The nearly five dozen Tomahawk cruise missiles that the United States fired on Friday night (April 7) at the Syrian Al-Shayrat airbase produced far more political resonance than kinetic impact. Nonetheless, Russian President Vladimir Putin found himself on the receiving end of the shockwave. He was quick to condemn that “act of aggression.” At the emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, the Russian representative elaborated on the “breach of international law”—only to hear from Ambassador Nikki Haley about US readiness to take more “balanced” measures of the same kind and to hold Russia responsible for crimes committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime (Newsru.com, April 7). Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev posted on his Facebook page a vitriolic comment on the Donald Trump administration’s “extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment,” which brought US policy in the Syrian conflict to “the verge of a military clash with Russia” (Interfax, April 7). Yet, no amount of angry rhetoric can camouflage the sharp deterioration of Russia’s international profile and its position in the Middle East.
Bilateral relations with the US have plunged below the worst expectations of Russian discourse-managers and propaganda-pushers. The Russian mainstream media seeks to explain the disappointment away by portraying President Trump as emotionally unstable and frustrated by his domestic setbacks (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 7). Still, the Kremlin dared not go as far as canceling the visit of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to Moscow this Wednesday (April 12), despite the top US diplomat’s unequivocally expressed disappointment in Russia’s inability to rethink its support for al-Assad (Newsru.com, April 7). Of prime importance for Putin was the reaction of China’s President Xi Jinping, who was probably unhappy with the coincidence of the missile strike with his visit to Mar-a-Lago, but opted to stay focused on matters of trade and tariffs (Carnegie.ru, April 7). China does not want any complications in its relations with the US and, in fact, would even welcome Washington’s more active engagement in the Middle East. Thus, Putin cannot expect any backing from Russia’s key strategic partner in escalating the confrontation with Washington (RBC, April 7).
Moscow’s carefully constructed intrigues in the Middle East have suddenly come undone with the single US assertive step. Turkey, which was painstakingly lured to partake in Russian-led “peace” talks in Astana, rushed to express its full support for the punishing cruise missile strike and urged the US to follow them up with additional ones(Gazeta.ru, April 7). Israel is entirely behind the United States, as are Jordan and Saudi Arabia; even Egypt, which Putin carefully cultivated as a potential ally, is now far more interested in developing ties with the US (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 7; Moscow Echo, April 8). Only Tehran has condemned Washington’s “aggression”; but for Moscow, it is highly undesirable to be seen in the Middle East as nothing more than an Iranian ally (RIA Novosti, April 8). While Iran provides greater support for the al-Assad regime, Russia is justly held responsible for the Syrian government’s war crimes—from Aleppo to Khan Sheikhoun. The decision of the United Kingdom’s Foreign Minister Boris Johnson to cancel his planned visit to Moscow this Monday because of the situation in Syria illuminates this international ostracism (RBC, April 8).
What is perhaps more embarrassing for Moscow than political isolation is the suddenly exposed weakness of its military capabilities in Syria. Much was made of the air defense “bubble” covering Syria’s Mediterranean coast, from Latakia to Tartus. But now, the Russian top brass cannot produce any explanation for why the much-advertised S-400 and S-300 surface-to-air missile systems failed to intercept the incoming US cruise missiles (Gazeta.ru, April 7). The Russian defense ministry claims that the impact of the US strike was miniscule because only 23 out of the 59 Tomahawk missiles reached the targeted base. Yet, the credibility of this information is likely no different than the fake news spread by the Syrian propaganda (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 7). Seeking to boost its military posture, Moscow ordered the frigate Admiral Grigorovich to deploy from the Black Sea to the Eastern Mediterranean, but this show of the flag is far from impressive (Rosbalt, April 8). Russia has also suspended the memorandum on flight safety signed with the US in October 2015. Though, in actuality, the Russian air force grouping operating from the Khmeimim base needs this “de-conflicting” mechanism no less than the US forces (RBC, April 7).
The Kremlin declared that Friday’s cruise missile strike played into the hands of terrorists and created obstacles for cooperation in the fight against this threat—again as if the US needs such cooperation more than Russia (Kremlin.ru, April 7). In fact, Russia faces a growing threat of terrorism from multiple directions, and last Monday’s (April 3) explosion in St. Petersburg, which claimed the lives of 14 metro passengers, was just another manifestation of this reality (Fontanka.ru, April 3). Putin, who was visiting the city on that day, was frugal with his emotions and explanations; indeed, the Russian authorities remain in denial of any connection between the intervention in Syria and the escalation of this threat domestically (Ezhednevny Zhurnal, April 4). Such events as the recent attack on a National Guard garrison in Chechnya or the ambush of a police patrol in Astrakhan have also attracted little attention (Kommersant, March 25; TASS, April 6). Russia’s overgrown special services are simply too busy suppressing the new wave of protests to devote sufficient resources to exterminating terrorist networks (Novaya Gazeta, April 4).
The turn of military events in Syria has clearly caught the Russian leadership by surprise. But Moscow was pushed into a tight corner by more than simply Trump’s unpredictability or the emotion-driven change to his anti-interventionist course. Russia has made corruption and fake news into usable tools of state policy, and now is now being treated accordingly—as a co-belligerent in the Syrian conflict and not as a responsible power with a positive agenda. The protracted humanitarian catastrophe in Syria is for Moscow just an opportunity to claim a greater role in the international arena—something it could not accomplish via peace-building. Russia’s experiment in military power projection in the Middle East looks set to backfire, but Putin’s personal ambitions stand in the way of sober risk re-evaluation.