Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg

Russian President Vladimir Putin has presented the world with a conundrum: Why would he help U.S. President Barack Obama by brokering a deal in which Syria gives up its chemical weapons?

At least part of the answer may lie in the lucrative business of destroying chemical stockpiles.

Ever since the Syrian civil conflict began more than two years ago, Putin has acted as a predictable spoiler, using Russia's influence in the United Nations to prop up his longtime ally, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. Hence, to Americans and their allies, there's something fishy about Putin's unexpected lifeline to Obama. Putin's personal relationship with the U.S. president is the worst it has ever been. The two men largely avoided each other at the recent Group of 20 summit, meeting one-on-one for only 20 minutes during a reception.

The obvious hypothesis is that Putin is helping Assad play for time. Syria's chemical disarmament would be hell to administer: The U.S. military has estimated that 75,000 troops would be needed to secure Syria's 40 to 50 chemical weapons sites. The logistical problems could be complicated by the fact that some of the facilities, not all of them located by U.S. intelligence, may have been raided by the rebels fighting the Assad regime. Besides, the rebels could have made their own poison gas, as Scientific American editor George Musser demonstrated by producing sarin at his home from commercially available ingredients.

Putin's angle on Syrian chemical disarmament, however, may be different from mere diplomatic gamesmanship. "We hope," he said, "that our Syrian partners and friends make a responsible decision. That they will not only allow control of their chemical weaponry, but will agree to its subsequent destruction and join the international Chemical Weapons Convention."

Destroying chemicals is a bigger business than one might imagine. Much of the money comes from the U.S., which has been helping a number of countries destroy their arsenals under a program called Cooperative Threat Reduction. In 2006, the cost to the U.S. of destroying Libya's chemical weapons was estimated at $100 million.

When Russia ratified the Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, it found itself holding almost 40,000 tons of toxic agents stored in seven special arsenals. It has since managed to destroy about three-quarters of the stockpile of sarin, soman, phosgene, mustard gas and other poisonous substances, in a project that is expected to cost about $3 billion, partly funded by the Group of Seven industrialized nations. That means it has extensive experience in getting rid of various weapons-grade toxic substances.

Russia has ample competition. The U.S., too, is in the process of chemical disarmament. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle has offered Syria his country's help in destroying chemical weapons. Yet Assad is not likely to pick any of the Western nations to do the work.

Regardless of whether Syria receives international assistance to destroy its weapons, it is solvent enough to be one of Russia's biggest arms clients. In recent months, it has reportedly stepped up payments on outstanding contracts, hoping to secure Moscow's support. If Putin manages to keep the U.S. out of Syria and Assad agrees to destroy chemical weapons, Putin may expect his "partner and friend" to deliver the business.

(Leonid Bershidsky, an editor and novelist, is a Bloomberg View contributor. Follow him on Twitter.)