Next US President Will Inherit Sinking Ties With Russia
Putin, in the past, has annexed Crimea and destabilised eastern Ukraine and stymied US hopes to oust al-Assad.
Confronted by Russia in Syria, Ukraine and cyberspace, the next US president will be the fourth to face Vladimir Putin and the challenge of deterring a Kremlin often more willing than the White House to take risk and project power.
Over the last four years, the Russian president has annexed Crimea and destabilised eastern Ukraine, stymied US hopes to oust Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and mounted cyber attacks that US officials blame on hackers commanded or orchestrated by Russian intelligence agencies.
In his latest gambit, Putin this week suspended a treaty with Washington on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium.
While the United States has imposed economic sanctions on Russia for its actions in Ukraine, these have yet to force it to calm tensions in eastern Ukraine, let alone surrender Crimea.
Some current and former US officials argue the White House has failed to understand Putin's bitterness about the decade after the Soviet Union collapsed.
Further, they say the United States has little influence over the course of democracy in Russia, or on its willingness to use force in Syria, Ukraine or elsewhere to achieve its ends.
Andrew Weiss of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank argued that the Russian leader was unlikely to change his stripes before Russia's 2018 presidential election "in an atmosphere where Putin's own domestic political fortunes depend on having this external enemy, namely the United States".
No Resistance So Far
A US official suggested Putin, who has yet to tip his hand but is expected to run again, is willing to use force to get his way while the White House, scarred by the US wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, is not.
The United States this week also announced it was suspending talks with Russia on a ceasefire, all but saying the Russian and Syrian assault on Aleppo had made a mockery of the peace effort.
"Where they make a desert, they call it peace," Secretary of State John Kerry said, quoting the Roman historian Tacitus.
US is not considering imposing further sanctions on Russia for now, two US officials said.
Russian Weakness is Real
On Monday, Putin suspended a treaty with Washington on cleaning up weapons-grade plutonium, signalling he is willing to use nuclear disarmament as a new bargaining chip in disputes with the United States.
"If the relationship worsens, either side could be looking to exert leverage or score points in the nuclear arms control realm," said Daryl Kimball of the Arms Control Association.
Another area where the United States is weighing its options is the stealthy war in cyberspace that is already under way with Russia and could escalate as relations worsen. However, the White House has refrained from publicly accusing Russia.
Cold War-like policies, such as using economic sanctions to weaken Russia's economy or deploying NATO troops to the Baltics and Poland in January to deter Russia, may work over time.
"There's no quick fix with the Russians," said one official.
(The article was edited for length)
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