Kremlin officials, from President Vladimir Putin down, wasted no time in condemning the U.S.-led punitive airstrikes on Syria a week ago, warning of dire consequences. But Russian state-run media has focused more efforts on disputing the alleged Syrian government chemical attack, which prompted the Western airstrikes in the first place, than on the U.S.-led retaliation itself.
The distinction might seem minor, but analysts say it reflects a Kremlin decision to try to reduce tension with the U.S. and prevent further escalation. Moscow is still holding out hopes for a summit meeting between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian leader Vladimir Putin, they say.
Amid rapidly deteriorating relations between Western countries and Russia, with disputes raging over a range of issues, including Kremlin meddling in the domestic politics of the U.S. and European states and aggressive Russian online disinformation campaigns, Kremlin officials also seemingly are avoiding directly criticizing Trump, in marked contrast to their open disdain for British Prime Minister Theresa May and Britain’s foreign minister, Boris Johnson.
On Friday, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov told the RIA Novosti news agency he had faith that Putin and Trump won’t allow any armed confrontation to occur between the U.S. and Russia over Syria.
“Speaking about risks of a military confrontation, I am 100 percent sure that [the] militaries won’t allow this, and of course neither will President Putin or President Trump,” he said.
Lavrov confirmed that Trump had invited Putin to visit Washington during a phone call last month and added that the U.S. president had said he “would be happy to make a reciprocal visit [to Moscow].”The Kremlin is now expecting Trump to issue a formal invitation, say Russian officials. The White House previously announced that Trump had raised the possibility of a summit meeting.
Lavrov said prior to the Western airstrikes, which were carried out in retaliation for a suspected chemical attack by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on a rebel-held Damascus suburb that left a reported 70 dead and hundreds injured, Russian and U.S. military leaders discussed behind the scenes what would prompt Russian retaliation and how to avoid it.
The Kremlin’s “red lines” were mainly “geographical” and focused on ensuring no Russian servicemen or personnel would be killed or injured.
Lavrov said, “Anyway … these red lines’ were not crossed” during the Western airstrikes, which targeted three facilities in Syria, where Russia is backing President Assad’s forces in the civil war.
On Thursday, the Bloomberg news service reported the Kremlin had instructed officials to curb anti-U.S. rhetoric. And on Monday Russian lawmakers delayed moving draft legislation aimed at U.S. companies in retaliation for a fresh round of economic sanctions Washington imposed last month on Russia, which the U.S. Treasury Department said was payback for Russia’s “malign activity” in general.
The temporary withdrawal by Russian lawmakers of a draft law that would have impacted a broad range of trade with the U.S. came after Trump officials reassured Russia’s embassy in Washington on Sunday, April 15, that the White House wouldn’t be announcing more sanctions on Russia in the near future — despite an announcement to the contrary by the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, Nikki Haley.
Trump has made no secret of his wish to improve relations with Russia. After congratulating Putin on his re-election in March, Trump tweeted that “getting along with Russia [and others] is a good thing, not a bad thing.”
On the campaign trail, Trump regularly expressed the same sentiment, arguing it would be in the U.S. interest for him to shape a strong personal relationship with Putin. Trump has met Putin twice as president, at the Group of 20 summit in Germany last summer and briefly in Vietnam at the Asia-Pacific economic summit in November.
But a Trump-Putin summit could prove highly problematic for Trump in terms of domestic U.S. politics. It would likely sharpen divisions in the U.S. over relations with Russia as well as stoke partisan rancor over a special-counsel investigation into allegations that Trump’s campaign colluded in Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Trump won bipartisan praise last month on Capitol Hill, which is more skeptical of Russia than the U.S. president, for ordering the expulsion of 60 Russian diplomats, part of a coordinated Western move to punish the Kremlin for a March 4 nerve agent attack in England on former Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter.
But the U.S. leader also faced criticism last month for congratulating Putin on his re-election in a phone call in which he failed to raise the issue of the Skripal poisoning.
Trump’s foes fault him for shying away from criticizing Putin personally, arguing it gives credence to claims made by a former British spy, which are part of the special counsel probe, that the Kremlin holds compromising information on the U.S. president.
Domestic U.S. politics aside, any summit between the two leaders would be high risk and might be weighted with too many expectations that can’t be fulfilled.
In an interview with VOA last month, U.S. Ambassador to Russia Jon Huntsman warned against thinking in terms of a reset with Russia, saying a sudden breakthrough is unrealistic.
“The resets and the redos of years gone by, both Republicans and Democrats, always end in disaster,” he said. “They heighten expectations to the point of our inability to achieve any of those expectations. Hopes are dashed. Relationships crumble. We’ve seen that over and over again.”
But he added it was important to maintain a dialogue and to look for “natural openings to build trust in small ways.”
He acknowledged the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election by Special Counsel Robert Mueller is complicating U.S.-Russia diplomacy.
“I would be disingenuous if I said it didn’t impact the environment in which all of this plays out. And certainly the impact it has on members of Congress and the American people, who are a big part of fashioning the nature of our bilateral relationship.”
Rewarding aggressive behavior
Some analysts and former officials worry that holding a summit in the near future with relations between the two powers at their worst point since the Cold War would be widely seen as a reward for aggressive Russian behavior.
On Thursday, Prime Minister May accused Russia of trying “to undermine the international system,” pointing to an aggressive Russian internet disinformation campaign “intended to undermine the actual institutions and processes of the rules-based system.”
She said in the weeks after a suspected chemical attack in Syria and the poisoning of a Russian dissident in England, there had been a 4,000 percent increase in activity by Kremlin-linked social media trolls and automated accounts propagating what she called lies.