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Expectations of a new U.S.-Russia relationship were tanking even before missile strike

Even before President Trump ordered a cruise missile strike against Russia’s leading ally in the Middle East, Moscow had reasons to think that his campaign promise of a new dawn in U.S.-Russia relations was fading.

Investigations of Russian interference in the election, the removal of a top White House adviser the Kremlin saw as a friend, the administration's complaints about Ukraine and its increasingly hard line against Iran — not to mention Trump's failure to reach out or to say much of anything about President Vladi­mir Putin since a perfunctory post-inauguration phone call — all were seen as discouraging signs.

Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev said on his Facebook page that this week’s U.S. airstrikes against Syria may have brought the two countries to “the brink of combat.”

For those inclined toward optimism, there were some small indications that neither side is yet willing to give up on the possibility of eventual rapprochement.

While senior administration officials have chastised Russia for its unwillingness or inability to keep Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in check, and there were suggestions Friday that Russia may have been involved in the deadly chemical attack, Trump never mentioned Russia in announcing the U.S. strike against a Syrian airfield. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to Moscow next week still appears to be on schedule.

What does the U.S. strike against Syria mean for Bashar al-Assad and the region (Video: Louisa Loveluck, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post, Photo: FORD WILLIAMS / HANDOUT/Louisa Loveluck, Jason Aldag/The Washington Post)

The Kremlin denounced what it called a dangerous violation of international law and said it was suspending a 2015 U.S.-Russia agreement to “deconflict” air operations over Syria. But “as for the geopolitical situation after these attacks,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow, “let’s watch the situation develop together,” the Tass news agency reported.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova made excuses for Trump, who she said was under domestic pressure. “Washington has still not formed its foreign policy strategy following a stiff election campaign. . . . It’s no secret” that the new U.S. president is “having a hard time,” she said, because “various political institutions in the U.S. are doing all they can to obstruct the new administration’s work.”

Team Trump’s ties to Russian interests

There was no initial indication that the missile strike was part of a larger strategy on Trump’s part or that he plans more action against Assad. It may be that the administration’s intentions go no further than what Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday was a singular message to the Syrian president: “Don’t use chemical weapons again.”

It is also possible that Assad may not heed the warning. Trump may find that he likes the domestic approval the attack has garnered, at a time when the White House is desperately trying to change the narrative of an administration in disarray. Any proof of Russian complicity in the chemical attack also would be a game-changer.

Lowered expectations

Putin’s keen interest in international respect and relevance for both himself and Russia, and his determination to maintain his foothold in the Middle East, could still lead to a more robust Russian response. At a minimum, the strike reduces the agenda for Tillerson’s visit and talks that Russia’s leadership had seen as the first step in changing relations from confrontation to some form of cooperation.

“Now, this is about what kind of measures the two sides can take in order to prevent a hot U.S.-Russian war and an outright use of force against each other in Syria,” said Dmitry Suslov, a program director at the Valdai International Discussion Club, a Moscow-based think tank.

Russian leaders will want to know how far the Trump administration is willing to go against Assad, Suslov said — whether the missile strike was a one-time show of resolve or whether the United States intends to continue to use force against Moscow’s Syrian ally.

“It will no longer be about improving U.S.-Russia relations,” he said. “It will be about preventing the catastrophic scenario.”

For many longtime observers in both countries of the U.S.-Russia relationship, however, expectations of partnership were always overblown.

As the administration began, one of the pillars of its nascent foreign policy was based on Trump’s belief — shared by some but far from all of his senior national security aides — that since Washington and Moscow share the same threat from Islamist terrorism, they should join forces against it.

Trump’s White House struggles to get our from under Russia controversy

Any problems between the two — Russia’s military backing of Assad, its intervention in Ukraine, its provocations along NATO’s eastern border, and even its electoral interference in the United States and Europe — were considered secondary.

The complication that Syria’s civil war was believed to pose to the more important fight against the Islamic State was based not on Russia’s activities there but on those of Iran, Moscow’s partner in backing Assad. A win for Assad also would mean a win for Iran, allowing it to keep Syria in its camp in regional battles for dominance and as a delivery route for supplies to Lebanon-based, anti-Israel Hezbollah.

Better relations with Russia would, in the view of Trump’s most hardcore, anti-Iran aides, help drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran.

“This is not the first administration that has tried” the wedge strategy, said Mark N. Katz, a Russia and Middle East expert at George Mason University, “going back to [Bill] Clinton, [George W.] Bush and certainly [Barack] Obama — whose whole reset with Russia was partly predicated on, ‘They can help us with Iran.’ ”

Thomas Graham, managing director at Kissinger Associates and former senior director for Russia on Bush’s National Security Council, said it was unlikely to work any better this time around. “It’s difficult to see what the U.S. would offer to make it so attractive that Russia would distance itself in a radical way from Iran,” Graham said.

The price would seem prohibitively high, including the lifting of Ukraine-related sanctions, an end to the missile defense installations the United States is building in Europe, and curtailment of NATO’s eastward expansion into what Russia sees as its sphere of influence.

While Trump toyed with those issues during his campaign, his administration largely has come back to the NATO line on all of them.

Putin doctrine

For much of the time since the U.S. inauguration, the Kremlin publicly has blamed the lack of action on behind Trump’s campaign pronouncements on what Putin late last month called U.S. domestic “squabbles” and “lies” about Russia. “At a certain point in time,” he said, all that would end, and a deal would be struck.

But hopes of early progress have been diminishing for months. “I think it became fairly clear to them that high expectations would be inappropriate in this case, because they could see that the administration was under siege, particularly on the Russia issue, and it would be very difficult to do anything constructive,” Dimitri K. Simes, president of the Washington-based Center for the National Interest, said before the Syria strike this week.

Andrei Sushentsov, a foreign policy analyst at Valdai, agreed. “Nothing specific can be sold to the American public, media and political opposition as an achievement in relations with Russia,” he said.

With the United States sidelined, Russia has gone ahead in pursuit of its own interests.

What could be called the Putin doctrine focuses on bringing together “regional power-brokers — Iran, Turkey, Israel, Egypt in the Middle East; Japan, China, India, Pakistan in Asia,” said Maxim A. Suchkov, the Moscow-based editor of Russia-Mideast coverage at Al-Monitor, an online news portal focused on the Middle East.

“The logic is simple,” Suchkov said. The U.S. will never accept Russia as an equal partner, he said, so “instead we ourselves will be a source of power and legitimacy for those who are seeking power in their respective regions and are tired of Western dominance.”

Security arrangements with other regional powers has become even more important to Russia after the Syrian missile strike.

Moscow is likely to shrug off any effort by the Trump administration to back away from the Iran nuclear deal, said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center.

During last week’s visit to Moscow by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, he and Putin announced their intention to increase Russian participation in the development of Iranian nuclear power plants and the Iranian hydrocarbon industry. If the United States unilaterally imposed new sanctions against Iran, the move would not necessarily hurt Russia.

“A more isolated Iran would have to move closer to Russia and China and the rest of a greater Eurasia that is being formed,” Trenin said.

Moscow’s waiting game with the United States extends to an issue on which Washington has sounded off: Russia’s alleged development of a land-based cruise missile system that violates the terms of the landmark 1987 treaty that banned land-based intermediate-range nuclear missiles.

Russia has denied that it has abrogated the accord. Its foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, in a recent interview with the Moscow newspaper Argumenty i Fakty, said that the U.S. had “taken liberties with the treaty” by installing ground-based missile defense systems that could be used to fire cruise missiles with ranges exceeding those imposed by the treaty.

Moscow also has expressed concern over Trump’s criticism that the 2011 New START strategic-arms-reduction treaty is skewed in favor of Russia — a charge made during the campaign and, reportedly, in the president’s first official phone conversation with Putin. But here, too, there has been no movement since that January conversation.

“Russia would be concerned if that deal were starting to erode,” Sushentsov said. “But we have no specific information about the American position.”

Filipov reported from Moscow.