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Mon. Sep 24th, 2018

After the strike, Russia’s romance with Donald Trump is dead

A secondary casualty of the American attack was the illusion of a rapprochement

The Economist- Moscow  THERE was a time when the Russian government had high hopes for its relationship with Donald Trump. Those hopes had already faded in recent weeks, as Mr Trump’s friendly rhetoric during the presidential campaign was swept away by American investigations of Kremlin interference in the election. Mr Trump’s decision to attack a Syrian government airfield on April 7th dispelled the last of the illusions. “This step by Washington is causing significant damage to Russian-American relations, which are already in a deplorable state,” Vladimir Putin’s spokesman, Dmitry Peskov, said on Friday.

Russia’s reaction was predictably angry. The Kremlin called the missile strikes “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international rights”. Russia’s foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, compared them to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the foreign ministry appealed to the United Nations for an emergency Security Council meeting. In Moscow’s eyes, the attacks mark a return to an American policy of interventionism and “regime change”, which Russia blames for bringing chaos to the Middle East. On Friday, Russian state television aired a long segment recapping the history of American military operations abroad, from Nicaragua to Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. “America regularly resorts to military interventions to substantiate its claims to global leadership,” the anchor tut-tutted.

Moscow was initially fond of Mr Trump because he seemed to want to reduce America’s global role. He disparaged NATO and seemed uninterested in promoting human rights. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone,” he said during his inaugural address. During the Obama presidency, Mr Trump spoke out often against attacking Syria. If Friday’s strikes portend a willingness to play a more forceful role in the Middle East, they may threaten Mr Putin’s recent gains in the region. By sending in bombers and special forces to back Bashar al-Assad, the Kremlin sought to reestablish Russia’s status as a global power and demonstrate that no one else could take major steps in the Middle East without taking Russian interests into account. Mr Trump appears to have done just that.

Russia responded by suspending a so-called “deconfliction” agreement with America, designed to prevent accidental clashes in Syrian airspace. Russia’s military also announced plans to strengthen air defences at Syrian government positions. On Friday afternoon, Mr Putin called an emergency meeting of his security chiefs to discuss the situation in Syria. “Those who feared US-Russian collusion will now have to fear their collision,” wrote Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank. Moscow’s Syrian and Iranian allies may decide to stage their own shows of force, too.

Yet for all of the inflamed rhetoric, Russia’s response so far has been mostly talk. The Pentagon reportedly warned the Russian military of the coming missiles, and Russia did nothing to stop them. (No Russians were harmed in attack.) As Mark Galeotti, an expert on the Russian military, points out, Russia’s highly-vaunted air defence systems in Syria were not even activated. Mr Putin is a pragmatist, and has no desire for direct conflict with America. “Moscow might not like Washington’s response, but nor was it willing to stand in the way of it,” wrote Mr Galeotti. “That is a heartening sign of realism.”

Russia’s next moves will depend on how Mr Trump’s policy takes shape. Are the strikes a one-off measure, as some initially suggested, or a strategic shift in Washington’s stance on Syria? “Trump declared that ‘we’re here,’” says Fyodor Lukyanov of the Council on Foreign and Defense Policy, a Russian government advisory body. “But no one knows what he wants to do there.” All eyes will be on America’s Secretary of State Rex Tillerson when he visits Moscow next week. Though Mr Tillerson and Mr Putin enjoyed friendly relations during his days as head of Exxon Mobil, their coming meeting will be anything but chummy.

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