Opinion

Putin’s Not Getting Worked Up Over Trump’s Attack on Syria

To the Kremlin, the U.S. bombing of an air base is simply a shift meant to mollify Trump’s (and Russia’s) numerous sworn enemies in America and Europe

Russian President Vladimir Putin heads a cabinet meeting in Moscow, April 12, 2017.
Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

The free world rejoices, enlightened Europe applauds, and even Turkey and Israel are on board. Everyone has congratulated U.S. President Donald Trump for his political boldness for launching 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air force base in response to the chemical attack on Idlib.

Finally the old and noble America that can’t remain apathetic at the sight of babies choking to death is back. Unlike the era of political correctness and the malignant, spineless postmodernism of the type espoused by that nave community organizer from Chicago, America once again doesn’t hesitate to stand up to a bloodthirsty, child-killing dictator. It stands by humanist and democratic values.

Above all, the move signals that America doesn’t intend to abandon the world to the mercy of Russian barbarism. It contrasts with the Democrats’ portrayal of Trump as a protégé of Vladimir Putin  and all this has happened despite Russia's wrath.

It’s interesting but not surprising that those pushing the heartwarming thesis about the desired return of the American policeman who deters the Kremlin bully forgot to closely examine what the Kremlin bully thinks about the events of recent days.

Indeed, most commentators have sufficed with fairly superficial discussions on Moscow’s official reactions that condemn the American attack and apparently confirm the conclusion, accompanied by a sigh of relief, that Trump is no longer “Putin’s puppet.” But the same commentators didn’t bother to listen to political analyses in Russia. You don’t have to hack KGB (sorry, FSB) computers to be familiar with those analyses. It’s enough to listen to the news and current affairs programs on Putin TV.

Indeed, besides the condemnations and veiled threats about worsening relations with the United States, the official Russian media doesn’t buy the thesis of a profound change in White House policy on Syria, so it’s in no rush to return to the previous line of total enmity toward the United States.

On the contrary, what sticks out in all the analyses is the identification with and almost touching empathy toward Trump and the new administration whose work the U.S. “political institutions” are incessantly making harder. According to this view, these institutions aim to thwart the new and “wise” foreign policy (read appeasement of Russia) that Trump declared during his election campaign.

In this spirit, Kremlin journalists interpret the American attack as follows. The president, who seeks to spearhead a historic change in Russian-American relations and is thus attacked from all sides, “was pushed into a corner” by “the Pentagon,” and fell victim to “emotional manipulation” by the TV pictures “whose validity still needs checking.” And in haste, and without consulting Congress, the president decided what he decided.

For the time being, to the Kremlin this is a one-time and even somewhat understandable meltdown given the pressure on the inexperienced president by the generals and the cunning political players.

If so, three main things can be learned from the Russian analysis of the latest developments in Syria and Washington. First, because no one knows what really went through Trump’s mind when he decided to respond with force to Bashar Assad’s chemical attack, it’s best to put on the table (at least) two narratives, not one.

On the one hand, there’s the familiar narrative of a turnaround that Westerners and above all Trump are pushing: The Syrian dictator (and with him, it’s hinted, his boss in the Kremlin) crossed a red line when he murdered babies with gas, so we’ll now witness the return of the old-new America, even at the cost of a confrontation with Russia.

On the other hand, there's the Russian narrative, focusing on continuity: The Trump administration is trying with all its might to stick to a new political line. It’s trying to achieve a political partnership with Russia but is forced to succumb to pressure by strong American forces traditionally hostile to Russia.

Second, even if there’s clearly no reason to buy the narrative of Putinesque propaganda   certainly no more than the opposing simplistic narrative of Trump being moved by dying babies and deciding to return to the embrace of the "civilized nations"   it’s clear the Russian position on the American bombing is more complicated than what Western commentators are saying.

It’s understood that Russia is unhappy, to say the least, about America wielding power against its ally, and about the administration’s clear signaling that it's against Assad remaining in power. But for now, and in contrast to the Western images of Asiatic Russia being led by emotions, Russia isn’t getting worked up. In its eyes, this is simply a shift somehow meant to mollify Trump’s (and Russia’s) numerous sworn enemies in America and Europe.

With a wink, Russia also gives a kind of tacit approval to the American attack, which it can tolerate amid hopes that the desired change in American policy – that Washington will take into account Russia’s interests on the international stage – will come despite the schemes of the so-called Russophobes.

Third, a thorough examination of the Russian position compared to its portrayal in the West shows that there’s nothing new under the sun in the West. As during the Cold War, Western perceptions of Russian policies are based mainly on a superficial view of one-dimensional Oriental images.