When Russian President Vladimir Putin got word that U.S. cruise missiles were going to strike his Syrian ally early on Friday morning, he had several options — both military and diplomatic — for firing back.
He could have used Russia’s air-defense systems in Syria to shoot the American rockets out of the sky. As a rebuke to the Americans, he could also have canceled his meeting next week with U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. But he did neither.
Reading between the lines of Russia’s initial response, at least in the hours following the first targeted U.S. strike against the Syrian military, it seems that Putin is choosing to step back, bide his time and leave plenty of room to smooth things over. In Moscow’s diplomatic circles, there is even hope that Tillerson’s visit on Tuesday could still mark the start of some grand bargain — if not exactly a love affair — between Putin and U.S. President Donald Trump.
“This is not going to be pillow talk between two newlyweds,” says the Russian lawmaker Leonid Kalashnikov, who chairs a parliamentary committee on integration with Russian allies. “It’s a conversation between two people who want something from one another, and we are both ready to back away on this issue for the sake of achieving other goals later on.” Speaking by phone from Moscow, he added: “Russia understands that nobody needs escalation.”
Within hours of the attack, the Kremlin did offer some harsh rhetoric. Putin’s spokesman called the strikes an illegal act of aggression and a “substantial blow” to U.S-Russian relations. But he stopped well short of the fury that Putin expressed in 2011, when the regime of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya became the target of U.S. and coalition airstrikes. That intervention, Putin said, was like a “medieval crusade” against a sovereign nation. “Where is the logic and the conscience?” he demanded at the time.
The tone was far milder on Friday in the remarks of Russia’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, who talked about the U.S. strike against a Russian ally as though it were a mystery to be solved, not an offense to be repaid. “I don’t know,” said Lavrov, “when we will get to know the whole truth about how the decision was made to carry out strikes in Syria in this situation. But I think the truth should be demanded, and that’s what we’re going to do.”
The logic behind the strike was not much of a mystery. After a chemical weapon was used to kill dozens of civilians on Tuesday in a rebel-held town in western Syria, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad had carried out the attack against his own people. This atrocity “crossed many, many lines,” Trump told reporters on Wednesday, and the following day he ordered the U.S. military to target the air base from which the chemical attack had apparently been launched. The Pentagon gave Russia fair warning, and then let the Tomahawks fly.
It was exactly the type of U.S. intervention that Russia has been preparing for in Syria. In October, the Russian Foreign Ministry said that advanced antiaircraft systems had been deployed in response to reports that the U.S. could “bomb Syrian air fields with cruise missiles.” The notion that American stealth fighters or other “flying objects” could escape these Russian systems, known as S-300s, was the “illusion of dilettantes,” a spokesman for the Russian Defense Ministry said in separate remarks that same month.
Those warnings now seem like braggadocio. The only apparent military action that Russia took in response to the U.S. strikes was to cancel what’s known as the deconfliction agreement between Moscow and Washington. Since it was implemented in 2015, that agreement allowed for the rival powers to warn each other of impending strikes in Syria, thus making sure that U.S. and Russian jets did not get in each others way.
It was a mutually beneficial arrangement, and Putin’s decision to cancel it on Friday will do at least as much harm to the Russian mission in Syria as it will for the American one, says Alexander Konovalov, a prominent foreign policy expert in Moscow. “It only hurts us,” he says.
Yet the Russian President does not seem to have any better options in dealing with his Syrian dilemma. “Economically, politically, Russia does not have the strength to mount an escalation of this conflict,” says Konovalov. The Russian intervention has already dragged on for more than a year and a half, and Putin cannot afford to keep pouring the blood of his soldiers and the scarce resources of his economy into this war indefinitely. Nor can he afford to look weak by cutting his loses in Syria and letting the U.S. oust Assad. “The idea of retreat is not part of our President’s constitution,” says Konovalov. “So he will have to demonstrate toughness and decisiveness.”
That will not be easy when Tillerson arrives in Moscow on Tuesday. Though he and Putin are well acquainted – having negotiated numerous oil deals while Tillerson was at the helm of ExxonMobil — the Russian President’s hand will not be as strong as he might like. For one thing, the fate of his ally in Syria will no longer seem so secure. Neither will Putin’s position as a dominant player in the Middle East.
Viewed from Moscow, the cruise missiles launched on Thursday night seemed to carry precisely that message. “It’s that kind of negotiating game,” says Kalashnikov, the Russian lawmaker. “Trump wants to show that he will deal with the Russians from a position of strength.” This doesn’t mean the two sides won’t agree when it comes to Syria, Ukraine or any of the other issues that divide them. It just means Putin will not be the only bully in the room.