Here’s Why U.S.-Russia Military Conflict Over Syria Is Looking More And More Likely
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Fyodor A. Lukyanov

Russia in Global Affairs
National Research University–Higher School of Economics, Moscow, Russia
Faculty of World Economy and International Affairs
Research Professor;
Valdai Discussion Club
Research Director


SPIN RSCI: 4139-3941
ORCID: 0000-0003-1364-4094
ResearcherID: N-3527-2016
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The Russia-U.S. relationship is rapidly getting back to “normal” ? mutual rejection and confrontation. Just days ago, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow this week was anticipated with hope that the two countries would at last start working on a new agenda and preparing a meeting of their presidents. But the attack on Syria has changed the nature of the trip: now it will be an attempt to ease a new acute crisis in relations between Moscow and Washington.

It now seems clear that the visit ? the first one to Russia since the new U.S. administration came to power ? will rehearse the past instead of herald a new departure. What conclusions has Moscow drawn from the failed rapprochement with Trump?

Firstly, Washington’s internal objectives have outweighed external ones. In fact, this is fully consonant with the “America First” priorities Trump has declared but in a somewhat unexpected way. He was generally expected to reduce foreign policy activism and move in the direction of isolationism in order to focus on domestic problems. But having encountered challenges in implementing his domestic political agenda, Trump decided to use foreign policy as an instrument for improving the political atmosphere around his administration.

His tactics proved successful ? the strike on Syria was the first move to win broad approval in Washington. But this is very dangerous strategically, because the White House has no further plan of action in Syria. As one can see from a series of contradictory statements, it is not clear what exactly the U.S. wants to achieve there.   

Washington is essentially returning to its own position of two to three years ago ? regime change in Syria and support for rebels ? but in an entirely new situation which, in the worst-case scenario, can lead to a direct military confrontation with Russian armed forces. The main impetus of his action is less about an international strategy than a desire to reverse the current political situation in the U.S.

Secondly, Russia-U.S. confrontation is the norm. Trump’s election sparked hopes in Moscow that radical changes in the American policy could help improve bilateral relations. These illusions are gone now.

Russia is not in and of itself an important focus for the U.S. It is not a priority but rather an instrument for tackling other tasks that are truly important to the U.S.  The disproportionate attention Russia is given in American political debates should not mislead anyone in Moscow. This is not a sign of its significance but, on the contrary, an indication of disregard. Russia appears to be only a convenient foil useful for settling political contention between different interest groups in Washington.

At the same time, there is one factor that has not changed for decades: mutual nuclear deterrence, the ability of the two countries to destroy each other physically. This underlies the confrontational nature of relations which has gone in circles since the 1950s from aggravation to relaxation and back.

Thirdly, Trump is not impulsive and unpredictable. He has acted exactly as he declared. The main idea of his political rhetoric during the election campaign and before it was that “everyone must respect us, and if anyone doesn’t, we will make him do it.” The purpose of the strike on a Syrian military base was to show everyone that America is back in the game, the period of confusion and standoffishness is over, and neither Russia nor anyone else can act as if the U.S. is not there. In this respect, Trump thinks much the same way as Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom he complimented for outplaying Obama.

But there is also a fundamental difference. Apart from his readiness to act decisively and unexpectedly, without always abiding by formal procedures, Putin has a clear goal to achieve, be it move into Crimea or intervene in Syria. Trump and his team produce no such impression, and their desire to demonstrate strength and determination is apparently a value in itself. This leads us to the next difference. Putin is a master of risky, brinkmanship games, which means that he is aware of the risks and the red lines involved. Whether Trump, who has no experience in international relations, is aware of them is a big question.

Fourthly, it would be senseless for either side to make concessions under the present circumstances. For Trump, an agreement can only be reached from a position of strength. But for Putin, there can be no agreement under pressure. This is risky and can have far-reaching consequences.  Russia is clearly not seeking confrontation at this point unless pressure keeps growing. But, judging from various leaks in Washington, it will grow and thus so will the counteraction.

One can only count on the prudence of the military on both sides in taking precautions to avoid a direct conflict. But this is a very fragile situation in the absence of political contact. Political coordination with a partner who is guided primarily by domestic needs and considerations of prestige is an extremely unreliable undertaking. 

Theoretically, one can assume that by strengthening his political positions inside America, Trump will get more leeway in relations with Russia. But the political crisis in the U.S. is so deep and acute that one demonstrative action is obviously not enough and will have to be followed by others. The unanimous support of the strike by allies, who rejoiced that the U.S. showed its willpower and resolve, will encourage Washington to act in the same vein again. Faint prospects for a political settlement that began to emerge when the U.S. had stepped back may be ruined again by great-power rivalry. Its logic is merciless, with priority given not to the interests of the Syrian people but to the prestige of the major players, which is extremely important for both Putin and Trump.  

One could generally say that the Russian-U.S. relationship is getting back to normal if it were not for the fact that there is no understanding of Washington’s priorities and goals across the international agenda. Russia will most likely show guarded restraint and give up its illusory hope for any qualitative change in Russia-U.S. relations. But if pressure keeps growing, Russia will respond in its own manner ? asymmetrically and sharply.

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