syria holding nothing back. When Russia entered the war, the Syrian army was weakening. Has it improved enough to take Aleppo?

And what happens after Aleppo? If Syria and Russia can prevail, will that break the back of the resistance? Or does the request to the Duma for a permanent military presence indicate that Russian generals believe that Assad’s government will be unable to hold the country by itself? The atrocities are being broadcast to the world, raising the question of war crimes.

Certainly not the neat few months that Russia projected for its participation last fall. Add to that no partnership with the United States and Europe, no recognition as a great power. None of Russia’s objectives achieved, nor likely to be in the near future. On another front, it appears that Russian attempts to hack the American election are being thwarted and publicized so that election officials can take precautions. No clear-cut successes for Russia.

Statements from the Kremlin sound increasingly angry, but anger will not solve Russia’s problems. Stepping back from the fighting, ending the probable war crimes, and working to bring peace to Syria and Ukraine have a better chance. For whatever reason, those are unacceptable to the Kremlin. Suspending the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement is one of the few things left for Putin to signal his anger to the United States. It is encouraging that the Kremlin’s statement said that Russia will not use that plutonium in weapons. It is also encouraging that it was not the New START Treaty the Kremlin repudiated.

The United States and Europe must engage Russia, but Russia’s aggressions make that very difficult.


Photo: Russian President Vladimir Putin, second left, has a meeting in the Russian Armed Forces main operational center in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, June 6, 2013. At right is Chief of the armed forces’ General Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov. and at left is Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu.


  1. The Blog Fodder · October 4, 2016

    “The United States and Europe must engage Russia, but Russia’s aggressions make that very difficult.”
    Disagree. The West needs to STOP sucking up to Putin and ignore him completely other than cranking up sanctions and making life as difficult for the little runt as possible. Engagement merely plays into his hand. When Russia is prepared to come to us, THEN we need to meet him half way.
    Which is why I will never be Foreign Minister


  2. Peace lover · October 4, 2016

    They bombed aid vichale… Is that truth? Stopped reading after that as I can assume what remains next.


  3. tobychev · October 4, 2016

    There is a civil war going on in Syria, that is also treated as a proxy war by the regional powers, so to believe that Russia alone is the only part committing war crimes requires an extraordinary suspension of disbelief for any well informed person. It is not just Assad that kills civilians with reckless shelling, all the armed fractions do, and if Assad and Russia leads the the league it could well be simply because of the ease of attribution when their side only has two factions.

    With this in mind I find the bluster over Russian war crimes quite disingenuous, its a civil war! Atrocities by all sides, committed over and over, will continue until one side is completely crushed. Its a civil WAR. To pretend a civil war can be a clean fight is dangerous folly: when the state collapses as it does in a civil war there is no law but for what those on the ground make for themselves each day, and who know how patient they will be with their enemies tomorrow. The Russians are simply taking part in a civil war, and if they strike a hospital or two by mistake (not that they will admit to making mistakes, granted) that is surely not a bigger crime than fanning the civil war from the sidelines for a few years.

    In any case, Russia’s military tactics in Syria carried out on behalf of the Syrian state seem largely driven by the affairs on the ground in Syria rather than any involved foreign policy. Syria is mostly a classical intervention driven by essentially pragmatical considerations to reach goals different from those of the US, for instance there are no loud Russian demands that the US stop arming of the opposition or force Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to stop their weapons flow to the rebels. Contrast with the case of Ukraine, where Russia “isn’t even taking part”, and Crimea “voted independently” to join the Russian federation in response to a “western neo-nazi coup”. MH17 was shot down “by Ukrainian fighter planes”, the Buk was never there and anyway couldn’t have made that damage, etc etc. Simply put, its actions in Ukraine is part of a larger foreign policy plan aimed at stopping US encroachment on the Russian sphere of influence. It has also been used to build domestic support for Putin using the classic tactic of an outside enemy to rally against, though this is probably just a parallel development, as a suitable confrontation for propaganda purposes could likely have been done much more cheaply.

    I think this view explains why the sanctions and NATO bases show up in their public demands on unrelated and unimportant stuff (nuclear disarmament isn’t a big topic these days, despite its importance in principle), while there isn’t any loud proclamations about Syria in connection to the disarmament.


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