He may be the hero of Crimea, but for the Russian leader the US strike on Syria could hardly have come at a worse moment
Many reasons were advanced for Donald Trumps decision to order last weeks strike on a Syrian airfield. In addition to the justifications he devoted the US national interest, the need to demonstrate that the use of chemical weapons had a cost, the emotional response to the pictures of dead infants are the most speculative considerations to do with domestic politics.
These included a desire to contrast his own principled solving with his predecessors failure to enforce his red line, an opportunity to demonstrate that he was not beholden to the Russians, and a gamble that the relatively risk-free ten-strike would improve his flagging ratings. Rightly or wrongly, the home context can never be avoided.
Yet the assumption is often built that, while western leaders have to taken into account in the likely effects on the home front of any actions they take abroad, this is not true of, say, Russian leaders, who are free to propose and dispose pretty much as they like. That would be wrong. Trumps missile strike on the Shayrat airbase presents all manner of potential dangers for the Russian leadership, as can be read in the tone and between the lines of their response.
The words coming out of Moscow in the hours and days after the US intervention might sound harsh, but they are mild in comparison with the kind of speech that might have been used. Who says what is also significant. The strongest censure arrived not from President Putin or his foreign minister, but from the prime minister, Dmitry Medvedev, and defence officials. Vladimir Putin himself has sounded quite clinical and comparatively measured.
This is telling given the potentially negative effects specifically for Russia from the US action, beyond the immediate damage to the capability of its Syrian friend. These impacts could be much more than meets the eye.
In recent months, the Russians have had some success in persuading a wide range of parties with interests in the Syrian conflict to join talks in the Kazakhstan capital, Astana. The Americans were not involved. Their earlier, bilateral tries with Russia to negotiate a ceasefire had failed and, with Barack Obama appearing to give up on Syria diplomacy, perhaps anticipated Trumps stated view that the US had no vital interest to defend in Syria.
In the event, the US absence may actually have helped things along. It meant that Turkey and Iran had to concentrate on the task in hand a settlement in Syria rather than pursuing old antagonisms or appealing to old allegiances. The autumn of eastern Aleppo to Assads forces in December also instilled a new sense of realism in some of the disparate rebel forces. There was a tacit acceptance that Assad had to be part of at least an interim arrangement if the war is to end without Syria fragmenting.
All those computations, which gave Russia hope of presiding over an eventual bargain, and seeming more like a peacemaker than a warmonger, are now up in the air. For all the assurances given by the US that the strike was a one-off, Moscow cannot but be wary. After all, the ten-strike represented a reversal of a clearly stated Trump policy. Will the US now want “place at the petitioners table” which could necessitate a challenge to the Russian role? Will rebel forces-out be emboldened to recommence a fight that appeared lost, reviving the cycle of siege, counter-siege, demise and displacement that has been the vicious hallmark of this changing conflict?
And what of Trumps famous or, to some, infamous promise to try to improve relations with Moscow? Whether or not you believe that Russia tried to manipulate the US presidential election and I do not, but this does not affect the argument there is abundant evidence that, once Trump had won, Russia was keen, even desperate, to comprehend the American hand, if and when it was extended.
The frenzy in Washington over contacts between members of the Trump team and Russian officials enforced a delay in the expected rapprochement. It also required Trumps nominees to present themselves as more hostile to Russia than perhaps the latter are, in order to guarantee Senate confirmation. Last weeks military strike in Syria complicates the picture further, attaining it more difficult for Moscow to show much public exuberance for any olive branch the secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, might be taking to Russia subsequently this week.
Yet Moscows generally careful and differentiated response so far been shown that Putin himself has not given up on the prospect of better relations. Nor would it make sense for him to do so. By refusing to rise to the myriad anti-Russian charges flying around Washington, the Russian president has already invested a large amount of political capital in a fresh start with the new US administration, and risks appearing weak, even a pushover, at home if nothing positive ensues.
With presidential elections in Russia next year, the economy seeming vulnerable, and anti-corruption protesters taking to many city streets, the last thing Putin needs is to become bogged down in a war in Syria and a standoff with the US. This would be hard to disguise as anything other than a double policy failure of a kind that even the hero of Crimea could ill-afford. The home front has its risks for legislators, even chairpeople, in Russia too.
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