The April 14 coordinated missile attack by the United States, the United Kingdom and France, targeting Bashar al-Assad’s chemical weapons facilities, has been met in Moscow with a bout of acute anti-US anger mixed with proclamations of utter Western military failure and ineptitude. The Russian state-run propaganda machine, backed by official statements has claimed the toxic gas attack in the town Douma in the East Ghouta suburb of Damascus on April 7—which the international community attributed to the al-Assad regime—was a “provocation,” deliberately staged to create a pretext for a Western intervention to harm the Syrian government and Russian interests. According to the United Nation’s World Health Organization (WHO), some 500 Syrians were the victims of the attack in Douma, and 46 have reportedly perished. Russian officials and propaganda outlets angrily denied this ever happened and blamed the Syrian opposition for “staging” the incident under orders from abroad (RBC, April 12).
According to Russia’s permanent representative to the UN, Vasily Nebenzya, the “Douma chemical incident” on April 7, and the Salisbury, England, “incident” on March 4, in which former Russian military intelligence colonel Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were allegedly poisoned by a nerve agent known as “Novichok” (secretly developed in the Soviet Union), are interconnected. Nebenzya, speaking in an official capacity at a session of the UN Security Council, in New York, classified both the Douma and Salisbury “chemical incidents” as anti-Russian provocations. According to Nebenzya, both “untidy provocations” were organized by the UK in an attempt to “insert a wedge between Russia and the [European Union” to improve London’s dismal situation caused by Brexit (Militarynews.ru, April 19).
In the aftermath of the US-led missile attack on April 14, no casualties were reported and no Russian installations or personnel were anywhere close to the target areas. All US, French and British planes and ships involved in the attack returned safely to base. The Syrian authorities were apparently given prior notice about the possible strike targets and evacuated men and equipment out of harm’s way (Militarynews.ru, April 14). Both Moscow and Washington have successfully minimized the risk of the limited airstrike growing into something much worse: a direct US-Russian armed clash with possible mutual casualties and the potential to escalate into a regional conflict or possibly even a global war.
The limited “one-time” nature of the US-led strike came as a relief to all sides; both the East and West were quick to declare victory. In Damascus, there were street celebrations the next morning, based on false reports that the Syrian air defenses allegedly shot down 71 incoming missiles. The Russian military in Syria was on high alert based on the Western coalition’s prior warning of the impending attack, and it closely coordinated its activities with the Syrian air defenses. The encounter was declared a victory for the Russian weaponry that were supplied to the Syrians and their crews, who had been coached by Russian specialists. The Pentagon, in turn, declared the mission a success, declaring that all 105 launched missiles had hit their targets, while the Syrian interceptors allegedly were fired into thin air after the attacking cruise missiles already flew by (Kommersant, April 16).
Both sides agree that three facilities designated by the coalition as targets were hit during the April 14 attack; but to add substance to its claim of overall success, the Russian defense ministry added seven other Syrian airbases as purported additional targets of the coalition attack. Colorful charts were used at a briefing in Moscow to demonstrate how effective the Russian-organized Syrian defenses were. According to the Russian side, 113 interceptors were allegedly fired to shoot down 71 attacking missiles, thus, supposedly, utterly foiling the coalition attacks on the seven Syrian airbases—which, according to the Pentagon, were not actually under attack (Mil.ru, April 16). According to Syrian military sources, two US cruise missiles failed to hit their targets and did not detonate; they were allegedly collected by the Syrian military and flown to Russia for inspection (TASS, April 19). The Russian military will surely be glad to closely examine these so-called “smart” US missiles. Though if they are regular Tomahawks, this will not be so interesting since the Russian military reportedly already has a good collection of those; but the newest AGM-158 JASSM, fired in anger for the first time, on April 14, at Syria by B-1B bombers, could be of great potential intelligence value (Vz.ru, April 19).
The performance of the Syrian air defenses were “fantastic” pro-Kremlin commentators have proclaimed, while, according to them, the Western missile attack not only failed militarily, but also demonstrated US weakness and decadence. Washington was too frightened by a possible Russian response to mount a meaningful attack and improvised a fake one instead. This, in turn, has put Russia into an even more favorable position to begin forming a grand anti-US coalition with China and Iran, and possibly some breakaway European dissident countries, these commentators argue (Vz.ru, April 19).
According to the director of the foreign ministry nonproliferation department, Vladimir Ermakov, Russia, through its own efforts and US folly, has achieved global military supremacy and may rebuff any US pressure. “American dreams of domination have been blown to pieces,” continued Ermakov, “They better begin negotiating in earnest as early as possible before it is too late.” As the United States becomes weaker militarily, Russia grows stronger and may lose interest in negotiating. Arms control is seriously undermined, asserted Ermakov, who is Russia’s main arms-control negotiator. The most basic treaties forbidding biological and chemical warfare and nuclear nonproliferation have been undermined. The US is refusing to accept the new “polycentric” world order and is crazily using sanctions and armed actions in a failed attempt to prolong its domination, he stated. “The arms race is a reality undermining international stability,” Ermakov went on, adding, “The INF [Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces] treaty is under threat, and Russia will not agree to prolong the New START treaty that expires in 2021, if the US does not return to full compliance” (TASS, April 15).
Moscow may be ready to negotiate with Washington, but it clearly wants to do it from a position of strength and on its own terms. Any meaningful Russian concessions cannot be expected without serious Western ones in return: And what Moscow wants is a new world order in which Russia will be an equal to the West and lawfully occupy a significant chunk of Eurasia beyond its own borders.