The Trump administration’s surprise missile strike on Syria raised many more questions than it answered – and the most pressing are those related to the future of the US’s relationship with Russia.
The signs are not good. The Kremlin responded to the US strike by suspending the 2015 “deconfliction” agreement it maintained with the US Air Force. In doing so, it briefly increased the risk of an inadvertent clash between the two armed forces, threatening to turn the fight against the so-called Islamic State (IS) into an exercise in brinkmanship. As Tillerson left Moscow, the future of the agreement was unclear.
Far from abandoning Assad, as some have prematurely claimed over the past few days (and, indeed, years), Russia seems to be doubling down on its support to his regime. Vladimir Putin himself accused the Trump administration of readying further strikes on Syria based on “provocations” staged by anti-Assad forces, before pointedly vetoing a UN Security Council resolution calling on the Syrian government to co-operate with any international investigation into last week’s chemical attack.
This will disappoint those who speculated that the Kremlin might abandon him, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone – Russia has consistently rejected any form of regime change in the Middle East, mindful of the disaster that engulfed post-Gaddafi Libya. At his recent press conference with Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, reiterated the point:
This insistence on removing or ousting a dictator or totalitarian leader – we have already been through it. We very well know, only too well, what happens when you do that.
There’s something deeper at work too. Putin has cultivated an image as the restorer of Russia’s great power status (derzhavnost), standing up to the Western liberal consensus. Abandoning Assad at this point would be to give in to Western pressure, and his domestic audience would regard it as a national humiliation.
Putin’s role of choice is a tricky one to play. At home, he holds himself up as the embodiment of Russian masculinity, the embodiment of the country’s restored international status. But abroad, Russia’s act is more complex: the Kremlin sometimes presents itself as the great challenger of Western liberal hegemony in a multi-polar world, but also readily appropriates Western ideas – humanitarian intervention, the War on Terror – to justify its various interventions within and beyond its sometimes ill-defined sphere of influence.
These theatrics support the hard-nosed vision of Russia’s “national interest” that has now held sway for a decade-and-a-half. According to this worldview, international law and institutions are tools for great powers to use in a great game. The Kremlin does not subscribe to the expansive, liberal interpretations of the “world order” professed by Western states – and it doesn’t believe the Western powers really subscribe to them either.
This makes Russia’s understanding of Trump’s motives all the more important.
Reading the signals
Perhaps Trump really did strike Assad’s airfield on impulse – that it really was the sight of suffering children, along with the exhortations of his by daughter/adviser Ivanka that pushed him into action. Needless to say, such impulsivity comes with multiple dangers. In fact, it could be argued that Trump’s failure to clearly signal his intent in the preceding weeks allowed for the chemical attack in the first place. Having heard that regime change was now off the table, Assad took a lethal risk; Trump’s response was both unexpected and unannounced.
These sorts of misunderstandings are dangerous enough in the Syrian context; within broader Russian-American relations, they could lead to nothing less than a war between two great powers.
This assumes both that Trump is in fact entirely irrational and that Moscow would consider him that way. Neither is likely – in fact, as with Putin, Trump’s style of politics revolves around performance. The question is whether that performance is underpinned by some wider worldview that might lend his adminstration’s foreign policy some substance.
The saga of the US strike and its aftermath clearly has a theatrical bent. Trump is trying to make his mark, assuming the role of the anti-Obama, a man of action with no time for endless multilateral fence-sitting. The strikes also divert attention from the chaos and brewing scandals of his young presidency. But they can also be interpreted as a signal to both allies and adversaries, simultaneously a show of resolve and a demonstration of unpredictability – in itself a deterrent of sorts. Whether or not this signal was intentional, the Kremlin is familiar with the style.
This makes the behind-the-scenes discussions on Tillerson’s visit to Moscow doubly important. If Tillerson confirmed that the strike was an act of astute power politics dressed up as sentimental impulsivity, he will have validated the Kremlin’s probable interpretation. That would make this incredibly tense moment just a little less unstable, since the two powers would at least share a frame of reference for each other’s actions.
But if the Kremlin understands Trump’s behaviour no better than it did before Tillerson paid it a visit, Russian-American relations might inch ever closer to a dangerous precipice. Should they tip over the edge, the results would go far beyond mere theatre.