U.S.-Russia Ties Crumble Under Weight of Syria, Nuclear Pact

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A digger removes the rubble of destroyed buildings on Oct. 3, 2016, following reported air strikes in the rebel-held town of Douma, on the eastern outskirts of the capital Damascus.

  • ‘Everybody’s patience with Russia has run out,’ Earnest says
  • Putin decree on arms treaty cites U.S. threats to ‘stability’

Ties between Russia and the U.S. deteriorated further after the Obama administration proclaimed bilateral peace talks over Syria dead and Moscow suspended a 16-year-old treaty meant to reduce the risk of nuclear proliferation.

“Everybody’s patience with Russia has run out,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said in Washington on Monday, blaming Vladimir Putin’s government for undermining the fight against Islamic State and for indiscriminate bombing that has killed civilians and targeted hospitals in Syria. “Russians have been complicit” in the Syrian tragedy, Earnest said, and “there is nothing more for the United States and Russia to talk about.”

QuickTake Syria's Civil War

The U.S. announced Monday it was withdrawing personnel who had been dispatched to the Middle East in anticipation that a Syrian cease-fire deal reached Sept. 9 would go into effect, a move that would have paved the way toward greater coordination between the U.S. and Russian militaries. That followed Putin’s decision earlier in the day to withdraw from a 2000 accord that committed both countries to eliminating stockpiles of plutonium used as the core material in some types of nuclear weapons.

‘Forced Measure’

While Washington’s decision causes “deep disappointment,” the U.S. never fulfilled a commitment to separate moderate Syrian rebels from terrorist groups, the Russian Foreign Ministry said in a website statement late Monday. “We urge the U.S. to assess the situation once more in light of how their actions appear before the world. The stakes are very high.”

Halting the plutonium pact is a “forced measure,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said, according to the ministry’s website. Russia viewed the treaty as an “important step” toward nuclear disarmament, he said. Putin’s decree accused the U.S. of “unfriendly” actions that posed a “threat to strategic stability.”

The U.S. said it remains committed to the agreement and disputed Lavrov’s statement.

“We believe it’s in the best interest of both the United States and Russia as part of our efforts to secure nuclear materials and combat nuclear terrorism,” State Department spokeswoman Elizabeth Trudeau told reporters Monday. The U.S. “seeks a constructive dialogue with Russia on strategic issues, but it is Russia instead who continues to engage in destabilizing activities and to suspend cooperation under existing agreements, like this one, that benefit international security.”

‘Militants Regrouped’

Moscow has blamed the U.S.-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization for stoking confrontation as it builds up forces in Eastern Europe, and it accused Washington of supporting Islamic State forces after its bombing of Syrian troops last month, an attack which the U.S. said was an accident. Russia also repeatedly said the U.S. proved unable to separate the “moderate” rebels it backs from terrorist-led groups such as al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

“The U.S. doesn’t implement agreements” on Syria and then tries “to shift responsibilities to others,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova told state TV. “In the meantime, the militants regrouped, got weapons, and mobilized resources due to the inactivity of Washington.”

Secretary of State John Kerry’s top deputy, Antony Blinken, went to Capitol Hill last week to tell senators that the government was coming up with possible new responses to the failed cease-fire in Syria, though he didn’t say what they might be.

All Blinken would say was that the administration has asked government agencies to “put forward options, some familiar, some new.”

‘Reset’ in Relations

It’s been more than seven years since the Obama administration sought a “reset” in relations between the two former Cold War rivals. Strained by Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and allegations that Moscow is behind a wave of political hacking attacks in the U.S., the deteriorating ties could undermine other areas the two countries have coordinated on to resolve global tensions, including sanctions on North Korea and Iran over those nations’ nuclear programs.

“Russian relations with the U.S. have been awful for the past two years and today’s developments are a manifestation of that,” said Olga Oliker, director of the Russia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Russia “was never a big fan” of the plutonium pact, so it sees little cost in suspending the agreement, she added.

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