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US-Russian relations turn sour

Fiona Clark Moscow
April 10, 2017

Where to now for US/Russian relations in the wake of Trump's actions against Syria? Fiona Clark looks at the convoluted relations between the two players.

New York Proteste gegen US-Syrien Angriff
Image: picture-alliance/Zuma/E. Mcgregor

So, the honeymoon might be over, but does US President Donald Trump's decision to unilaterally bomb a Syrian airfield really mean divorce is imminent? Despite a barrage of baseless conspiracy theories bantering about the bombing being a cunning way to divert attention away from Trump's alleged ties to the Kremlin, the view from Russia certainly appears to be one of abject disappointment.

Cries of foul play resounded with Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov accusing Trump of breaking international law and describing the airstrikes as "an act of aggression with an invented pretext," which, he hoped, would not lead to irreparable damage to US-Russian relations.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev went further. He said trust was gone and that relations were "completely ruined" by an action that put them "on the verge of a military clash."

Read: Gabriel: Russia backs Syrian chemicals attack probe

And it seems the disappointment may only get worse. Nikki Haley, the US Ambassador to the UN, has indicated that the US is adding the ousting of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to its list of priorities alongside the defeat of IS in the region. 

She also raised the prospect of further sanctions against Russia over its support of the Assad regime.

Tillerson's task

The statement is going to make US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's job in Moscow this week all the more difficult. He maintains Washington's first priority is the defeat of the "Islamic State" (IS) group, and that the United States is still hopeful it can help bring all parties to the table to begin the process of hammering out a political solution.

"If we can achieve ceasefires in zones of stabilization in Syria, then we hope we will have the conditions to begin a useful political process," Tillerson told CBS's Face the Nation.

A long-time friend of Moscow, Tillerson may have a shot at smoothing the troubled waters, but the underlying problem will remain.

Trump's actions, which many see as justified as drawing a belated line in the sand against the use of chemical weapons, was, it appears, sparked by an emotional response. There appears to be no long-term strategy or plan and the risk is, if challenged again by another chemical weapons strike, he will have to take further action and end up embroiled in a regional battle he hadn't really bargained for and that brings him into direct conflict with Russia.

Kombobild Trump Putin
Just when you thought they might be able to work together...

Read: Putin and Rouhani condemn US missiles against Syria

Predictability, reliability and foreign policy

Russia's support for Assad isn't because they love the man or what he stands for - it's about regional influence and oil. If they can find a suitable replacement for Assad who would ensure Russia's interests in the region, they'd probably jump at it. But if the US steps in any further and rocks its boat, extending its influence beyond the Saudi-backed states further south, the Kremlin will not be happy.

So how can you have a political dialogue when you don't know whether the people you're negotiating with are going to uphold their end of the bargain?

As Lavrov pointed out: "An attack on a country whose government fights terrorism only plays into the hands of extremists, creates additional threats to regional and global security."

And if Trump had considered the consequences, then he certainly didn't care about them. Irrespective of whether the decision was right or wrong, Russia will see this as an example of US arrogance and imperialism.

Read: Syria, Russia to dominate G7 meeting amid questions over US strategy

Not only that, but it highlights the central problem with Trump - his unpredictability. The Kremlin may be duplicitous and opportunistic, but it's rarely random, and it will find it very hard to deal with impulsive behavior and wavering foreign policy.

Tillerson will have his work cut out for him in trying to convince the Kremlin that Trump can be trusted.

There's only about one certainty in all of this - as US warships steam ahead toward North Korea, President Putin may well be ruing the Kremlin's alleged involvement in getting Trump elected. The monster it supposedly helped created may pose more problems for it than it ever envisaged.