Putin and Obama at Daggers Drawn Over Aleppo

A medic holds a dead child after airstrikes in the rebel-held Karam Houmid neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria, on October 4. Maxim Trudolyubov writes that failure to maintain a cease-fire in Syria has tripped a total breakdown in U.S.-Russian relations. Abdalrhman Ismail/reuters

This article first appeared on the Kennan Institute site.

Last Monday, October 3, was a fateful day for U.S.-Russia relations. Both sides told each other that they had nothing more to talk about in Syria.

President Vladimir Putin that same day made history by drafting a law that read like a dark joke about the two countries' state of mutual respect.

The Kremlin submitted a draft law to parliament ending Russia's participation in a treaty that had both Russia and the U.S. disposing of their stockpiles of weapons-grade plutonium. The bill also includes a list of mostly impossible conditions under which Moscow would reinstate its adherence to the treaty.

The document is a litany of issues Moscow has complained about for years: NATO expansion, the Magnitsky Act, Western support for Ukraine, sanctions.

The draft law essentially says Russia would come back to the plutonium deal only after the U.S. had repealed all of the "offensive" legislation and scaled down its military presence in Eastern Europe.

In a separate but almost simultaneous move, the Obama administration said it had quit the negotiating process with Russia over the cessation of hostilities in Syria.

The U.S. blamed Moscow for not living up to previous commitments and said there was nothing more for the U.S. and Russia to talk about regarding Syria. Moscow reciprocated by saying that "Washington simply did not fulfill the key condition of the agreement to improve the humanitarian condition around Aleppo," according to Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Meanwhile, the terrible violence of the past week only intensified over the weekend, with the Syrian pro-government forces reportedly targeting the one remaining hospital in eastern Aleppo and the city's infrastructure. Up to 275,000 people are reported by the U.N. to be under siege in the rebel-held neighborhoods.

"Indiscriminate bombing and shelling continues in a shocking and unrelenting manner, killing and maiming civilians, subjecting them to a level of savagery that no human should have to endure," Stephen O'Brien, head of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said in a statement issued on Sunday.

As soon as the U.S.-Russia-brokered cease-fire agreement collapsed about two weeks ago, Assad's army, supported by the Russian air force, intensified its bombing campaign and artillery shelling of the besieged areas. The Syrian government prevents humanitarian aid from getting to Aleppo, saying that this is how the rebels get arms and ammunition.

The result is a bloody stalemate in which neither side is prepared to compromise and no force on the ground is overwhelming enough to claim victory and thus end the carnage. Eastern Aleppo is facing defeat by slow attrition if no political agreement is reached.

Moscow and Washington, meanwhile, are as far apart on Syria as ever. The two powers do not just think differently about Syria. Their commitments are divergent in one very basic sense: While Russia's position is backed by force, the American position effectively is not.

During a recent private meeting with U.S.-supported Syrian opposition groups, John Kerry, the U.S. secretary of state, admitted his frustration at not being able to persuade Washington to intervene in the conflict more forcefully.

"You have to fight for us, but we will not fight for you," one of the participants in the meeting was reported as describing what he had heard from the U.S. side. The New York Times, which obtained a recording of the meeting, said the meeting took place in New York days after the short-lived cease-fire.

With no credible threat behind U.S. calls for stopping the violence, U.S. officials tried persuasion. But the State Department's spokesman's line of reasoning was not very productive either. John Kirby said last week that if Russia did not stop bombing Aleppo, the civil war would continue, terrorist attacks against Russian interests would continue and Russia would "continue to send troops home in body bags."

"We cannot interpret this as anything other than the current U.S. administration's de facto support for terrorism," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted by Russian news agencies as responding.

The U.S. displayed "a nervous reaction due to the wrong strategy the Americans have chosen in the Middle East," Zakharova said.

The U.S.-Russian diplomatic exchange on Syria is said to have continued, despite the harsh wording of Russian statements and threats by the U.S. to suspend bilateral engagement with Russia over Syria.

Assad's forces will not withdraw from Aleppo, because occupying the entire city is a key part of the puzzle from the regime's viewpoint. It opens the path to northern Syria, which means being able to secure the border with Turkey.

"The U.S. has accepted that Assad's forces have a slight edge over the rebels. This is why they have intensified their rhetoric, to show their commitment and mobilize public opinion. But the truth is the U.S. is bluffing and can do nothing against Russia," Andrei Baklanov, Russia's former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told Vedomosti recently.

But achieving Russia's goal of claiming a victory in Syria will not be easy, even in the face of U.S. reluctance to intervene. "Taking Aleppo is possible, but it is only possible by razing it to the ground," Alexei Arbatov, Russia's preeminent international relations expert, told Vedomosti. Moscow has chosen to stay the course and strive for victory at all costs, because winners take all and do not have to explain themselves or be judged by anyone.

This understanding might be the reason behind Vladimir Putin's plutonium legislation, which sounds like a provocative and desperate missive rather than a document meant to be complied with. The Kremlin seems to be inviting more tension rather than signaling a possible mitigation.

Maxim Trudolyubov is senior fellow with the Kennan Institute and editor-at-large with Vedomosti.