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Russian officials from President Vladimir Putin on down condemned the strike as an act of aggression against a sovereign state carried out on the pretext of staged chemical attack. But reading between the lines, there was a second message: The incoming cruise missiles did not cross the threshold that would provoke a military response against Western forces.
Early Saturday morning local time, the Russian Defense Ministry reported that more than 100 missiles were fired by the U.S.-led coalition retaliating against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s suspected use of chemical weapons. But it added that no Russian air defenses were deployed against the incoming fire, even though thousands of its troops are stationed across Syria in support of Russian ally Assad.
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 made sure to note 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.
The statements were significant because the head of the Russian General Staff, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, had previously said the Russian military would respond to U.S. airstrikes that put Russian lives at risk by shooting down the missiles and potentially the ships or planes that fired them. That had led to feverish speculation on Russian television, and from some Russian politicians, that a U.S. strike on Syria could quickly devolve into a nuclear standoff as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis.
Saturday’s calibrated response in Moscow to the U.S. airstrike against a key Middle Eastern ally illustrated in stark terms the Kremlin’s balancing act as it pushes to expand its influence abroad but seeks to maintain control over how far tensions rise. And it shows that Washington appears to have succeeded for now in delivering a blow that did not provoke Russia into a military response — even though the degree to which the missile attack hindered Assad’s chemical-weapons capability is far from clear.
Over the past week, pro-Kremlin officials, independent analysts and the state-allied news media here all 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.
Even though the doomsday scenarios appear to have been averted, the past week’s rhetorical clash over Syria has deepened an East-West confrontation that continues to intensify. Putin, in his condemnation Saturday of the airstrikes, called for an emergency U.N. Security Council session and described the assault 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. “History will set things right, and Washington already bears the heavy responsibility for the bloody outrage in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and Libya.”
Analysts and politicians caution that even though commentators are already referring to a new Cold War, relations between Moscow and Washington could get far worse. In a warning to the West against further strikes on Syria, the Russian Defense Ministry said it is now considering arming Assad with Russian S-300 long-range surface-to-air missile systems for the first time.
Konstantin Gaaze, a liberal independent analyst here, said Friday that Putin still hopes to negotiate a new start to U.S.-Russian ties in a one-on-one summit with President Trump. The Kremlin, he said, doesn’t want tensions to escalate to a point where such a summit would be impossible.
“The Kremlin is remaining in the sphere of rhetoric” for now, he said. “Things can still get so much worse.”