US-Russian Relations Entering Into Hyper-Volatile Period As Trump Mulls Syria Strike

Following the gas attack on Douma, Syria, and overnight airstrikes launched by the Israeli Air Force, the diplomatic rhetoric between the United States and Russia has devolved into its most combative state since the end of the Cold War. In terms of volatility, it far exceeds that which followed Russia’s invasion of Crimea in 2014. With both sides having promises to keep, the two powers now appear to be on an incredibly dangerous course that could collide over the next hours or days. 

During an emergency meeting of the U.N. Security Council, Russia and the U.S. had at it in spectacular fashion. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley did not mince words when it came to Russia’ culpability in the gas attack on Douma over the weekend, stating in part:

“The monster who was responsible for these attacks has no conscience… The Russian regime, whose hands are all covered in the blood of Syrian children, cannot be shamed by pictures of its victims. We’ve tried that before… Russia’s obstructionism will not continue to hold us hostage when we are confronted with an attack like this one… Russia and Iran have military advisers at the Assad regime’s airfields and operations centers. Russian officials are on the ground helping direct the regime’s ‘starve and surrender’ campaigns, and Iranian allied forces do much of the dirty work. When the Syrian military pummels civilians, they rely on the military hardware given by Russia. Russia could stop this senseless slaughter if it wanted. But it stands with the Assad regime and supports it without hesitation.

The United States is determined to see the monster who dropped chemical weapons on the Syrian people held to account… We must not overlook Russia and Iran’s roles in enabling the Assad regime’s murderous destruction… We are beyond showing pictures of dead babies. History will record this as the moment when the Security Council either discharged its duty or demonstrated its utter and complete failure to protect the people of Syria… Either way, the United States will respond.”

Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzia fired back at the U.S. with dour rhetoric:

“We are not particularly keen to be friends with you. We are not begging to be friends with you. What we want from you is really nothing, it’s something that is normal: civilized relations, which you arrogantly refuse, disregarding elementary, basic courtesy… And you are misguided if you think that you have friends… So-called friends of yours are only those who cannot say no to you, and, this is the sole criterion for friendship in your understanding. Russia has friends and unlike yourselves, we do not have adversaries. We do not view the world through that prism.”

While a war of words was raging at the U.N., President Trump made the following remarks during a cabinet meeting at the White House, in which he made it clear he thinks he knows who is responsible and that there will be a high price to pay:

After making his remarks, in a rare occurrence, the President took on Russian President Vladimir Putin, saying that he too will pay a price for Russia’s involvement in the attack if that indeed is the case:

It’s also worth noting that this is new White House National Security Advisor John Bolton’s first day on the job.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis also noted to reporters that nothing has been ruled out as far as a response and that he is working with America’s allies on that front. He also called Russia out as well, saying:

“The first thing we have to look at is why are chemical weapons still being used at all when Russia was the framework guarantor of removing all the chemical weapons.”

Meanwhile, Russia has denied its involvement and that of the Syrian government in the gas attack and has repeated that it is being used as a pretext for military aggression against Assad’s regime and Russian interests in Syria. Russia also warned of major consequences if the U.S. executes a punitive set of strikes in Syria. Russia has repeatedly made statements at the highest levels of government that any U.S. attack on regime and Syrian military targets in the western part of the country would be met with counterattacks on U.S. interests in the region, as well as other ‘unintended consequences.’

Now, after meeting with his military and national security advisors, Trump seems to have decided on some sort of response to the gas attack. At the same time his demand to pull out of Syria in the near-term still stands, with one caveat:  

So what we are left with are the two foes with the world’s largest nuclear weapons stockpiles that have backed themselves into a corner via past statements and promises. And above all else, U.S. intelligence is certainly trying to handicap Moscow’s response based on a series of choices laid out to the President. For lack of a better term, a military operation aimed at Assad it tantamount to an extremely volatile game of geopolitical chicken.

If the U.S. has indeed decided to act militarily in the short term, involving France and the United Kingdom, and possibly other countries, including Arab states to some degree, will help with keeping Russia’s response to any actions in check. But still, Russia’s Ministry of Defense has made it clear that they would retaliate militarily if Assad’s military capabilities were targeted and such a response could immediately strike up a skirmish that could escalate quickly far beyond Syrian borders. 

It’s worth noting under the current circumstances that today is the 15th anniversary of the statue of Saddam Hussein being torn down in Firdos Square during the regime-change military operation in that country widely known as Operation Iraqi Freedom. Saddam, like Assad, was also a horrific dictator who brutalized and even gassed his own people. But simply getting rid of a bad guy doesn’t necessarily mean you are saving lives or a country from devastation—quite the opposite really. Trump’s top national security aid still believes strongly that the Iraq war was a good thing and the right call to have made. Quite frankly, there isn’t really an opposing regime to the United States that John Bolton hasn’t wanted to change, at whatever the cost, over the last 15 years. 

This doesn’t mean that Trump would attempt a decapitation strike on Assad or try to topple him militarily in any way, but it is a stark reminder of the massive and unintended long-term consequences of America’s military actions overseas. And in Iraq the U.S. didn’t have Russia operating militarily and even basing its troops and hardware within that country and vowing to protect Saddam whatever the cost.

In this case, Trump has to do something substantial militarily or nothing militarily at all. A pinprick missile attack like the one a year ago will be a laughable measure this time around and will mean next to nothing to a now far more powerful Assad. We have discussed this in depth multiple times before, but now that the President has basically painted himself into a corner when it comes to acting or not, he has to take away something dear to Assad if he decides to act militarily at all. 

Assad’s integrated air defense system is a particularly attractive target set because it will leave him vulnerable to wider follow-up strikes. The destruction of entire airfields and the aircraft based at them is another good option. Basically neutering his ability to wage air warfare would be a significant loss. The gas that was dropped on Douma was supposedly delivered via a barrel bomb out the back of a helicopter so this would be a relevant target set under the circumstances. Non-military regime targets are also attractive as well and could be paired with military targets to send a strong message. 

Another non-military avenue does exist, and it could be far more effective when it comes to realizing change in Syria than firing Tomahawks and dropping JDAMs. The sanctions just placed by the U.S. on Russian oligarchs with direct ties to the Kremlin have sent Russian markets into a free-fall. Russia’s RDX index dropped a whopping 11.5% and the MOEX index dropped 8.5% today as a result. The Ruble was also sent tumbling. 

The impact of such economic retreat hits Russia on all levels, including at the very top of the food chain, and can send its economy into a nosedive. This means Russia will have even fewer Rubles to pay for its over ambitious weapons development programs that it can’t already afford as well as its foreign policy excursions abroad. It will also put pressure on Putin at home to dial-back his foreign policy brinksmanship and to curtail his increasingly painful Syrian adventure

Assad has only kept himself in power because of Russia’s intervention into the Syrian civil war. Assad does what he is told by his Moscow masters. If Russia paid dearly economically for Assad’s maleficent acts, they are likely to stop. 

Going after the Kremlin’s pocketbook really shouldn’t be an option, it should happen regardless of if a military operation is paired with it or not. Now that the Trump administration is finally taking something akin to a harder line against Moscow, maybe such an action is possible. 

Regardless of what option or options the President chooses going forward in response to the gas attack in Douma, it seems as if tensions between Washington and Moscow are finally near the boiling point. Neither side is feigning friendship on any level anymore and the once bitter Cold War rivals seemed to have finally crossed the horizon into a much murkier standoff, one that has the real potential of going hot in some fashion or another within the next 48 hours.

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Tyler Rogoway


Tyler’s passion is the study of military technology, strategy, and foreign policy and he has fostered a dominant voice on those topics in the defense media space. He was the creator of the hugely popular defense site Foxtrot Alpha before developing The War Zone.