Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday threatened to walk away from a long-standing plutonium disposal agreement with the United States. He submitted a bill to the Russian Duma that would withdraw Russia from a treaty first signed in 2000, but expanded upon in 2006 and 2010.
Putin justifed Russia’s withdrawing by pointing to “a core change of circumstances, arising from: a threat to strategic stability, resulting from the unfriendly actions of the United States towards Russia; the inability of the U.S. to live up to its responsibilities under international agreements for properly disposing of excess plutonium; and with the need for urgent measures to be undertaken to defend the Russian Federation”.
But the three preconditions for the resumption of the agreement listed in Putin’s bill are more telling: 1) the United States must repeal the Magnitsky Act; 2) the United States must abolish all sanctions in place against all Russian citizens and organization currently in place; and 3) the United States must pay for the damages incurred by the Russian Federation as a result of the aforementioned sanctions, including any costs born from counter-sanctions the Russian Federation was forced to undertake.
Trying to so brazenly blackmail a counter-party by threatening to walk away from a treaty speaks volumes about the way Putin sees the world. Needless to say, the plutonium agreement, which was signed and ratified by the Russian Duma, contains no provisions for simply pausing its implementation, by act of President or otherwise. As clauses 2 and 3 of Article XIII of the Agreement state:
- This Agreement may only be amended by written agreement of the Parties, except that the Annex on Key Program Elements may be updated as specified in paragraph 5 of that Annex.
- This Agreement shall terminate on the date the Parties exchange notes confirming that thirty- four (34) metric tons of disposition plutonium have been disposed by each Party in accordance with this Agreement, unless terminated earlier by written agreement of the Parties.
This is not the first time that Moscow has tried to bully Washington over sanctions relief. Just over a year ago, Vladimir Putin addressed the United Nations General Assembly, and met with U.S. President Barack Obama. In his speech, Putin presented Russia as a vital peacemaker in the Middle East, and the key to effectively combating ISIS. He also bitterly complained about “unilateral” use of sanctions, in contravention to the UN charter.
If the linkage was not clear enough in the speech (and whatever was said personally to Obama), the Kremlin was good at following up. Several messengers from Moscow have passed through Washington in the intervening months to lobby the White House, arguing that effective anti-terrorism cooperation between the two countries is impossible while sanctions are in place.
Moscow has tried other tacks as well. As we reported at the time, Andrey Kostin, the CEO of the sanctioned bank VTB and a close ally of Putin, visited Washington in June and met with both White House and the Congressional officials. Kostin tried to intimate that there was a gulf between apolitical businessmen like him, who did not necessarily support Kremlin policies, and the leadership atop the Power Vertical. He even tried out the argument that VTB runs businesses in Ukraine and that releasing the bank from sanctions would in effect mean helping Ukraine.
And of course, there was the infamous adoption ban on Russian orphans, imposed on Americans in response to the Magnitsky Act. The Magnitsky Act placed financial and visa restrictions on a number of Russian officials involved in the death of Hermitage Capital’s lawyer Sergey Magnitsky, who perished in jail after being arrested for investigating the theft of $230 million from the Russian tax budget. In response, Putin issued his deeply cruel and cynical law—and just like the counter-sanctions that Putin wants the United States to reimburse him for, it disproportionately affected Russians rather than Westerners.
Russia-watchers have linked Putin’s plutonium blackmail to the United States’ decision to stop negotiating over Syria, but it is probably more complicated than that. Putin’s bill was out the door hours after the U.S. announced its decision, which suggests that it had been written ahead of time. The U.S. announcement may have been the triggering event, but last week’s Dutch report on the MH17 report, which offered substantial proof tying Russia to the tragedy, made the likelihood of sanctions being renewed ever more likely. And sanctions relief is clearly what the plutonium gambit is all about.
However, a dilemma of sorts still exists for policymakers—let’s call it the “rat dilemma”. One of the supposedly candid interviews with Putin which collectively make up his heavily-managed semi-autobiography First Person includes the following anecdote:
There, on that stair landing, I got a quick and lasting lesson in the meaning of the word cornered. There were hordes of rats in the front entryway. My friends and I used to chase them around with sticks. Once I spotted a huge rat and pursued it down the hall until I drove it into a corner. It had nowhere to run. Suddenly it lashed around and threw itself at me. I was surprised and frightened. Now the rat was chasing me. It jumped across the landing and down the stairs. Luckily, I was a little faster and managed to slam the door shut in its nose.
Many experts today cite the rat story, and keep asking themselves what exactly a cornered Putin is capable of. Would he resort to nuclear weapons? Of course, the fact that no one can ever be sure is precisely the point—and why the the story was included in the biography in the first place. (Putin is far from the first person in the history of strategy to hit on this tactic. His most recent predecessors were Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger.)
In our view, Putin is not irrational. Indeed, his obsession with sanctions betrays a love of power and material wealth that trumps any higher national feeling. But perhaps we should take a lesson from his rat anecdote, and instead of running away from someone who is merely trying to scare us away, we should stand our ground and fight back. Putin is apparently incapable of speaking the language of international norms and the rule of law.