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Top Foreign Relations Dem: Russia 'Not a Partner for Peace,' Policy Must Change

Secretary of State John Kerry chats with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Feb. 11, 2016, at the Hilton Hotel in Munich, Germany, before a meeting of the International Syria Support Group. (State Department photo)

WASHINGTON — The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee said it’s past time to recognize that “through its words and deeds, it appears Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not a partner for peace.”

“Russia clearly has no interest in counterterrorism cooperation, humanitarian relief, or political progress in Syria, evidenced by their direct and indirect actions that have killed civilians and humanitarian aid workers, destroyed hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure, and enabled the Assad regime to pursue a course of action that will only deepen the lines of conflict in Syria,” Ranking Member Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said in a statement Wednesday. “Putin has also gone a step further and suspended Russia’s participation in the U.S.-Russia Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement, which has helped both countries reduce weapons-grade plutonium.”

Cardin said he “welcomed” Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement last month about the latest ceasefire attempt negotiated with Russia in Syria, “but voiced skepticism about Russia’s willingness and capability to uphold its obligations for a Cessation of Hostilities.”

“Taking stock of their actions over the last month, my skepticism was well-founded,” the leading Dem added. “Secretary Kerry is to be commended for his tireless pursuit of political and humanitarian solutions to create the space for peace, but now the United States must revisit its overall approach to Russia.”

“If Russia seeks any semblance of credible leadership on the world stage, it should first abide by its commitments. Unfortunately, its actions in Syria and with respect to the plutonium agreement indicate little regard for constructive engagement with the international community. There should be consequences for Russia’s actions,” Cardin continued, stressing Congress should do its part “to hold Russia accountable for its repeated violations of international law and human rights, including their attacks on our democratic institutions in the United States.”

Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this week decided to suspend talks with Russia over Syria — something the State Department said was “not a decision that was taken lightly.”

State Department spokesman Mark Toner told reporters Wednesday, though, that Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov had just chatted about Syria again that day.

“Engagement remains – so what we talked about the other day was bilateral engagement with regard to Syria. That remains suspended, but it certainly doesn’t preclude the two foreign – the two – well, the secretary of State and Foreign Minister Lavrov from talking,” Toner explained.

“Well, what did they do, then? Yell at each other?” a reporter asked.

“Well, not at all. But look, first of all, it would be irresponsible for us, given what’s happening in Aleppo, not to touch base with Foreign Minister Lavrov periodically,” Toner replied, adding the conversation “also touched on Ukraine and North Korea” while “what happened the other day, the suspension, had to do with that particular bilateral cooperation that we had thought we had reached a conclusion on on September 10th in Geneva.”

According to new State Department data on the New START treaty, Russia reported having 1,796 nuclear warheads on hand — 214 more than March 2015.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) noted that the Obama administration hailed New START “as the ‘cornerstone’ of its efforts to ‘reset’ our relations with Russia.”

“This latest development is further evidence of what this ‘reset’ actually is— a mistake and a failure,” Thornberry said. “The numbers are clear: while we cut our U.S. nuclear forces, the Russians have built more. This is on top of Russia’s massive 10-to-1 advantage in tactical nuclear weapons, multiple violations of the INF Treaty, continued aggression in Syria and Ukraine, and its suspension of the Plutonium Management and Disposition Agreement (PMDA).”

“In its rush to the exits, the Obama Administration must not compound these failures by changing nuclear policy.” the chairman added. “Doing so would be a cause for concern among allies and celebration in the Kremlin.”