59 Ways to Kill a Russian Reset

All it takes is a few dozen Tomahawk missiles and a lecture on human rights.

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MOSCOW — Russia was swift in its response to a deadly U.S. missile strike on a Syrian air base overnight on Thursday.

By Friday morning, it had called the strike “illegal.” It summoned an emergency U.N. Security Council meeting, and its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, compared the move to Washington’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a statement issued Friday morning, the Kremlin quoted Russian President Vladimir Putin as saying the move by U.S. President Donald Trump “inflicts substantial damage on Russian-American ties, which were already in a deplorable state.” In less than 12 hours, the combination of the late-night attack and Moscow’s speedy condemnation appears to have dealt a final blow to the fraying prospects of a renewed Russian-U.S. relationship. “That’s it,” wrote Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev on his Facebook page. “The remains of the campaign fog have disappeared.”

Trump ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles after a sarin gas attack earlier this week in Idlib province, which killed more than 70, including many children, and injured hundreds more. The United States blames the Syrian government for the attack — in a speech, Trump called the attack “barbaric” –but Moscow, which has been propping up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, pointed its finger at a supposed leaking rebel chemical weapons depot.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due in Moscow next week, where he is expected to meet with Putin and his counterpart, Lavrov. Previous statements by the Russian Foreign Ministry and the U.S. Embassy in Moscow indicated that both had hoped to discuss a range of issues, including Syria and joint counterterrorism efforts, following multiple statements by the Trump administration that it saw a Russian reset as an opportunity for cooperation in such areas as the fight against the Islamic State after years of rising tensions under the Obama administration.

But now, what was once touted by observers as a budding friendship between Trump and Putin increasingly looks like a standoff.

Washington says it warned Russia of its intention to attack the Al-Shayrat air base in Homs, where there are both Syrian and Russian warplanes. Nine planes were destroyed and a hangar was left in ruins, Russian state TV said. But the precaution seems to have done little to appease Moscow. The missile strikes reportedly killed at least 13 Syrians, including nine civilians, according to Syrian state media, and wounded several more, but, according to Lavrov, there were no Russian casualties. On Friday morning, Russian state TV broadcast continuous coverage of the strikes, emphasizing the extensive damage done to the air base, showing images of blazing fires and rows of charred planes and blackened aerial bombs. The Russian Defense Ministry said it was “obvious” that the strike had been planned for some time, but that it still managed to show “extremely low” military effectiveness, saying 36 of the Tomahawks did not hit their target.

However it was intended, the Kremlin is treating Thursday night’s intervention as a precipitous escalation by the U.S. government of its involvement in Syria’s war. Before Thursday, Russia was proud of its position as the main outside player guiding the course of the Syria conflict. The Obama administration had largely left Russia free rein in the country. Since entering the Syrian conflict in October 2015, Russians have largely thought of it as their war. The Syrian army’s victories over both the rebels and the Islamic State — especially in eastern Aleppo — have been celebrated with gusto by Russian officials. The liberation of Islamic State-held areas has seeped into Russia’s cultural fabric and consciousness, inspiring heroic novels, video games, songs, and school skits and has boosted the careers of a slew of television and newspaper war reporters, who now have legions of fans on social media.

The war also still enjoys healthy support from the general Russian public. A recently published independent poll showed a fifth of Russians considered the conflict an important event last year, about the same proportion that felt the same about the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. Russian body bags are few enough (for now) to quell any comparisons to the disastrous war in Afghanistan, and Putin’s strategic military prowess is a source of pride for many Russians.

There were few signs before Thursday night’s attack that the new U.S. administration had any interest in changing this dynamic. As recently as last week, members of the Trump administration had signaled that the United States was happy to accept the status quo in Syria, and that it was “no longer” going to “focus on getting Assad out.” But on Wednesday, a shift appeared to be looming. Trump, in an appearance in the Rose Garden with King Abdullah of Jordan, said the use of chemical weapons had “crossed a lot of lines.” By late Thursday, rhetoric had turned into full-blown military intervention.

The Trump administration’s strategy in Syria is not yet clear — this could be the first of many such strikes aimed at regime change, or a one-off. But few issues irk Russia more than Western infringement into what Moscow considers its sphere of influence, and Russian state media wasted no time airing its disdain. “[Trump] needed this to reduce the intensity of criticism he receives from Congress and the media, and to maintain his rating,” military expert Igor Korotchenko said in the official parliament newspaper. “He wanted to show that he’s tougher and more decisive than Obama.”

The big question now is what Russia will do next. Russia’s Defense Ministry said Friday that it would strengthen Syrian air defenses in the near future but did not elaborate. It also did not give any indication as to what Russia’s defense forces were planning besides saying they would continue their operations in the country. It did say that it was suspending the hotline in place with the United States to prevent midair collisions over Syrian airspace. There were also unsubstantiated reports that Russian warships were returning to the eastern Mediterranean waters of Syria.

In a country where “whataboutism” is part of the national psyche, Russia was quick to point to Washington’s alleged failures after the strike in Syria. “This is a Western provocation in order to distract people’s attention from what is really happening in Mosul,” senior Russian lawmaker Leonid Slutsky, who oversees the parliament’s international affairs committee, told the state-run Rossiya 24 channel.

State TV aired plenty of footage of Mosul in Iraq on Friday, where an airstrike killed almost 300 people in late March, in the largest civilian death toll in two years. The U.S.-led coalition has said there is a “fair chance” it is responsible. Russia routinely points to America’s hand in civilian deaths in various crises around the globe as testament to what it says is Washington’s hypocrisy. The conflict in Yemen, where another U.S.-backed coalition is fighting the Islamic State, was also shown on Russian news on Friday, with malnourished children given lots of airtime. State TV also aired a collated history on the history of the Iraq War.

In the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration, many had warned that the prospects of a true reset with Russia — which the Obama administration had also tried to pursue until it soon fell apart — were always slim and that conflicts on issues such as the Iran nuclear deal, Syria, and Ukraine meant there were too many hurdles to greater cooperation between Moscow and Washington. This week, judging by reaction in Moscow, another attempt to forge closer relations appears to have collapsed, less than 100 days into a new administration.

“We now need to free ourselves from our illusions of a relationship with Trump,” said the analyst Korotchenko. “He doesn’t differ from Obama at all. He also uses international law like toilet paper.”

Photo credit: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

Amie Ferris-Rotman is Foreign Policy's Moscow correspondent.

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