THE list reads like a hostage-taker’s demands. Russia wants America to roll back the expansion of NATO, repeal the Magnitsky Act, end sanctions and pay compensation for Russia’s losses. Until it does, Vladimir Putin declared this week, Russia will stop abiding by an agreement regulating the disposal of plutonium. Russia was forced to act, Mr Putin claimed, because of “the threat to strategic stability posed by America’s hostile actions” (and its failure to deliver on its end of the deal). The move is a reminder that, unlike America, Russia is happy to throw nuclear arguments into the mix when it does not get its way.

The suspension of the Plutonium Management and Disposal Agreement (PMDA) is a message intended not so much for Barack Obama as for his successor. “Russia does not plan to work seriously with America” until a new administration arrives in 2017, says Andrey Kortunov, head of the Russian International Affairs Council. Mr Putin’s demands serve as a “wish list” should the next American president seek to restore the relationship.

Tensions between Russia and America have been building over Syria, where ceasefire efforts have failed and Russian jets continue to pound rebels in Aleppo. On October 3rd, the day Mr Putin issued his decree, American officials announced they were pulling out of talks with Russia over Syria. “Russia failed to live up to its own commitments,” the State Department declared. Since the war in Ukraine, according to Samuel Charap of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a think-tank based in London, Russia and America have managed to protect some islands of co-operation, such as over Iran’s nuclear programme. Now, he says, the tensions have “begun to sweep over those islands”.

Russia’s willingness to invoke its nuclear might for political aims is alarming. A year after annexing Crimea in 2014, the Kremlin announced it could deploy nuclear weapons there. Even before suspending the PMDA, Russia had eroded the spirit of nuclear co-operation that prevailed after the end of the cold war. For the past three years, America has alleged that Russia is in breach of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces treaty (INF) because it has tested a ground-launched cruise missile with prohibited range. Russia has also refused to discuss limits on tactical nuclear weapons, the anticipated follow-up to the New START strategic weapons treaty of 2010. Mr Putin snubbed Mr Obama’s final Nuclear Security Summit earlier this year.

Russia’s complaint that it has observed the PMDA more diligently than America does have some substance. Dogged by delays and rising costs in building a special facility to dispose of its plutonium, Mr Obama has opted for a cheaper method of treatment than the one specified in the agreement. Russia has declined to consent to this, putting America in technical breach of the deal.

To keep the spirit of the agreement, America could press ahead with getting rid of its excess plutonium. Russia says it has no intention of using its stockpile for new warheads. Ridding the world of some of the stuff would make it marginally safer. The danger of suspending the PMDA is not so much in leaving more plutonium about, but in demonstrating that the Kremlin considers nuclear security just another bargaining chip.