MOSCOW – A popular Russian newspaper ran this front page headline this week: “Moscow and Tehran tell Washington: Fuck Off!” If that tells you anything about the mood in Russia before the U.S. strike on the Syrian airbase, imagine the feeling now.
The expletives were written in English, making Russian observers on social media suggest this was intentionally done so Donald Trump would easily understand. But it was a moot point.
For in the early hours of Friday morning, the U.S. had already started firing 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles towards the Shayrat airbase, where both Syria and Russia hold planes, in response to the sarin gas attack earlier this week in Idlib province, which killed at least 70 people. The West pins the blame on Bashar Assad’s regime and its Russian backer. Moscow has said the gas belonged to a rebel depot.
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Rolling footage of the extensive damage from the U.S. air strike was broadcast on Russian state television throughout Friday, showing strewn debris, a destroyed airstrip, and plumes of smoke over charred jets. The Russian Defense Ministry said the strikes killed four Syrian servicemen, severely injured two more and two are missing. Nine planes were totally destroyed, it said. Syrian state media said nine civilians including four children were killed. No Russians were harmed, Russia’s Foreign Ministry said.
President Vladimir Putin said the strikes – which Washington warned Russia about in advance – had inflicted “substantial damage on Russian-American ties, which were already in a deplorable state.” The eccentric Russian nationalist Alexander Dugin, who is linked to the inner workings of the Kremlin, called Trump a “transvestite Hillary” on Friday, referring to Hillary Clinton’s hawkishness as well as the sense of betrayal Russians feel with Washington’s direct military involvement in the Syria conflict.
The Russians, while being incensed that the U.S. has acted, as they claim, unilaterally in the Syria conflict, are perhaps more irritated that Washington has meddled on their turf. Since Russia entered the Syrian war in October 2015, it has operated with supreme confidence, honed over decades of Soviet-era influence in both the region and Syria itself.
The Russians were quick to show contempt. The Defense Ministry criticised the military effectiveness of the U.S. strikes – saying that only 23 of the missiles had actually hit their target. The Foreign Ministry made its common complaint that Washington has a limited understanding of global affairs: “This is not the first time the U.S. has demonstrated such a thoughtless approach, one that only aggravates the world’s existing problems and threatens international security.” Trump’s old tweets from September 2013 asking Barack Obama to not bomb Syria made the rounds on Russian social media on Friday. The Kremlin-backed Sputnik media site said the strike was actually intended as a message of U.S. strength to Chinese Premier Xi Jinping, who is with Trump in Florida on a state visit.
Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the “illegal” strike reminded him of the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, which also happened without the support of the UN Charter. Throughout Moscow’s military involvement in Syria, Russian state television and its Foreign Ministry have offered an alternative narrative of how the U.S. acts abroad in conflicts, particularly in Iraq past and present. State media on Friday focused extensively on the current situation in Mosul and Washington’s previous failure to find weapons of mass destruction.
Russia’s independent Strategic Culture Foundation compared the U.S. Syria strike to NATO’s 1999 assault on Yugoslavia, which also “bypassed all existing norms of international law.”
Russia does not appreciate Washington’s footprint on what it considers its own battlefields, whatever the motive or intention. Though Russian and U.S. soldiers have never outright fought each other, they have come close. The two clashed militarily through proxies numerous times throughout the Cold War, from Vietnam to the 1973 Yom Kippur war and, perhaps most notably, Afghanistan. Though that war ended over 25 years ago, with the bitter defeat of the “invincible” Red Army, it still stings. “Putin remembers what the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan did to the image of the Soviet leadership,” the grand chess master turned opposition activist Garry Kasparov said on Friday. “(It) showed fallibility, loss of confidence.”
And Russia does not want a repeat of that on what it considers its sphere of influence. It has been consistent in that for a long time. Moscow’s support for the Syrian regime, then the late Hafez Assad, began over 45 years ago. In Russian, the region is not called the Middle East, but the Near East, and Russia does not want to lose face there, especially to its old adversary in Washington. When Trump’s administration proposed slapping new sanctions on Iran over its nuclear activity, Russia and its long-term ally cozied up. After Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Moscow late last month, the two countries eased their visa regimes, inked a slew of business deals and pledged long-term cooperation in the region. Iran is also allowing Russia to use its military bases to launch strikes in Syria on a case-by-case basis.
It is in this spirit that the world now waits to see what Russia’s next move will be. For now, Moscow has suspended its communications channel with Washington that avoids mid-air collisions over Syrian airspace and has said it will continue its operations in the country as before. Despite the wave of approval pouring in over Trump’s actions – from Canada, the United Kingdom, Turkey, Israel, amongst others – Washington is yet to say if it will continue the strikes, or if this was a singular event.
The U.S. strike opens up the potential for conflict between the erstwhile Cold War foes once again. Could Syria be the next proxy war for Russia and the United States? Moscow could have used its surface-to-air missiles to take down the incoming Tomahawks, but it chose not to, implying it was somewhat complicit. But then again, there are hundreds of U.S. soldiers stationed in northern Syria, where they train Kurdish and Syrian Arab fighters in the fight against ISIS. Could these troops come into direct contact with Russians?
To borrow an oft-used Russian phrase: “The East is a delicate matter.”