MOSCOW — Russian officials reacted with fury on Friday to the Trump administration’s decision to launch an overnight missile strike on a Syrian air base.
It was the earliest and perhaps most important test of possible global fallout from the airstrike — the first major military action taken by the Trump administration against the Syrian regime — and initially, at least, Russia seemed primed for escalation.
“This move by Washington is causing dramatic damage to Russian-U.S. ties, which are in a dire state already,” said Dmitri Peskov, the spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a statement. The American attack, he added, was “an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law and under a made-up pretext.”
In a potentially destabilizing move, the Kremlin also announced it would be “suspending” a critical communications link that helps avoid accidental conflicts between American and Russian pilots over the skies of Syria. This so-called de-confliction channel has been instrumental in preventing Russian and American aircraft from crossing paths or shooting one another down amid their overlapping missions in Syria. Syria also called for an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council in Geneva.
But Russia, like any country, plays to multiple constituencies in its public proclamations, and as the day wore on, officials also seemed to be carving out room to maneuver, by downplaying the significance of the attack.
In a press conference for Russia media, Igor Konashenkov, the spokesman for the Ministry of Defense, mocked the American strike as “highly ineffective,” claiming that only 23 of the 59 Tomahawk missiles reached their intended target. He also accused the U.S. of relying on fake news reports of a Syrian regime chemical attack against civilians in Idlib province.
Images from the scene of the air base released by Russian media on Friday seemed to support the idea that the damage to planes and runways was relatively minimal, and Russian officials — who received significant forewarning of the attack — said that no Russian military personnel were killed or wounded. The Kremlin declined to respond to reports that Russia did not activate its anti-missile systems during the attack.
Defense analysts suggested that at least some officials were likely viewing the attacks with detachment — and an awareness of the realities of American domestic politics.
“This strike is aimed at the U.S. domestic audience,” said Sergey Markov, a Moscow-based political analyst known for articulating views that are generally in line with Kremlin-approved orthodoxy, in an interview with VICE News. Trump, he added, “is failing to become a real president, they are blocking his policies, and he is trying to overcome the shortcomings of his presidency.”
Markov added, “This will hardly result in a conflict with Russia. Russia understands [the strike] was staged for an American domestic agenda.”
Alexey Khlebnikov, a Moscow-based defense analyst, said he could see “a certain logic” to the attacks. “The U.S. started to lose control over the situation in Syria, which led to the growth of the influence of Russia, Iran, problems with Turkey, and so on. This unexpected decision helped him solve a series of matters.”
Khlebnikov also downplayed the importance of the de-confliction program’s suspension, saying it will “hardly lead to any serious consequences” because both sides would be determined to avoid such a conflict anyway.
“No one wants and plans such an incident,” he said. “This would mean the beginning of an open confrontation between Russia and the U.S., and nobody needs it.”
Salman Shaikh, CEO of the political consultancy The Shaikh Group, spent the few days before the strike visiting with officials in Moscow, largely to discuss Syria policy.
He told VICE News that he came away struck by Russian officials’ realistic perceptions about American intentions in Syria, and what he interpreted as an honest hope to continue a process of political conflict resolution — particularly ahead of next week’s visit to Moscow by U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson.
“I thought that the Russians understood the need to keep moving forward on a political process, although they obviously weren’t keen on moving away from Assad or discussing a political transition,” Shaikh said.
In the aftermath of the airstrikes, Shaikh added, there was a chance for talks to potentially start afresh, with a level playing field.
“Trump rebalanced the field on Syria, and that could bring more opportunities for the Russians and Americans, as difficult as it seems now,” he said. “In crisis, there’s opportunity.”
Mansur Mirovalev contributing