MOSCOW - Several days have passed since the U.S. fired cruise missiles into Syria, marking its first direct military involvement in the six-year war there. Russia, the Syrian regime’s partner, has been fuming ever since.
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U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due in Moscow on Wednesday, in what is increasingly being billed as the most important political meeting to take place in Russia this year.
What can we expect next? Here are three possible scenarios.
We know the Russian bear is angry. Tillerson’s meeting with President Vladimir Putin this week is no longer on the schedule. It’s unclear who rebuffed whom, but this cancellation is significant. The two have known each other for years, while Tillerson was chief executive of Exxon Mobil. In 2013, Putin pinned the prestigious Order of Friendship Russian medal onto Tillerson’s lapel. Afterwards, the two had broad smiles as they shook hands in front of a picture of oil rigs. For Tillerson to come all the way to Moscow and not meet Putin is a major swipe, for at least one of them.
But will Moscow’s ire prompt action? On Sunday, a joint command center made up of the forces of Russia, its long-time ally Iran and Hezbollah in Syria, all supporting Syrian President Bashar Assad, pledged to respond to force with force. “America knows our ability to respond well,” the group said in a statement, it what felt more like a warning.
As if to prepare for battle, Russia’s cruise missile-armed frigate has joined other warships off the coast of Syria, the military said. It is armed with Kalibr cruise missiles, torpedoes and anti-aircraft equipment, and has been used previously in fighting ISIS and the Nusra Front in Syria. In a hint of further aggression, the Kremlin’s chief spin doctor said on his weekly show Vesti Sunday evening, “The world is at a highly dangerous point at the moment.” Dmitry Kiselyov said, “No one is about to declare war on the U.S., but we can’t leave this without a response.”
A large portion of Kiselyov’s Sunday show was dedicated to recent terrorism around the globe: Egypt, Sweden, and of course the St. Petersburg metro blast on April 3, which killed 14 people and injured scores more. Kiselyov’s show is widely seen as a way into the Kremlin’s thoughts, and the attention paid to terror is telling. “Russia will continue its fight against terrorism with its partner Syria, the kind of terrorism that Russia just witnessed in St. Petersburg,” Kiselyov said.
On Saturday, government-organized marches took place across Russia, in a massive show of force against terrorism. State-sponsored media said 100,000 people took part. Seniors clutched fresh spring daffodils, youths hoisted placards saying “together we will defend the fatherland” and hundreds of white balloons were released. This followed a previous anti-terror march held in Moscow shortly after the St. Petersburg attack.
In the initial announcements by Russia's Foreign Ministry and the U.S. embassy, Tillerson was due to discuss joint ways of combating terrorism with his counterpart, Sergei Lavrov. The marches this weekend, heavily orchestrated as they were, are sure to have caught Tillerson’s eye, or at least they will once he has sat down with Lavrov. Post-Soviet Russia has a bloody history of terrorism, mostly stemming from the two Chechen wars for independence. It is now faced with a new threat – ISIS – one that also scares the United States. Appearing as a united nation determined to counter extremist forces tends to jibe well with Washington (few have forgotten that Putin was the first world leader to call George Bush after the 9/11 attacks, offering sympathy and support). Will it work this time and smooth out the ugliness between the two countries, so they can discuss Syria in a serious, constructive manner?
Despite rising hostilities, the Kremlin – read: Putin – is known for impulsiveness, and we could see a U-turn over the coming days. After the chemical attack in Idlib province that killed 90 people – for which the West placed the blame on Assad, and some on Russia, too – Putin surprised us all when he said the Kremlin’s support for Assad was “not unconditional.” This could have been designed to temporarily mollify Putin’s critics. It could also signal that Putin is increasingly fed up of covering for Assad. But perhaps it is part of a larger game of innocence that the Kremlin is presenting.
On Sunday, Russia’s top war correspondent Evgeny Poddubny, who works for a state-backed channel, posted various photos of himself on Instagram at the Shayrat airbase. In one, he is sitting amongst the Cyrillic-printed, metallic containers that Western media and analysts have said once contained chemical weapons, and were therefore proof that Russia was complicit in the attack. “It makes no sense to breathe in mustard gas/sarin gas/chlorine/ammonia,” he sarcastically wrote under his picture. Later, on state television, Poddubny wiped the dust from the containers, saying that they were used for traditional cluster bombs, which are used by both sides of the conflict. Also on Sunday, other state media repeated Russia’s claim that the rebels in Syria, and not the Assad regime, were in possession of chemical weapons.
Russia’s claim to innocence was further bolstered on Friday by Bolivia’s envoy to the UN, Sacha Llorenti. Since falling out with the U.S. a year ago, Bolivia and Russia have forged closer ties, especially in the military sphere. Llorenti took aim at the U.S. when he held up a picture of Colin Powell, saying: “He came to this room to present to us, in his own words, convincing proof that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.” Referring to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, Llorenti continued, “Could we talk about ISIS if that invasion hadn’t taken place?” Russia has repeatedly used the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which was subsequently deemed illegal by the UN, as proof that Washington and its allies are hypocritical.
Russia has called for an independent investigation into the sarin gas attack in Idlib, but considering Russia’s previous displays of seeking “transparency” in international catastrophes where it is suspected of involvement (take the downed Malaysia Airlines plane over rebel-held eastern Ukraine in 2014, which Russia still blames on the government in Kiev despite an international committee saying otherwise), this is most likely an extra verse in its song of innocence.