In the Russian political culture, written word subsumes the spoken word. And when it is the Kremlin’s written word, it is the ultimate gospel. Therefore, the articulation of the Russian reaction to the US missile strike on Syria on Thursday on the Kremlin website, here, merits very careful study and analysis.
On the whole, the Kremlin statement can be taken as surprisingly mild under the circumstances.
There is no attempt to defend Syria as an “ally” – an expression used by Presidential spokesman Dmirty Peskov in the press briefing – or voice carte-blanche Russian backing for Damascus to counter US “aggression” (The Russian MOD had claimed that Russia proposes to take “a series of steps… in the immediate future to reinforce and raise the effectiveness of the Syrian armed forces’ air defence system”.)
Without doubt, President Vladimir Putin leaves the door open to future discussions with the US on the establishment of an international counter-terrorism coalition. The Kremlin says that Thursday’s US attack creates “a major obstacle” but it is not an insurmountable obstacle by any means — certainly, it isn’t a case of door being slammed shut and key thrown away.
Moscow looks forward to engaging with the visiting US state secretary Rex Tillerson on Wednesday with an open mind. To be sure, some serious business lies ahead, in the best traditions of “Soviet-American” diplomacy.
Interestingly, the Kremlin statement plainly ignores the single concrete step Russia took so far – namely, shutting down the “deconfliction” procedure reached in an agreement in 2015 with a view to avoid mid-air incidents in the skies over Syria. Conceivably, that move is temporary, since the 2015 agreement as such remains valid, after all, and it is in the mutual interest of Russia and the US to avoid mid-air incidents. This is also what the Pentagon expects, as transmitted by the US defence department spokesperson on Friday via TASS:
The Department of Defense maintains the desire for dialogue through the flight safety channel. It is to the benefit of all parties operating in the air over Syria to avoid accidents and miscalculation, and we hope the Russian Ministry of Defense comes to this conclusion as well.
The most significant part of the Kremlin statement is that it takes note of the compulsions that might have worked on President Donald Trump to order the missile strike. Putin thinks the attack has been a diversionary tactic by the wily American president.
In sum, Moscow sees this as a tactical event — not a strategic move for “regime change”. The pertinent question here will be whether Trump’s action took Moscow by surprise at all. It stands to reason that Moscow would have anticipated some “action” by Trump, given the compulsions working on him to “do something”.
Curiously, this also seems to be the Chinese reading of the tea leaves. Embedded within an unsigned Xinhua report without any dateline (carried by People’s Daily), the following pithy passage occurs:
The U.S. strike against Syrian army marked a major departure from the policy of the previous U.S. government under President Barak Obama, who ordered strikes against the IS rather than Syrian government forces.
However, the move did not necessarily represent a change in U.S. policy or posture in Syria “There has been no change in that status,” said Tillerson.
“It does demonstrate that President Trump is willing to act when governments and actors cross the line.”
The Pentagon also said in its statement that the strike was intended to “deter the Syrian government from using chemical weapons again.”
Adam Schiff, the ranking member of the House Intelligence Committee, told MSNBC on Thursday night that there were “no current plans for additional strikes”, after receiving a briefing by US Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats.”
Notably, in a similar vein, the Russian Ministry of Defence conspicuously played down the actual damage inflicted on the Al Shayrat Airfield in the missile attack. The MOD said the US acted with much advance planning, but concluded with the wry remark that “The show of military muscle stemmed exclusively from internal (domestic) motives.”
The Kremlin has refrained from making any provocative remark that could be tantamount to a confrontational attitude. The bottom line seems to be to move on with life. The Kremlin thinks that Thursday’s event dealt a “serious blow” to Russia-US relations, but then the relations are “already in a poor state.” Indeed, the US attack on Syria will not “bring us closer to the ultimate goal of combating terrorism” but it does not necessarily preclude such a process, either.
Comment: Interpretation is the mother of invention, a seemingly limitless exercise in prognosis and justification. At this point, theories abound. The above aspects, hopefully, are still within the realm of possibility.