For almost two years, there’s been a consistent storyline about Donald Trump: He loves Vladimir Putin. There was the developer’s odd reluctance to criticize the Russian strongman; there was his unsettling expressions of admiration that Putin was a strong leader; and there was, of course, Russia’s efforts to interfere with the American election on Trump’s behalf and now the investigations into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians.
So what to make of Thursday night’s airstrike against Moscow’s client, Syria? Russia has deployed naval, air and land forces to protect the shaky regime of Bashar al-Assad. Is this a major turning point in U.S.-Russian relations, the Trump-Putin bromance, or will Trump’s familiar coziness with Moscow return?
Much of it will depend on what Syria does going forward, with or without Moscow’s blessing, and how the U.S. responds. It would be foolish and unnecessary for Assad to continue to use chemical weapons against civilian targets as he did earlier this week, killing more than 100 in opposition-held Idlib province. That would only invite more American air strikes, with a likely assist from U.S. allies in the region and in Europe, who are reeling from the refugee crisis created by Assad’s brutal attacks. As National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster told reporters Friday morning: “What it does communicate is a big shift in Assad’s calculus—it should be anyway—because this is...the first time that the United States has taken direct military action against that regime or the regime of his father.”
If the chemical weapons attacks cease—and this is the first one that’s been well documented since the 2013 attack that prompted Barack Obama’s infamous “red line” comment—then tensions may well subside, at least a bit. The Trump administration still needs a larger strategy to contain this crisis and try to bring the regional chaos to an end. So far it hasn’t shown much inclination to do that beyond hitting the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which Russia and the Assad regime also oppose.
There are reasons to believe U.S.-Russian tensions will ease in the coming days. Moscow condemned the U.S. attack on Friday, but analysts noted that Putin himself did not appear before the cameras to issue the rejoinder to the 56 cruise missiles launched by the U.S. Had the statement come from the Russian president himself, it would have been far more dramatic—and thus we are left with the suggestion that Moscow is unwilling to ratchet up that matter. While Russia did withdraw from the communications protocol set up with the U.S. to avoid such conflicts, that protocol was symbolic—mostly a relic from when former Secretary of State John Kerry was trying to broker a comprehensive peace deal with the Russians.
There are still plenty of ways for American and Russian military officials to communicate and coordinate as they do in other theaters of operation, such as Europe and East Asia. Had Russian military personnel died in this attack, we might be looking at a more frightening escalation of tensions between the former Cold War superpowers. But that didn’t happen, and so far none of the other dramatic steps that sometimes follow confrontations—a recall of ambassadors or sending more military might into the region—have yet to occur.
Despite Trump’s reputation for being cozy with Putin, the work of the American military has continued unabated since the mogul’s inauguration on January 20. Air Force missileers hundreds of feet below the soil of North Dakota and Wyoming still practice drills and aim their Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles at Russian targets. America works closely with NATO allies—including in Eastern Europe, where the additional forces that were dispatched by the Obama administration in the wake of the Russian invasion of Crimea continue to act as a heightened deterrent. For every call the now-ousted National Security Adviser Michael Flynn may have made to the Russian ambassador, there are many sanctions in place and destroyers on patrol.
We might be heading toward a new normal in the Trump-Putin ties: neither a bromance nor an embrace of establishment-endorsed Cold War posturing. If you look back a few weeks, Trump’s irritation with Moscow didn’t begin with Assad’s attack on civilians with a chemical weapon, now said by the Turks and others to be sarin gas. The Russian harassment of U.S. vessels on patrol deeply annoyed Trump. In February, when the president was asked about multiple incidents—an su-24 attack aircraft in the Black Sea buzzing a U.S. ship, the USS Porter, one of the two that launched Thursday’s cruise missiles, as well as a spy ship loitering off a U.S. submarine base and a plan to deploy treaty-violating cruise missiles—Trump barked, “Not good!” after a reporter ticked off each one.
Trump said he’d keep his options open about responding to each one, and he got considerable attention for his dovish comments about the importance of avoiding nuclear war.
"I wanna do the right thing for the American people, and to be honest, secondarily, I want to do the right thing for the people of the world," Trump continued. "Nuclear holocaust would be like no other. [Russia is] a very powerful nuclear country and so are we. If we have a good relationship with Russia, believe me, that's a good thing, not a bad thing." There’s every reason to believe Trump still believes that, and it could well prove true. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will jet to Moscow next week for meetings that have become even more important. They’re likely to set the stage for a Trump-Putin summit later this year. Syria will continue to fester, but Trump is a skeptic of sanctions and a critic of European institutions, one who chides NATO allies. That may be enough to keep him and Putin bros, if not in a bromance.
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