Human Rights Opinion

Opinion: Russia-U.S. ties won’t improve until the Syria crisis is resolved

Photo by Pete Souza.
Written by Kevin Biggs

Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. and Russia have carefully maneuvered around one another on the international stage, but recent developments amidst the Syrian civil war show a shaky relationship about to lose its balance.

On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that “as a result of unfriendly actions” Russia has suspended its agreement with the U.S. to safely dispose of no less than 34 tons of weapons-grade plutonium, a major component in the building of nuclear weapons.

The disposal of plutonium started with a deal forged by then-Vice President Al Gore and then-Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Kasyanov in 2000 and was updated and reconfirmed in 2010. Each country was to dispose of the surplus plutonium they had in order to delay the buildup of nuclear weapons.

The polarity between the two nations was easing due to their mutual disarmament – we were heading in the right direction. Now, all amiability is gone, and there is a clear culprit for the diminishing relationship between Russia and the U.S.: the Syrian Crisis. The Syrian civil war has been raging for five years now, and despite recent attempts at a ceasefire in Aleppo, the epicenter of the destruction, there seems to be no end in sight.

The ceasefire failed after alleged Russian airstrikes bombed the convoys meant to supply aid to the Syrians trapped in Aleppo, but Russia has repeatedly denied involvement. Thus, Aleppo is getting hit harder than ever, and the proxy war between Russia and the U.S. continues.

Russia arguably has more at stake in this war than the U.S. Syria has been an ally of Russia since Cold War times, and Russia is Syria’s main arms supplier. The two nations have had an amicable relationship for years now, and it makes sense that Russia wouldn’t want to lose an ally and its last stronghold of influence in the Middle East.

If Syria’s government had collapsed five years ago, it would have been a toss up for a world power to swoop in and push its own agenda or nurture its own interests. That’s just how international politics works; in this case, the motives for Russian and U.S. involvement are evident.

Russia wants to maintain their alliance and influence in the Middle East. Ever since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, tensions have risen with NATO. Russia has accused NATO of being militarily provocative over the past few years, while sanctions from NATO countries have had crippling effects on Russia’s economy. One could guess that that’s the reason why Russia invaded Ukraine in the first place – to prevent it from joining NATO. This could also be happening with Syria. It seems Russia doesn’t want Syria to become Westernized.

Meanwhile, the U.S only got involved once Assad’s regime used chemical weapons on its citizens. It seemingly joined for humanitarian purposes, but it’s rare that a country enters into all the expense of a war without ulterior motives; therefore, the U.S. very well may be trying to westernize Syria.

There’s more at stake in this war than the future of Syria, the future of international stability is potentially under threat. Each side is competing for diplomatic advantages; however, Russia withdrawing from 16-year agreement committed to nuclear disarmament is a small step down a dangerous path. To make matters worse, the U.S. announced that it plans to cease all peace talks with Russia over the violence in Syria, which means that the situation isn’t likely to improve and could always grow worse.

Although Russia and the U.S. have been at odds in the past, they have successfully negotiated to create peace in Syria, even though it was short lived. Both nations must cooperate and refrain from provocative actions in order to keep the international system balanced and promote peace when dealing with international conflict.  

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Kevin Biggs

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