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This Week in Info War

Moscow Meets Syria Attack with Bluster and Relief

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Russia reacted to the U.S.-led airstrikes against Syria – carried out before dawn on 14 April – with harsh rhetoric, but apparent relief from the Kremlin that allied objectives were limited to what American officials called “fundamental components” of Syria’s chemical weapons program, and posed no threat to Russian military assets in the region.

In the run-up to the strikes, many Russian commentators expressed alarm that Washington and Moscow might be headed toward a replay of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, which brought the two Cold War adversaries to the brink of a nuclear confrontation. Some Russian news outlets went so far as to give practical advice on how to ride out a U.S. nuclear attack, such as which Moscow metro stations were the most secure and how much water to bring to bomb shelters. Russian officials, moreover, warned Washington about potential Russian reprisals. Most notable was the statement from Gen. Valery V. Gerasimov, chief of staff of the Russian armed forces, who said that the Kremlin would “take retaliatory measures” against any U.S. action – including attacking missiles and the platforms from which they were launched – if Russian military personnel in Syria were threatened.

The Kremlin’s official public reaction relied on well-worn foreign policy themes: the West was violating international law; it had no proof that Assad had used chemical weapons; and Russia was threatened by external enemies.
  • President Putin denounced the U.S. airstrikes, calling them an example of “aggression against a sovereign state which is at the forefront of the fight against terrorism.” Putin also stated in a phone call with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that “if such actions, carried out in violation of the United Nations Charter, are repeated, that would inevitably provoke chaos in international relations.”
  • In an interview on the BBC’s Hardtalk program, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov dismissed the evidence that the U.S., UK, and France used to justify the attack, calling the airstrikes “absolutely lawless and unacceptable actions” and the chemical weapons attack that provoked them “staged.”
  • Anatoly Antonov, Russian ambassador to the U.S., wrote in an official statement that “[Russia’s] warnings have been left unheard. A pre-designed scenario is being implemented. Again, we are being threatened. We warned that such actions will not be left without consequences. All responsibility for them rests with Washington, London, and Paris. The U.S. – the possessor of the biggest arsenal of chemical weapons – has no moral right to blame other countries.”
The state-controlled Russian media echoed these narratives.
  • State-controlled media tried to debunk Trump’s allegations that Russia is partially to blame for Assad’s use of chemical weapons, because Russia failed to convince Syria to abide by its 2013 promise to abandon these weapons. News channel RT claimed that the only “remaining chemical weapons caches in Syria were in territories held by the Western-backed militants” and that Russia had “warned that the militants in the east Ghouta enclave might stage a chemical attack.”
  • A common tactic among media outlets was to argue that the chemical weapons attack in Doumas was staged by the West to justify military intervention in Syria. An article in Sputnik, “Footage of Douma Attack Staged, So-Called Evidence is ‘Fake’—Moscow,” argued that the West is circulating doctored footage of the “alleged” chemical attack to justify its intervention in Syria. 
  • Russian media frequently argued that the strikes were illegal because the use of collective action was not approved by the United Nations, nor by each country’s respective parliaments or Congress. Additionally, the media reported that the strikes blocked an official investigation conducted by the UN.

Relieved that the allied strike was limited, the Kremlin began to pull back from its brinksmanship. “Russia has its own zone of interests in Syria, which is on the shore of the Mediterranean,” said Aleksei V. Makarkin, of the Moscow-based Center for Political Technologies. “The U.S. hit targets that are outside of this zone,” he noted. “Of course Russia is upset, but this is just an element of the new Cold War, only one element among several, including sanctions, which are a much more serious problem for Russia.” In one possible sign that the Kremlin was not inclined to take any strong action, the Federation Council, the upper house of the Russian Parliament, put out a statement saying it would discuss the airstrikes “next week.” The Kremlin also pulled back a Duma bill that would impose counter-sanctions on U.S. imports.

The entire episode suggests that Russia has overestimated its capabilities and aims. Several Moscow pundits pointed out that for all its braggadocio about competing with Western adversaries, Russia’s military was unable to defend a close ally. For example, one article in RT reporting that “over 100 missiles were launched at civilian and military facilities in Syria” but “Syrian air defense systems intercepted the majority of the attempted strikes,” which was sourced to “the Russian defense ministry,” was quickly shown to be wide of the mark.

Russian sources say that Putin wants to give Trump another chance to make good on his pledge to improve relations – a desire the Kremlin believes is shown by the public disagreement between Trump and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley over expanding sanctions. There is little sign, however, that Putin is willing to make concessions on critical issues such as Syria, which makes it unlikely he can become a constructive partner of the West.