For a week following the April 7 chemical attack in Douma (a suburb or Damascus, Syria), Russia was high-strung with anxiety about the United States’ forthcoming punishment of the Bashar al-Assad regime. Moscow issued every kind of denial that a crime had actually been committed, but nobody expected that argument to dissuade Washington, or even Paris, from delivering a forceful military response (Rossiiskaya Gazeta, April 13). Indeed, denials of responsibility for a long series of botched “hybrid” operations—from the shoot-down of the MH17 flight over Donbas in summer 2014 to the attempted murder of “traitor” Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, in Salisbury, UK, last month—have become a trademark feature of Russian diplomacy. US President Donald Trump dismissed the denials and held Russia responsible for supporting “animal Assad.” Consequently, the anxiety in Moscow centered on the possibility of strikes on Russian assets or advisors (Gazeta.ru, April 12). The limited character of the actual strike in the early hours of last Saturday, April 14 (local time), was greeted with a deep sigh of relief (Nezavisimaya Gazeta, April 14).
In retrospect, the long pause taken by Washington before hitting several military bases and chemical labs in Damascus and Homs with some 105 cruise and air-to-surface missiles (together with the British and French air forces) was a sound tactical move (Kommersant, April 14). It allowed the panic in the Kremlin, which could have made decision-making as chaotic as it was during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, to dissipate (New Times, April 10). While “patriotic” commentators speculated about possible US targets for Russian counter-strikes, the military commanders quietly sorted out the options and risks via the well-established deconfliction channels (Gazeta.ru, April 10). Russian strikes on US missile platforms were never a realistic option, despite rhetoric to the contrary coming from the Russian ambassador to Tunisia, who probably thought his remarks were a good career move (Moskovsky Komsomolets, April 11). The top brass, in contrast, remained muted: Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov refrained from any threats, despite a month ago suggesting the possibility of a counter-strike on US platforms if the headquarters in Damascus where Russian advisors worked were ever hit. Even such easy targets as the rebel forces backed by US were spared Gerasimov’s tongue lashing (Novaya Gazeta, April 13).
President Vladimir Putin used the pause to engage in some diplomatic exchanges, which had neither the feeling of urgency nor any chance for success. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan advised about minimizing tensions and warned of his readiness to welcome US strikes (RBC, April 12). On the other hand, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu deflected criticism of earlier (April 9) Israeli strikes and made it clear that, for his government, the consolidation of Iran’s position and influence in Syria was unacceptable (RIA Novosti, April 11). Moscow has had to carefully calculate the pluses and minuses of upgrading its strategic partnership with Tehran, which carries the main burden of support for al-Assad’s regime (Russiancouncil.ru, April 9). In fact, if there was any surprise about the US strike on Syria, it was the caution with which Washington avoided targeting any Iranian assets; many Russian experts interpreted the arrival of US National Security Advisor John Bolton as a sure sign of a forthcoming US clash with Iran (Republic.ru, March 26).
Putin issued a short statement condemning the “aggressive act against a sovereign state,” which essentially meant Russia was not going to take any steps to support al-Assad except for calling a predictably useless meeting of the UN Security Council (Kremlin.ru, April 14). Moscow had every reason to assume that the Syrian regime would easily absorb the damage from the limited strike, provided it is not followed-up with more forceful moves, which Trump had allegedly considered and even preferred (Newsru.com, April 14). The main assumption in the Kremlin is probably that the strike is not part of a broader US strategy for Syria and that nothing resembling a coherent strategy is even in the making (TASS, April 14). This logic conveniently removes the need for Russia to respond to what Moscow’s ambassador to the US, Anatoly Antonov, described as an “unacceptable and inadmissible” insult to the Russian president (RBC, April 14). It does not, however, remove the need to formulate Russia’s own strategy in Syria that might go beyond supporting an internationally ostracized and regionally condemned regime. Turkey’s support for the US strike, for that matter, is determined not so much by solidarity within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), as by Erdoğan’s deep animosity toward al-Assad.
One hidden benefit for Moscow from anxiously awaiting the US attack was the much diminished need to deliver the promised “tough response” to the new sanctions the US Treasury enforced two weeks ago (RIA Novosti, April 6). The discussion of counter-measures has been delegated, quite unusually, to the State Duma—an institution that produces much noise but has little to no impact on policymaking (RBC, April 14). Punitive gestures like Russia’s ban on US wine, spirits and tobacco can hardly be taken seriously; but the ban on imports of medicinal drugs could hit some groups of Russian patients quite painfully (Kommersant, April 14). A meaningful step may be the interruption of cooperation in nuclear and missile-building industries; but Russian corporations would be punished with greater losses than their US counterparts (Gazeta.ru, April 14). The Russian economy was shaken by the latest sanctions, and the sharp devaluation of the ruble was checked only by the reassurance from Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin that Russian sovereign debt would be untouched (Finanz.ru, April 11). Even a casual mention of new sanctions for Russia’s support of al-Assad is a strong deterrent against any expansion of the Russian intervention (RBC, April 15).
Putin may pretend that his warnings had worked and reduced the US strike on Syria to merely a symbolic demonstration of old Tomahawk missiles with an even more symbolic show of allied solidarity. The hits on several military bases cannot, after all, change the facts on the ground—the capture of Eastern Ghouta by al-Assad’s troops. The damage to Russia’s credibility as a security guarantor for the regime is probably greater than to al-Assad’s readiness to exterminate all of his opposition. The devastating war in Syria has moved into a new phase, and Moscow is stuck with burdensome commitments, quasi-allies pursuing their own parochial agendas, and risks of mounting casualties. Washington is pointedly asking whether Moscow is willing to continue along this inglorious road. And for Putin, Russia has no other way than down.