MOSCOW — Tensions between Moscow and Washington escalated sharply Thursday night after U.S. President Donald Trump launched a cruise-missile attack against a Syrian government airbase.
On Friday, Russia woke up to the words “bombings” and “war.” Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to the missile strike as an act of “aggression.” Putin also accused Washington of manipulating public opinion to distract the world’s attention from the hundreds of casualties caused by U.S. jets bombing in Mosul, Iraq.
To Russian political thinkers, this day would be remembered as the day of “Trump’s red line.” Russian parliament members made angry statements, promising a tough response to the U.S. strike: the end of Russia’s military cooperation with United States, or even worse, violent clashes between the countries’ air forces in the sky over Syria.
President Trump might have changed his mind about Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad after the chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians, including newly born babies in Syria’s Idlib province this week; but the Kremlin has not. They’re still backing the Syrian president. And Russian officials publicly doubted Trump’s official reason for the U.S. airstrike.
Once again officials raised the specter of the Cold War, or an upcoming big war, remembering Vietnam. One major difference between now and then: Unlike during the Vietnam War, when Moscow supported Hanoi from afar, Russian forces officially are on the ground in Syria.
Chairman of the Federation Council Committee on Defense and Security Victor Ozerov compared President Trump’s launch of missiles on Syria to the decision made by George W. Bush to begin the war in Iraq.
“Back then they looked for chemical weapons in Iraq and we all know perfectly well what that decision led to,” Ozerov told reporters on Friday morning.
State Duma Deputy Mikhail Yemelyanov predicted that Trump’s “irresponsible” airstrike would cause an even bigger escalation of violence: “This is fraught with [the possibility of] direct clashes between Russia and United States, exchanges of fire, nothing can be excluded now,” Yemelyanov told Interfax.
But hours passed and no actions were taken by the Kremlin. “So far Russia sits with its tail between its legs, astonished by Trump’s quick return to the Middle East,” says senior military analyst Alexander Golts. “Washington gave Moscow a notice, two hours before the strike, but Putin did nothing to protect Assad’s base,” Golts told The Daily Beast.
“Soon Moscow will miss President Barack Obama, who was much different from the impulsive Trump and took time for consultations before any offensive moves, enough time for Assad to capture territories back from the rebels, with Russia’s help,” Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the Center for Political Technolgy said in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“With the Kremlin’s friend [Michael] Flynn gone [as national security adviser], Steve Bannon’s positions weakened, Trump is surrounded with establishment voices, unable to hear Moscow’s point of view, so right now we witness the official end of Trumpomania in Russia,” Markin added.
All political experts The Daily Beast interviewed agreed that Trump’s attack on Syria would make it much harder for U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to find common ground in his negotiations with President Putin.
Tillerson is due to come to Moscow next week. The Kremlin had hoped talks would focus on ending the new Cold War with Russia that began in 2014 after the annexation of Crimea, the launch of an insurgency in eastern Ukraine, and Western sanctions in response. But now it appears the key agenda issue will be the future of Assad.
Tillerson was unusually vocal—and blunt—Thursday night after the cruise missiles were launched. Russia has “failed” in its responsibility to deliver on a 2013 commitment to secure Syria’s chemical weapons, he told reporters. Moscow either was complicit in the horrific chemical attack on civilians Tuesday, or “simply incompetent” in failing to deliver on its end of the agreement.
Moscow is presenting an entirely alternative narrative.
“Both Trump and Tillerson know perfectly well that it was not Assad who used chemical weapons against peaceful Syrian people, but the forces of Jabhat al Nusra [the former name of an al Qaeda affiliate] with the help of CIA,” said Sergey Markov, a member of the Russian parliament’s Public Chamber.
Moscow had called earlier for an investigation into the chemical-weapons attack to determine how it happened and who was responsible. Meanwhile, on Friday morning the foreign ministry announced it was suspending the agreement with Washington that prevented direct conflict between Russian and U.S. air forces operating in Syria.
“But Trump decided to strike and be a popular politician in the media, so in response Russia suspends our deal with the U.S.,” Markov told The Daily Beast. “So now our forces in Syria can bring down American jets.”
The Cold War, far from going away, appears to be heating up.