If I order a fresh dish at a seafood restaurant but receive putrid cod, whose fault is it if I then walk out?
This is how to think about President Trump's decision to walk away from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces, or INF, treaty. America is ending the deal, but Russia is to blame for its failure.
Russia has utterly breached its INF treaty obligations, spending years developing an intermediate-range missile system called the "Novator."
The U.S. government has tried to alter Russia's behavior in a way that might allow the treaty to survive. But Russia has responded with distraction, delay, and denial.
In turn, for America to remain in the treaty would be a sign of weakness. It would also endanger the prospect of future diplomatic deals by letting Putin know that he can commit to everything and deliver nothing.
Of course, the central concern here is rightly that of whether America's INF withdrawal will make Russia more dangerous.
I believe it will not. Putin's strategic posture is not defined by an effort to balance American power but rather to outmatch it. That said, Vladimir Putin is a realist. He wants to outmatch America where possible, diminish American power where he cannot outmatch it, and take advantage of geopolitical opportunities wherever they arise.
That's why Russia invaded Syria and Ukraine, why Putin continues to destabilize Western democracies, and why he invests heavily in new and diverse weapons platforms. But most of all, Putin is an aggressive opportunist who takes advantage from Western deference to international norms. And that's exactly what was happening with the INF: Putin retained a pretense of service to American-led international stability while absolutely discrediting it.
But what now?
Well, Putin will simply keep doing what he is doing now. He'll keep seeking out new opportunities to counter America and corral U.S. behavior in ways that favor Russia. But Putin is neither stupid nor wealthy. Unlike some of his Soviet forebearers, Putin knows that he can neither afford nor win an outright arms race with the U.S. Nor, as long as he believes his adversaries will use those weapons, can Putin risk nuclear war with NATO. And that balancing of opportunities and limitations guides Putin to his strategy: challenging America at the edges, while buying time to realign the international order toward Russian favor.
Yes, the Russians are threatening retaliation over Trump's treaty withdrawal. But any new actions Putin takes won't be taken because of that withdrawal, but simply because Vladimir Putin wanted to take them.