The Kremlin’s rhetorical cease-fire is officially over.
Following Donald Trump’s inauguration, the Russian government and its loyal media gave the new American president the soft touch. But following the U.S. missile strike on Syria, the gloves have come off in Moscow, as hopes for friendlier relations fizzle.
When Rex Tillerson makes his first trip to Russia as secretary of state next week, he can no longer expect a warm welcome. Instead, he will be faced with well-rehearsed accusations of American hypocrisy and double standards.
Russian President Vladimir Putin described the U.S. attack as “an act of aggression against a sovereign state” and a blow to joint efforts in fighting terrorism. In response to the attack, Russia suspended an agreement with the U.S. to avoid mid-air collisions over Syria and called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council.
The U.S. rationale that it had to respond to a Syrian chemical weapons attack on civilians was only a pretext for a long-planned missile strike, the Kremlin said.
“The real estate billionaire has repeated the deplorable experience of his predecessors,” the Russian government’s official newspaper, Rossiiskaya Gazeta, said in a commentary Friday. “This isn’t the first demonstration of a completely incompetent U.S. approach — similar to a big elephant in a small china shop — to solving the most acute international problems.”
Syria has been the key to the Kremlin’s relations with the United States since 2015, when Russia intervened militarily to back Syrian President Bashar Assad in his country’s bloody civil war.
Isolated internationally after seizing Crimea and backing separatists in eastern Ukraine in 2014, Putin used military might in Syria to force himself back onto the world stage. Like it or not, the Obama administration had to deal with Putin as a Middle East power broker.
Military cooperation between the two countries was limited to trying to stay out of each other’s way, and joint diplomatic efforts to find a political solution fell apart, mainly because the U.S. and Russia were backing Syrian forces on opposite sides of the battlefield.
With the election of Trump, who said he’d work with Russia to defeat ISIS, Putin saw an opportunity to revive his idea of forming an international coalition to fight terrorism. The Kremlin has angrily denied that Russia tried to sway the U.S. presidential election in favor of Trump, saying accusations of Russian meddling were meant to distract from the Democrats’ own failures.
Following Trump’s inauguration, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, met twice with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov. Before those contacts, the last meeting on that level had taken place before Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.
After the U.S. missile strike on the Syrian airfield, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russia had been informed of the attack in advance “through existing channels” but that Putin hadn’t been contacted directly.
“Those who feared U.S.-Russian collusion will now have to fear their collision,” tweeted Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, a regional think tank.
In a statement on Friday, Russian Gen. Igor Konashenkov said the U.S. assertion that Syrian forces had used chemical weapons on civilians was “groundless.”
He called the effectiveness of the U.S. strike “extremely low,” saying that only 23 of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from American warships had reached their targets at a Syrian airbase. A warehouse, a training facility, a mess hall, six MiG-23s under repair and a radar station were destroyed in the attack, according to Konashenkov, but the airstrip and parked jets were not damaged.
Konashenkov said he “hoped” there had been no coordination between the U.S. and fighters from ISIS and the Nusra Front, who he said launched attacks on Syrian positions after the U.S. missile strike.
“It is not difficult to imagine how much the spirits of these terrorists have been raised after this support from Washington,” Russia’s deputy U.N. Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said during Friday’s Security Council session.
The change in tone has also been noticeable in Russia’s foreign ministry, where Tillerson’s upcoming visit had been seen as a first step in getting relations back on track.
The experience of John Kerry, Tillerson’s predecessor, served as a warning that even a good working relationship with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov wouldn’t necessarily lead to success. Their repeated efforts to come up with a cease-fire plan for Syria were scuttled by developments on the ground.
Tillerson, who headed Exxon Mobil’s operations in Russia before becoming its CEO, received a medal from Putin in 2012. On Thursday, hours before the missile strike, Tillerson said Russia had “failed in its responsibility” to keep chemical weapons out of the hands of its Syrian allies and was either “complicit or incompetent.”
“Possibly some people have held on to their illusion about the new American secretary of state,” the Rossiiskaya Gazeta commentary said. “Once again we’re reminded that there’s no such thing as friends in business, especially with Washington, whose ill-conceived actions are even more detrimental to Russian-American relations.”
Before the missile strike, U.S. officials were hoping Tillerson’s trip to Moscow would improve “de-confliction” – the avoidance of mid-air collisions or other inadvertent attacks on each other’s forces in Syria – and counter-terrorism cooperation.
Now the secretary of state’s trip will be focused on containing any more damage in relations, rather than turning a new page.