MOSCOW — In the hours after American missiles rained down on its ally in Syria, Russia made clear it had no plans to respond in kind.
After all, Moscow still wields considerable control over the direction of the war.
Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, described the strike as an act of aggression against a sovereign state carried out on the pretext of a staged chemical attack. At the U.N. Security Council, Russia called on the world to condemn the United States. But there was a second, unspoken message: The incoming cruise missiles did not cross the threshold that would provoke a military response against Western forces.
Instead, it appears that the Western coalition’s limited strikes did little to change the facts on the ground. Russia, negotiating primarily with Iran and Turkey, remains keen to forge a political settlement in Syria that would cement a long-term foothold for Moscow in the Middle East. The United States, with President Trump’s long-term strategy for the country still uncertain, is left as a less influential player.
Analysts say that Putin’s Syria intervention is part of his effort to turn Russia into an actor known for asserting its interests on a global scale. Russia’s insistent warnings that a U.S. airstrike could bring Russian retaliation — and the United States’ apparent effort to avoid threatening Russian assets in its assault — showed that strategy at work.
During the Cold War, U.S. leaders “didn’t love the Soviet Union, but they respected us and treated us as a serious partner,” Andrei Klimov, deputy head of the foreign affairs committee of Russia’s upper house of parliament, said in an interview. “This perception that Russia is in ruins still lingers. You must look at reality.”
But Russia’s backing of Assad and contribution to massive civilian casualties in Syria, according to Western leaders, have taken a toll on the country’s reputation. The Syrian conflict was one reason the United States imposed sanctions on members of Putin’s inner circle earlier this month — causing the Russian stock market and currency to plummet.
“Bashar al-Assad is not our friend,” Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny posted Saturday on Twitter. “Putin is now saving Assad with the money of Russian retirees. This must be stopped.”
British Prime Minister Theresa May, speaking Saturday about the aftermath of the airstrikes, tied Russia’s support of Assad to what she described as a destructive pattern by Putin. She referred also to last month’s poisoning in England of a former Russian double agent and his daughter — an incident that Britain blames on Russia. Moscow has denied involvement.
“The lesson of history is when the global rules and standards that keep us safe come under threat we must take a stand and defend them. That’s what we’ve always done and will continue to do,” May said. “The use of a nerve agent in the U.K. in recent weeks is part of a pattern of disregard for these norms.”
Russia’s response Saturday underscored Putin’s effort to use Syria to help portray himself as a guarantor of global stability despite the torrent of Western criticism. He described the U.S. airstrike as the latest in two decades of American-led interventions that, in the Kremlin’s telling, have unwound the international order.
“The current escalation of the situation around Syria is destructive for the entire system of international relations,” Putin said in a statement read by Russia’s U.N. ambassador, Vassily Nebenzia, at an emergency Security Council session called by Russia on Saturday. “History will set things right, and Washington already bears the heavy responsibility for the bloody outrage in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya.”
But while Russia slammed the missile attack rhetorically, it signaled that the strike had not crossed the threshold that would bring Russian retaliation. Moscow’s response shows that Washington appears to have succeeded in delivering a blow that did not provoke Russia militarily.
“Before we took action, the United States communicated with the Russian Federation to reduce the danger of any Russian or civilian casualties,” the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Jon M. Huntsman Jr., said in a video message to Russians posted on social media Saturday.
Over the past week, pro-Kremlin officials, independent analysts and the state-allied news media described the situation in Syria as a uniquely dangerous moment. Not for decades, they said, had the United States and Russia come so close to a direct military clash. The result, according to the worst-case predictions, could be a new world war.
“It was palpable, the fear,” said Vladimir Frolov, an independent foreign-policy analyst in Moscow.
But after the attack, Russia’s Defense Ministry quickly said that no Russian air defenses were deployed against the incoming fire, even though thousands of the country’s troops are stationed across Syria.
Hours later, the Russian Embassy in Damascus said no Russians were known to have been hurt in the overnight airstrike. And the Defense Ministry even noted that while Syria shot down some cruise missiles, Damascus did so using its own Soviet-made — not Russian-made — equipment.
“Not a single one of the cruise missiles entered the zone of Russian air defense systems,” the Defense Ministry said.