Into the bear pit: What awaits Tillerson in Moscow?

How will Russia respond to Trump’s Syria strikes?

Kadri Liik
Senior Policy Fellow
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On Friday morning, when the world woke up to the news of US missile strikes on Syria’s Al-Shayrat airbase, the first question in many people’s minds was about Russia: how will Moscow react? By now, it looks like Russia has reacted to the airstrikes exactly the same way as most of the rest of the world–by revising its assumptions of what can be expected from the Trump presidency. And like most other capitals, Moscow has stopped short of firm final judgement. President Trump still seems to have some “benefit of the doubt” in the Kremlin, but this is evaporating quickly. 

THE relationship

For Moscow, the relationship with the US is the relationship that guides and defines Russia’s policy aims and actions in many other directions–like a kaleidoscope, the turn of which makes the beads fall into different patterns. This is why, since November, some important policy files have been effectively “on hold”–Moscow does not know which direction to go, until it knows where it stands vis-à-vis Washington.  

Essentially, Moscow had been hoping that Trump would become a non-ideological president who puts “America first”, but deprioritizes the American-led world order, including the ideal of democracy. For Moscow, this would have made life a lot easier. While the two countries could still have clashed over many questions (such as China, Iran or missile defence), the most emotional issuesAmerica’s aspirations to democratise Russia, and Russia’s infringement on the American-led order by annexing Crimea–would have been off the agenda. So, it was hoped, would be democratic regime changes–another part of America’s “ideological behaviour” that Moscow has found deeply problematic.

Moscow’s noise-makers and decision-makers

It has been interesting to follow Moscow’s reactions to the growing pains and metamorphoses that the Trump administration has undergone since January. However, to understand the reactions adequately, one needs to distinguish between Moscow’s noise-makers and its decision-makers.

The noise-makers ’–mainly media and parliamentarians, with the TV talk show host Dmitry Kiselev in the role of tone-settertake on Trump has undergone a complete U-turn. The initial euphoria after the election turned to silence in February, when national security advisor Michael Flynn announced his resignation, and then to loud condemnation after Friday’s air strikes.

The decision-makers (chiefly, the Kremlin) have always been more cautious and level-headed. They did not go along with the euphoria, nor have they now lost all hope. But they have been signalling that, should the kaleidoscope of Moscow-US relations take a harsher turn, then the beads of other policies would be re-arranged accordingly.

An example of this signalling came within hours of Vice President Pence’s speech at the Munich Security Conference, in which he pledged to “hold Russia accountable” for its actions. In response, Putin signed an executive order recognising documents (such as birth, marriage and death certificates) issued by militias in the “people’s republics” of Donetsk and Luhansk, signalling his readiness to escalate on Ukraine.

Equally, Moscow’s decision last Friday to suspend the deconfliction agreements with the US in Syria signalled its readiness to defend Russia’s interests and strategy in the Middle East. But it was noteworthy that while the noise-makers were furious, the Kremlin’s statements remained measured, albeit tense.

What now?

Moscow’s next steps will now depend largely on its interpretation of what has happened, and why.

First, it matters how Moscow understands what happened in Idlib. If Moscow genuinely believes that the travesty was the result of a regime airstrike hitting a terrorist chemical weapons factory (rather than a deliberate chemical attack by the regime) then its view of US behaviour will be damning, and a retaliatory escalation is very possible.  

This is what happened in September, when, after America’s purportedly accidental attack on Syrian troops, Moscow began bombing Aleppo, wrecking the ceasefire agreement that was essentially drafted on Russia’s terms. The world was baffled by the seemingly senseless destruction, but the reason was that Moscow did not believe the US attack was accidental. Rather, Russia believed that the US was deliberately violating the terms of an agreement with Moscow, and its reaction was furious.

If, however, Moscow is knowingly putting forth a misleading explanation of events to protect its clients–as was the case with the downing of MH17, and as might be the case now–then it will be more understanding of the American reaction, and a counter-escalation is a lot less likely.

Secondly, it matters how Russia interprets Trump’s intentions. The Kremlin’s statement said that Trump is trying to avert attention from loss of life in Iraq. A more likely real interpretation is that he is trying to divert attention from troubles at home. Either of these reasons would, in the end, be tolerable to the Kremlin. In fact, if Trump managed to silence the talk in Washington about his links to Russia, that might even be convenient for Moscow.

Russia would also understand Trump’s desire to look strong, even vis-à-vis Russia. Russian analyst Dmitri Trenin has said that “Mr Trump has effectively done to Vladimir Putin what Mr Putin himself did to Barack Obama in September 2015 when he launched Russia’s military intervention in the Middle East”. While this would certainly rile Moscow, it could reluctantly accept it as legitimate tit-for-tat.

Is this the real Trump?

However, Moscow’s worst fear is the possibility that on Friday we saw the real emerging political face of the Trump administration. In this case, the “liberal ideological” Obama presidency would not have been replaced by a welcome pragmatist, but instead by another unilateral interventionist.  As put by Dmitri Suslov“Trump is acting ‘Bush lite’”, which for Russia is even worse than Obama.

The big question now in Moscow is whether the US has really changed its Syria policy to a position that ‘Assad must go’, and if yes, to what extent it is ready to use military means to achieve this. Any demand to make Assad’s departure a precondition for settlement will be a no-go in Moscow. This would entail a loss of face and ideological defeat of huge proportions. Furthermore, the Kremlin also treats this as a simply untenable demand.

If, however, America’s position is not that rigid, then Moscow will likely remain open to cooperation with the White House. Indeed, Russia could even make use of America’s “bad cop” presence to put pressure on Damascus and Tehran, whose fixation on military victory is equally untenable in Moscow’s eyes, and which likely frustrates the Kremlin more than it publicly acknowledges.

In October, Russia was bracing itself for a Hillary Clinton presidency that was expected to be antagonistic, potentially leading to a “kinetic clash” in Syria. Today, Moscow braces itself for Tillerson’s visit. He might get a somewhat mixed treatmentMoscow will want to express its displeasure with Friday’s eventsbut in reality, Moscow is probably desperate for a confirmation that what they saw last Friday was not the real Trump, but only a passing image.

If this turns out to be the case, then Trump can continue enjoying the Kremlin’s “benefit of the doubt” for a while longer. If, however, the Kremlin decides they saw the real Trump on Friday, then it will start readying itself for “kinetic clashes.” And reverberations of this turn of the kaleidoscope will likely be felt in policy beads far beyond Syria. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.


Kadri Liik
Senior Policy Fellow