With Russia’s hopes for détente with President Trump dashed by his missile strike on Syria, the Kremlin looks askance at visiting Secretary of State Tillerson who it feels played the Colin Powell role for his boss, says Gilbert Doctorow.
By Gilbert Doctorow
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow was supposed to prepare the way for a Trump-Putin summit either as a self-standing event or on the sidelines of the next G-20 meeting in Germany. The hope was that the summit would consolidate the turn toward normalization of relations that President Trump had promised in his electoral campaign.
But the 180-degree reversal in the foreign policy of the Trump administration marked by the launch of a missile strike on Syria last week changed the expectations for Tillerson’s visit dramatically, to the point that one of the most widely respected Russian political observers, Director of the Near East Institute Yevgeny Satanovsky, questioned why Tillerson’s visit is still on.
“It is not clear why Tillerson is coming,” Satanovsky said. “There is no reason at all for him to be received by Putin. Maybe it’s enough for him to talk to Maria Zakharova [spokeswoman of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs], perhaps with [Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov.”
Satanovsky’s pessimism was largely shared by other experts and officials who appeared on the most popular Russian TV news programs, including the talk shows Sixty Minutes, Evening and Sunday Evening with Vladimir Solovyov, News on Saturday with Sergey Brillyov, and News of the Week with Dmitry Kiselyov. Always popular with their Russian audiences, these shows drew in remarkably high visitor rates on the internet as posted on youtube.com, between a quarter million and half a million visits each.
Following President Trump’s missile strike on a Syrian air base on April 6, pressure grew on President Putin to respond with his own muscle-flexing. However, the Kremlin’s immediate response was restrained. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs simply announced the suspension of the 2015 Memorandum of Understanding with the United States on deconfliction. That agreement put in place communications channels within the region and rules for conduct meant to prevent and/or resolve incidents between the Russian and U.S.-led coalition forces operating in Syria.
By the evening of April 7, the popular Russian state television talk show Sixty Minutes informed its audience about two essential facts regarding the U.S. missile strike. First, the level of damage inflicted on the Syrian air base at Shayrat turned out to be minimal, totally out of keeping with what one might have anticipated from 59 Tomahawks launched by U.S. naval vessels in the Mediterranean.
Rossiya 1 war correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny presented footage he and his camera crew had taken at Shayrat just hours after the strike. It was clear that the landing strip itself was undamaged, that many hangars were similarly intact, and that the structural losses were limited to six out-of-date MIG23s that were being reconditioned and to some roadways and buildings of minor significance. The report also noted that a relatively small number of Syrian military personnel and civilians were killed and wounded.
Poddubny noted that not all of the cruise missiles seemed to have reached the target. Later news broadcasts clarified that only 23 of the 59 Tomahawks reached Shayrat.
The second fact, which tempered Russian anger about the attack, was news that the United States had given two hours advance warning to the Russians. This would have enabled them to withdraw any of their military personnel on the site and to avoid casualties that would call for retribution and spark a direct military confrontation.
But if the sting of the attack and its anti-Russian message were attenuated, there was from the outset some confusion among Official Russia over what message the strike was intended to deliver and to whom. There was also a great deal of interest in exploring the reasons for Donald Trump’s policy reversal on Syria and on Russia and interest in identifying the influencers behind the move so as to better understand what might come next and what to do about that.
Already in Sixty Minutes, the first authoritative view on what happened was put forward by Gennady Zyuganov, leader of the Communist Party. For political reasons, i.e., policy disagreements with the current government, Zyuganov is a rare guest on Rossiya 1 and was likely invited on to rally unity among the Russian people in the face of the new threats and dangers coming from Washington.
His reading of Trump’s TV appearance announcing the missile strike was that the President looked “broken,” now in the thrall of the mafia that had been running the U.S. before his accession to power. Zyuganov noted that for once Trump was reading his text from a teleprompter and his voice seemed to be unsteady, highly emotional.
What Drove Trump
The discussion of what motivated Trump to act on Syria expanded later in the evening on a special edition of the Vladimir Solovyov talk show. The microphone was offered first to Vyacheslav Nikonov, chairman of the Duma Committee on Education who is better known in international circles for his years at the head of the NGO Russian World, sponsors of the Russian diaspora.
Since the U.S. presidential election in November 2016, Nikonov has appeared regularly on Rossiya 1 as a consistent advocate of Donald Trump in the expectation of very positive changes in U.S. foreign policy. But he was now caught out.
Nikonov said Trump was responding to popular outrage over pictures of children gassed to death that were featured on U.S. mass media so it appeared to Americans that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad was poisoning his own people. However, if the villain in the piece was the media for an exploitative presentation, Nikonov acknowledged that there were aspects that were more generally disturbing, in particular, that Russian servicemen could have been on the base under attack. It seemed as if the right hand in America did not know what the left was doing and these contradictions do not bode well.
Igor Morozov, member of the Federation Council Committee on Foreign Affairs, reminded the Solovyov audience that the idea of attacking Syrian military infrastructure was not something dreamed up at the last second by the Trump administration. Its author was General James Mattis when he was U.S. Commander in the Middle East in 2013 and was removed for promoting policies that contradicted President Obama’s desire to withdraw from war operations in the region, taking down the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now Mattis is the Secretary of Defense and the cruise missile attack on the Shayrat air force base comes from his playbook.
In News on Saturday, host Sergey Brilyov remarked how ineffective the U.S. missile strike was in military terms, suggesting that it must be seen as a “signal” And that raised the question of a signal to whom? By process of exclusion, Brilyov recommended to his audience two possible addressees: China and the United States itself.
For Chinese President Xi, news of the American strike on Syria was delivered by Trump in the course of the state visit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. The blunt warning was that if Xi does not help to rein in the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, the United States would act on its own as it had just done in Syria.
But in Brilyov’s view the more important audience for Trump’s gesture was within the United States, within the political establishment, where he was fighting a desperate rearguard battle for his domestic policies against resistance from both hardline Republicans opposed to his foreign policy objectives and the whole of the Democratic Party.
Dmitry Kiselyov, Russia’s most senior news presenter, characterized Trump as a “tabula rasa,” without any experience in international politics who was now using America’s vast military potential to create a very dangerous situation. On his News of the Week program on Sunday evening, Kiselyov featured war correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny reporting again from the Shayrat air base and explaining how it was once again operational.
Poddubny also showed off the piles of canisters at the base which appeared in previous telecasts from the air field and were claimed by some Western media to represent the chemical warfare munitions stored there by the Assad regime. He carefully explained that these containers are standard issue and are used to load all kinds of munitions onto fixed wing aircraft and helicopters, so that they have no relation whatsoever to chemical weapons which were nowhere to be seen at the base.
Kiselyov detailed at length the about-face of U.S. foreign policy on Syrian “regime change” and the reversal on efforts to join with Russia to fight terrorism. Now, objectively, the United States was fighting on the side of the terrorists. All of this meant that Trump would fail as a “deal maker” with Russia, that it was improbable he could patch things up with Russia.
Kiselyov called the U.S. President’s action “impulsive” and unsupported by facts. It was done in the context of U.S. domestic political warfare. Trump’s entourage was changing, with strategic political adviser Steve Bannon being shunted to one side and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner rising in prominence.
Kiselyov reserved special scorn for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nicki Haley. He pulled up on screen both her accusations against Assad and the riposte from Russia’s Deputy Ambassador to the U.N. Vladimir Safronkov that the United States was afraid of an independent investigation into the chemical incident in Idlib because it would not support their narrative.
Kiselyov concluded his reportage on the U.S. attack with harsh words, condemning what he called a prima facie case of U.S. aggression. It was not a reaction to any concrete event but was taken “due to the total failure of Donald Trump’s policies at home.”
But he said Russia would react with reason and caution: “It is clear no one intends to declare war on the U.S. But we cannot let this whole affair pass without practical response.”
Specifically, he called for the U.N. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to investigate the situation in Syria. They are the people who oversaw the removal and destruction of Assad’s chemical arsenal and production facilities, for which they won a Nobel Prize for Peace. Now they should be put back to work, he said.
Finally, Kiselyov ran a short interview with Yevgeny Satanovsky that summed up nicely the thinking of his peers: “All U.S. foreign policy actions are based on domestic political considerations. That is why they are so idiotic.”
The discussion of Trump’s missile strike continued on the Sunday Evening show of Vladimir Solovyov. After pointing to rumors of U.S. plans to destroy the North Korean regime with a similar attack, the host kicked off the discussion with a neat summary for his panel of how the U.S. is approaching world governance today: “The U.S. by itself decides which countries can exist, which cannot; which leaders will rule and who must be liquidated. The U.N. Security Council is not needed. The U.S. decides on its own what to do.”
A Cornered Trump
Alexei Pushkov, who was until September 2016 the chairman of the Duma Committee on Foreign Relations and is now chairman of the upper chamber’s Committee on Information, delivered a programmatic statement to explain what he believed happened:
“Trump is operating in a specific set of circumstances. The harder it is for the U.S. to manage the world, the more it tends to throw international rules to the wind. Trump has little opportunity to escape from the existing policies.
“The key question [regarding the chemical gas event at Idlib]: why would Assad use chemical weapons against this small town? He is winning the war. No one in the West has asked this question. Whose interests were served by this chemical event? It is good for American hawks, for [Sen. John] McCain, for the neighboring states which want to overthrow Assad. But it holds no advantages for Assad.
“We have not long ago heard [former National Security Adviser] Susan Rice and [former Secretary of State] John Kerry say that all of Assad’s chemical weapons were destroyed. So where did Assad get these bombs?
“Per The New York Post, Tillerson is coming to Moscow to deliver an ultimatum on removal of Assad. If he comes here with an ultimatum, then the talks will head into a dead end. The experience of the last three years shows that the language of ultimatum does not work with Russia.”
The microphone was then turned over to Yevgeny Satanovsky, a leading expert on the Near East who was more specific in his recommendations on what Russia must do now:
–Clean up the province of Idlib, or at least the city of Idlib, driving out the Al Qaeda fighters who are now installed there so that an independent investigation can begin into what happened leading to the poison gas deaths.
–Since the U.S. clearly wants to take the Assad government’s sole remaining enclave in Eastern Syria at Dar Ezzor and turn it over to the terrorists, Russia must do its best now to break the blockade there
–Tillerson must be approached very carefully. See whether he has come to negotiate or just to conclude with a press conference at which he tells the media that Russia is hopeless, that the U.S. cannot work with Moscow, and that the U.S. will now deal with North Korea and everywhere else on its own.
Among the other panelists on the Sunday Evening show, retired Lt. General Yevgeny Buzhinsky dealt with the question of the forewarning which the Russians received from the United States before the missile launch, saying:
“Trump is sitting on two stools. This is very sad. Yes, the U.S. gave us one and a half hours, maybe two hours of advance warning of the attack. But how?
“There are several lines of communication between us. There is a Chief of General Staff to Chief of General Staff line, which is very fast. This was not used. Instead they used a line of communications set up by the 2015 Deconfliction Memorandum of Understanding, at the regional level, between Americans in Jordan and Russians in Syria.
“The message on the impending attack was sent to the U.S. command in Jordan in the middle of the night and the duty officer was in no rush to forward it to his Russian counterpart in Syria. The duty officer there sent it to Moscow, to the Ministry of Defense, which also did not rush to respond or to pass the message to the Syrians. Net result: the two hours was barely enough for the Russians to take necessary precautionary measures. The Russian Ministry was furious.”
No doubt this explains why the first Russian reaction to the whole affair was to suspend the Deconfliction Memorandum.
The Chemical Canard
Yakov Kedmi, another panelist on Skype from Tel Aviv, offered insights into why the allegations of a Syrian government chemical weapon attack was nothing more than a canard, an unfounded rumor.
Kedmi is a former Soviet citizen, one of the first Soviet Jews to demand and finally receive permission to leave the country for Israel at the end of the 1970s. In Israel he joined the intelligence services where he had a full career. Until three years ago, he was persona non grata in Russia but has since established a niche on Russian television as a valued expert on Middle East security questions.
He said: “What is strange here is that if the Syrians used this [air] base to attack Idlib with chemical weapons, then there should be a bunker of such weapons at the base. That would be very easy to detect using the intelligence means available – satellite images, drones, etc.
“Israel follows all movements of munitions to and in Syria going to Hezbollah. We know which trucks are carrying what and where. The United States surely knows the same about what interests it. Yet when speaking of the attack on the base the Americans did not identify any bunker or location for such weapons. Supposedly they are still looking. This shows it is a canard.
“As for the Israeli government, they say Amen to whatever stupidities the Americans say. That is the situation in our country.”
Overall, Official Russia seems to have calmly adopted the cynical interpretation that Donald Trump bombed the Syrian air base on the basis of a manufactured pretext in order to gain the upper hand in his bitter fight with hardline Republicans and the entire Democratic Party over Russia-gate and to advance his domestic political agenda.
If this interpretation is true and is eventually revealed to the American people, they are not likely to appreciate Trump’s cynicism. If he launched a missile attack on Syria based on a lie, Trump would have squandered his political capital with those who voted for him and for his promised pro-détente foreign policy. It is now improbable that he will win them back.
At the same time, Trump has not shed for long the dogs that have been snarling and nipping at his heels. Already Sen. McCain has blamed the supposed chemical attack on Trump’s earlier repudiation of “regime change” in Syria.
Donald Trump’s moral standing was never very high, even among his supporters. But the recruitment of former Exxon-Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson was seen as a victory for decency. Tillerson’s prepared remarks delivered at the opening of his confirmation hearings were crystal clear and bracing. He alluded to his training as an engineer who always followed the facts where they led him.
However, by loyally carrying the water for his boss on the alleged Syrian chemical attack, Tillerson has also damaged his credibility, drawing comparisons to Secretary of State Colin Powell who presented President George W. Bush’s bogus case for invading Iraq to the United Nations.
Patently, in this current matter of state importance, indeed a matter that bears on war and peace, Tillerson did nothing to establish the facts. Now, he brings his tattered credibility to Moscow where he will face Russian officials who no longer believe that they can trust the Trump administration.
Gilbert Doctorow is a Brussels-based political analyst. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015