Moscow plays down US threat but Syria crisis hits Russian pockets
Analysts believe direct military conflict unlikely but sanctions hitting value of rouble
Visitors walk through Red Square in Moscow, Russia. Russian carmakers and electronic retailers warned on Thursday that currency woes would force them to increase prices. Photograph: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg
Kremlin-controlled television moved swiftly to reassure viewers after Donald Trump warned Russia to prepare for a US missile strike on its ally Syria over the suspected chemical weapons attack near Damascus at the weekend.
Russia had been in contact “round the clock” with the Syrian government, the US military and Nato through Turkish intermediaries for the past three days aiming to defuse the crisis, Gen Vladimir Shamanov, the head of the Russian parliament’s defence committee, told the Rossiya 1’s Vesti evening news show on Wednesday. “All people can live peacefully and focus on their own affairs,” he said.
A string of seemingly contradictory tweets issued by Trump over the suspected deadly poison gas attack at the city of Douma in Syria’s eastern Ghouta region last weekend sparked first panic then confusion in Russia where, as Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov remarked, officials do not “engage in tweet diplomacy”.
Russia has denied that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has a record of deploying chemical weaponry against his people, was responsible for the atrocity. US defence officials admit that further investigation is needed before assigning blame. However, Trump was keeping all options open on Thursday, tweeting that a US attack on Syria “could be very soon or not so soon at all”.
A direct military conflict between Russia and the US in Syria is unlikely to happen because “neither side wants it”, Alexander Taratuta, a Russian journalist and expert on US affairs, told Echo Moskvy radio. However, the US president’s unpredictable utterances raised questions about whether “it was possible to take Trump seriously”, he said.
On one hand the barrage of tweets emanating from the White House could be interpreted as a tactic to raise the stakes and then back down and invite Russia to reconciliatory talks. On the other, Trump’s bellicose warnings had probably eliminated the last vestige of hope that the US president might deliver on his earlier promises to mend US-Russian ties.
Russia’s defence ministry flagged the success of Syrian government forces in asserting full control over eastern Ghouta on Thursday after a fierce offensive against rebels in recent weeks. Russian military police had overseen a massive evacuation of citizens from Douma at the weekend and were now taking care of security in the city, news agency Ria Novosti reported.
Even if the US went through with its threat to punish Assad for the alleged attack, there was no risk of war breaking out between Russia and the US in the region, analyst Pavel Zolotarev told Dozhd, an independent TV station, on Thursday. Zolotarev is the deputy director of the Institute of the US and Canadian Studies, a think-tank affiliated with the Russian Academy of Sciences.
Russia’s defence ministry would only retaliate against the US if Russian servicemen or infrastructure were hit, he said. Even in this case, Russian action would be limited to anti-ballistic strikes or attacks on the launch sites of US weapons.
Most Russian commentators agree that the US will pick a peripheral target when punishing Assad for the chemical attack and will warn Russia before launching the offensive. A precedent for a relatively lenient “vegetarian scenario” was set in April 2017 when the US, answering a chemical attack by Assad at Khan Sheikhoun, fired cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in Homs province, Alexander Goltz, a Russian military expert, told Dozhd TV. The point of the US response would be to deliver Assad a “demonstrative flogging”, he said.
Gen Shamanov told Rossiya TV that the row over the alleged chemicals attack in Douma had demonstrated the lack of unity among the US western allies, with both France and the UK hesitating to join an effort to retaliate against Assad. “Trump has shown prudence and we are not experiencing any anxiety at present,” he said.
However, escalating tensions over Syria, coming as the US piles sanctions on Russia over Ukraine, Syria and the poisoning of Sergei Skripal in the UK, have added to pressure on Russia’s rouble, which has lost 10 per cent of its value in the past week.
Russian carmakers and electronic retailers warned on Thursday that currency woes would force them to increase prices. One way or another the Syria crisis is going to weigh on ordinary Russians’ pockets.