Kremlin huffs and puffs over Syria but won’t blow the house down

The spat won’t sabotage US-Russia ties, but it will help Trump show he’s not ‘Putin’s man’

Russian President Vladimir Putin:  “This step by Washington will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties,” the Kremlin said in a statement. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin: “This step by Washington will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties,” the Kremlin said in a statement. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/Reuters

 

Russia unleashed a wave of vitriol and scaled back contact with the Pentagon after a US missile strike on a Syrian air base, but the row will not have wrecked Kremlin hopes of a rapprochement with the White House of Donald Trump.

US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is still due to visit Moscow next week, and in the longer term the dispute could even help Trump build bridges with the Kremlin, by helping him rebuff domestic suspicions that he is somehow “Russia’s man”.

Whatever the true depth of Moscow’s role in Trump’s election victory last year, neither he nor Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin will want Syria and the fate of its leader Bashar al-Assad to torpedo their efforts to repair East-West ties.

With that main prize in mind, Russia’s furious verbal reaction to the US missile strike could also partly be intended to mute, at least for a while, feverish US speculation over links between Trump’s inner circle and Moscow.

“President Putin views the US strikes on Syria as aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and on an invented pretext,” the Kremlin said in a statement.

“This step by Washington will inflict major damage on US-Russia ties.”

Well protected

Russia’s military insisted that its forces in Syria were well protected by advanced air-defence systems, and it derided the effectiveness of the US Tomahawk cruise missiles, saying that only 23 of 59 rockets fired had found their targets.

The defence ministry in Moscow also announced the suspension of a hotline with the US military that was used to avoid incidents between the two countries’ warplanes while operating over Syria.

Russian deputies and senators lined up to denounce the US attack

Russian deputies and senators lined up to denounce the US attack and cast doubt on Trump’s intentions towards Moscow – but that is standard practice in the Kremlin-controlled parliament, and affords Putin the freedom to take a similarly tough line or to adopt a more moderate, conciliatory stance.

“One way or another, Russian cruise missiles continue to strike at terrorists, while American ones [hit] government forces that are leading the war against terrorists,” said Konstantin Kosachyov, head of the international affairs council in Russia’s upper house of parliament.

“I’m afraid that with such attitudes, the desired Russian-American anti-terrorist coalition in Syria, about which so much was said after Trump came to power, hasn’t come to pass . . . And everything started so well. What a pity.”

Russian prime minister Dmitry Medvedev went further, saying the US missile strike “bordered on a military clash with Russia”.

Softer tone

Kosachyov’s counterpart in Russia’s lower house of parliament struck a softer tone, however, and looked ahead to Tillerson’s forthcoming visit – a line that is likely to prevail in the coming days.

“I don’t think this can affect Tillerson’s visit; dialogue should be established,” Leonid Slutsky said.

The spat will not erase questions over Trump’s relationship with Russia

“Tillerson should be welcomed and we should try to exchange views, and lead Washington to common sense. That’s much wiser than closing oneself away behind walls.”

The spat will not erase questions over Trump’s relationship with Russia, but it will allow Tillerson to fly to Moscow next Wednesday in an atmosphere that feels more familiar for such visits – not as a messenger from an allegedly pro-Kremlin US leader, but as a defender of Washington’s strong positions on international issues.

If the row helps Trump stabilise his position at home, and create a strong base from which he really can act to improve US-Russia ties, then the Kremlin will consider this to have been a price well worth paying – especially as it was paid in Syrian lives and warplanes, and Russian troops and hardware were unscathed.