A new article went up on The Atlantic‘s website yesterday: “In Syria, Russia Falls Victim to Its Own Success.”
The main thrust of the article is that Moscow’s response to Trump’s missile attack on the Shayrat air base near Homs, Syria has been halfhearted:
Despite its morning protestations, the Russian Defense Ministry got out of the way after the Pentagon used the deconfliction channels to warn Moscow of the coming attack. The day before Trump rushed to action and Peskov was forced to repeat Russia’s standard tropes about Syria’s national sovereignty and international law and going through the UN, Putin’s spokesman seemed to hint at Moscow’s fatigue with a client gone rogue. Moscow’s support for Assad, Peskov said, “is not unconditional,” before retreating behind platitudes about the need for a thorough—read: long—investigation into the chemical attack and assurances that Moscow did not have full control over Assad. Even Moscow’s defense of Assad—that his air force hadn’t dropped sarin gas on civilians but had simply bombed a rebel warehouse containing sarin—felt weak.
I think that of the Russian emigre journalists working today, Julia Ioffe usually has her finger on the pulse of what the Russian urban liberal intelligentsia is thinking. I think she has close contacts in Moscow and keeps abreast of the Russian-language liberal press. I think she understands, more than most American journalists, the actual environment in which young Russian urban professionals live.
I don’t say this to try to marginalize the Russian liberal intellectual viewpoint. Historically, liberal intellectuals have had huge cultural and political influence in Russia, more than they have in the United States. But I think that Ioffe’s view of events in Russia is seen through the lens of that quite small demographic, as well as through the distortion field of the US information space. Putin and most of his people are neither liberal nor young. So I don’t think that Julia Ioffe has her finger on the pulse of the Russian leadership and what Putin and his inner circle are thinking, or how they go about doing things.
In terms of Putin’s response, the official Russian media response on the morning after the missile attack means nothing, other than that Putin is biding his time. The fact that the Russian military evacuated before the missiles hit also means nothing, other than that Putin is biding his time.
Why? As another Putin observer put it, “the endless churn of the short-term news cycle provides a perfect hiding place for political actors with more fixed policy strategies.”
As many similarities as there might be between Putin and Trump, the Russian and American political landscapes are not similar at all. Trump, even though he won a hard-fought election and has broad powers under the Constitution, has to struggle every day to have the actual power to get anything done. He has to worry about “winning” every news cycle. Trump is an extreme example, but to a greater or lesser extent every U.S. president since at least Clinton, and probably earlier, is in this same situation. Trump has to worry about leaks, disloyal senior administration officials, ongoing investigations, his enemies in the Congress and the media, and he has to worry, frankly, about the consequences of his own mistakes and missteps.
Putin is under much less pressure, and that’s a huge understatement. And my interpretation of his reaction to the Syria missile strike is that he’s trying to keep his options open while the situation develops, and not let events box him into a situation where he has to make a hasty decision. As Ioffe puts it:
Putin is brilliant at finding quick maneuvers that advance his agenda in the moment. He … kicks the can down the road, repeatedly. But that road is not endless, and time doesn’t always work in his favor.
But this is a sort of tautology when used to describe politics, or work in general, or even life. Politics very rarely resolves anything. Is there a politician who doesn’t kick the can down the road?
Why did Russia evacuate its people from the target area? Because if American missiles had killed Russian servicemen, Putin would’ve been under heavy pressure to go on a war footing vs. the United States. Ordinary Russians would have been in the streets screaming. They’d make demands that the Russian leadership would be compelled to address.
As much as people would like to make Putin out to be “the most powerful man in the world,” the US military machine is scary. Russian people in general, and I’m sure the Russian military, would prefer to avoid any kind of direct confrontation with US armed forces, while saving face to the extent they can. If Putin can get his soldiers out of the way of a surprise nighttime attack by 60 Tomahawk missiles, that’s a no-brainer. He loses very little face by doing that.
Ioffe is right that Russia gains little from trying to argue that Assad is a good guy. Peskov’s comment that Russia’s support for Assad is not unconditional just underlines that Russia backs Assad in the absence of a viable alternative to his rule, other than breaking Syria up into pieces, some of which would be ruled by ISIS and other Islamic extremists, some of which would be ruled by Kurds, which would be unacceptable to Turkey, and some of which would be Shiite / Alawite enclaves dependent on Iran. Plus, Trump’s UN ambassador Nikki Haley had said the same thing, essentially – that the US isn’t focused on removing Assad. This was before the sarin gas scandal, of course, but Russia can and will always ask for investigation to see where the gas came from. It won’t satisfy anyone in the West, but in Russia that will sound like a reasonable position.
I understand that Ioffe, being the resident Russia specialist at The Atlantic, was probably given a deadline and told to turn in an article with very little to go on. But this is exactly how Putin is able to keep Western observers off balance. If his opponents or his observers have to respond instantly, he maximizes his ability to take his time.
One of the most common tropes used to describe Putin is that “he plays a bad hand well.” But in the case of responding to world events, he just has a better hand by virtue of having consolidated his power so well in Russia: he’s under no pressure by anyone (except maybe the Western press) to come up with a response overnight to something as serious as a near-miss military confrontation between the United States and Russia.
I think that Putin’s response will take a while to play out, and it will play out and be adjusted as the overall situation unfolds. And it won’t necessarily play out the American way, i.e., through strong public statements, condemnations and denouncements supported by surrogates. For example, today it was reported that the Syrian air force resumed flying missions from the Shayrat air base within hours of the missile strikes. This is clearly a message not just from the Syrian government, but from Russia, to Trump, aimed at being heard by US allies: you risked war between Russia and the US for nothing, for a mere symbolic gesture. I think we can expect to see more “asymmetrical” responses like this.