How the Syria Strike Flipped the U.S.-Russia Power Dynamic

If Moscow had grown accustomed to being the unpredictable partner in the relationship, it will have to make adjustments.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a news conference on April 12, 2017.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attend a news conference on April 12, 2017. (Sergei Karpukhin / Reuters)

MOSCOW—The American airstrike on the Shayrat air base in Syria didn’t do all that much. A day and 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles later, Bashar al-Assad was still in power, his planes were still taking off from Shayrat, still flying and still dropping bombs and killing people in the same areas of Idlib Province where a sarin gas attack killed more than 80 people last week. What the strike did do, though, was radically alter the power dynamic between Moscow and Washington that Vladimir Putin had spent the last three years establishing: one in which Putin acts and Washington, gobsmacked, scrambles to react.

By the time Secretary of State Rex Tillerson landed here on Tuesday night, it was Moscow that was trying to find the right response to an American president who, in 63 hours, completely inverted an isolationist message he had stuck to for nearly two years, a message his administration had been trumpeting just days prior. And by the time Tillerson wrapped up his meetings in Moscow, Trump was singing hosannas to Xi Jinping, leader of a country he had previously vowed to label a currency manipulator, while taking the stage with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg and declaring that, suddenly, NATO was “no longer obsolete,” as Trump had maintained during the campaign.

“We have to figure out what this country’s strategy is,” Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said on a political talk show on TVRain, an independent Russian channel, just hours after Tillerson touched down in Moscow, and hours before meetings were set to begin. “No one understands it right now. If you do, share your appraisal with us,” she said, flustered, to us journalists interviewing her. “We don’t understand what they’re going to do in Syria, and not only there. No one understands what they’re going to do in the Middle East, which is a very complicated region. … No one understands what they’re going to do with Iran, no one understands what they’re going to do with Afghanistan. Excuse me, and I still haven’t said anything about Iraq.”

Moreover, she complained, who were the Russians supposed to talk to to find out? “Just look, the team … is not fully formed,” Zakharova said. “Even if the key people, the heads of the agencies have been named … there’s no layer between them and the work horses. It’s just not there.” Her boss, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, pointedly told the National Interest two weeks ago that close cooperation with Tillerson “could only be done when the team in the State Department is complete.”

As for Tillerson’s sudden transformation from a friend of Russia, decorated by Putin with an Order of Friendship, to someone who publicly chastises its leadership for being “complicit or simply incompetent” in its guarantee of helping Assad dispose of his chemical weapons, Russians are trying to be understanding. “We’re surprised by the change of rhetoric and policy of Trump,” said Igor Korotchenko, the editor of National Defense Magazine, who has close connections to the Russian defense ministry. “Tillerson is just the executor of his boss’s policy. And that’s what really does surprise us. We understand that things in America change quickly, but this is … he’s jumping from one extreme to the other. We’re ready for dialogue. We just have to understand what they want.”

“Tillerson has to explain what Trump’s foreign policy is. What is Trump’s foreign policy?” said political scientist Andranik Migranyan, an old classmate of Lavrov’s who ran a Russian think tank in New York that worked on defending Moscow’s position. Lavrov’s thinking on confronting this new twist, Migranyan told me, is “‘You explain to us what it is you want, and then we can talk.’ The whole world is waiting for them to figure this out and stop messing with us.”

But there is no end to that in sight. So while Trump gradually discovers the world’s complexities, in the process flipping the script on his own dogmas, Moscow has apparently decided to take the position of the forbearing parent who is waiting out the tumultuous teenage years.

Sitting next to a stern, terse Tillerson, who looked straight ahead and never at his Russian counterpart, Lavrov was all suave patience. “As far as I’m concerned, I’d just like to say that we do not consider that we are miles apart on many questions on the agenda,” he said. He insisted on underlining the issues on which there is agreement—terrorism must be fought together, for instance. When it came to the areas where there was disagreement, he blamed another, unnamed party.

As the self-appointed adult, Lavrov of course had to remind Tillerson that he has been at this much longer, and remembered much more. “As far as Syria is concerned and Bashar al-Assad, we talked today about the history, and Rex said that he was a new man and is not interested so much in history; he wants to deal with today’s problems. But the world is so constructed that unless we look at what’s happened in the past, we won’t be able to deal with the present.” There followed a familiar history lecture on all of America’s foreign-policy failures of the last 20 years. (“Maybe it’s time to ask Moscow’s advice if you get it wrong so many times?” said Migranyan.)

And, of course, Lavrov tried hard to get the trigger-happy, too-young-to-remember Americans back on a calm and steady course. Yes, what happened on April 4 was terrible, but how does anyone know what really happened? While Tillerson and Lavrov met, for instance, Putin said in an interview that he had heard several versions of the chemical-attack story, including that it was a false-flag operation to discredit Assad. And while Tillerson told a Russian reporter yesterday that Assad “brought upon himself” all the mean things Trump said about him, Lavrov tried to play the part of the impartial referee: Let’s not fight until we know what happened. “We have insisted that … we have a very thorough investigation of all that,” Lavrov said. And whoever doesn’t want to have a very thorough investigation, “this will mean that they simply don’t want to establish the truth.” (That said, while Lavrov was in Moscow calling for an investigation, the Russians in New York were busy vetoing a UN resolution that called for an investigation, saying it already presupposed the culprit.)

This was classic Russia, but it was also the only thing left to Russian decision-makers in the face of such a stunning and unexpected reversal. Taken by surprise, Lavrov had to steer everything back onto the playing field in which Russia excels: bureaucracy. If a terrible thing occurred, who could be against an investigation? Don’t you want to know the truth? Of course you do. But Russia means something very different than its Western counterparts do when it says “investigation” and “truth,” as it did when it insisted on an investigation after the downing of Malaysia Airlines flight 17 over eastern Ukraine. That investigation took years, during which the memory of children’s toys and vacation guides and limbs scattered among sunflowers faded, and years during which Russia conducted its own investigation anyway, which predictably absolved it of any blame.

And if America claims that it stands for international law and order, why not take the matter to the international legal bodies, like the United Nations, who can adjudicate this fight? You are for law and order, aren’t you? But Russians are bureaucratic ninjas—their strongest rulers, Putin and Stalin, were strong in large part because of their bureaucratic prowess—and they will find every way to slow down, obfuscate, and slowly bleed of life any initiative. A Russian journalist once told me of reporting from the European parliament in Strasbourg, where the Russian emissary—not a member of the parliament himself—ground the proceedings to a halt by pointing out that, because different copies of the resolution were printed on paper of different colors, it was impossible to go forward, because how could anyone know that the pink copy and the yellow copy had the exact same wording?

The point, in other words, is to freeze Trump’s unexpectedly hot temper by herding it into a labyrinth of procedure for procedure’s sake, where, while it dies a slow and frustrating bureaucratic death, Russia will have the time and breathing room to continue giving Assad cover to reconquer Syria. “Our current goal is to end the civil war, and to get the terrorists anyway while we’re there, so there’s a single, secular Syria,” says Korotchenko. “We’ll never leave Syria. We have two bases there. We’ll be there for the nearest 50 years, at least.”