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U.S. Airstrike Against Syria Threatens To Strain Relations With Russia

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Last night's airstrikes on a Syrian airbase ordered by President Trump provoked a forceful response from Russia. A spokesman for Russian President Vladimir Putin called the American actions a violation of international law and said they dealt a significant blow to relations between Russia and the U.S.

To help us walk through what this means is Stephen Sestanovich. He's a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He's a Russia watcher. He was the American ambassador-at-large to the former Soviet Union. Steve, thanks for coming in today.

STEPHEN SESTANOVICH: A pleasure.

SIEGEL: In the hours since the American airstrike, Russia has frozen cooperation with the U.S. in Syria. Russia has pledged to bolster the Syrian military capacity. To put it mildly, it sounds like Moscow is very upset.

SESTANOVICH: Well, they are upset. But I think they're trying to read the situation carefully, and you see some of that in the mix of statements that they've issued. And on the one hand, they've denounced the American strike fiercely. On the other hand, they've belittled its effectiveness. They said few of the cruise missiles hit their targets. So they want to leave themselves some room to maneuver while they figure out what we're doing.

SIEGEL: On the American side, there are reports that senior military officials are looking into whether Russia might have participated in the chemical weapons attack, if there were Russians on the base, from which the planes took off. If that were found to be the case, that sounds like it could be disastrous for U.S.-Russian relations.

SESTANOVICH: Well, certainly. Secretary Tillerson mentioned this possibility last night. In his comments, he said, Russia has either been complicit or incompetent. If they discovered that the Russians had actually been witting, I think that would definitely undermine trust in a much more fundamental way.

SIEGEL: How important is Syria to Russia?

SESTANOVICH: Russia has been an ally of the Assad family for decades. It has treated Syria as its principal foothold in the region. And for Putin, the military intervention in Syria over the past year and a half has been maybe his - the biggest foreign policy success outside of the annexation of Crimea. It has been an assertion of Russian power unlike anything that we've seen in decades.

SIEGEL: Russia has a view of its long game in Syria. I assume the United States has a view of what its long game in Syria is. Do our interests really conflict in that country? Is there something geo-strategically vital about it?

SESTANOVICH: Well, the Russians have been very encouraged by what they heard from President Trump on the campaign trail. But this has been a very disappointed expectation on their part. Instead of partnership against ISIS, they've seen the United States essentially undertake its military actions against ISIS on its own. Instead of tolerating Assad, which is where American policymakers seem to be heading for a while, they now have struck Assad militarily. The picture of convergent interest is kind of a fading one.

SIEGEL: And all of this you have to square with an administration which was criticized for being too close to Russia, for Trump and Putin being too friendly.

SESTANOVICH: Yeah, that is a fading memory, too. Really since Election Day and certainly since the inauguration, the Russians have been coming to grips with the realization that President Trump probably can't deliver on the kind of rapprochement that they anticipated. All of those pictures of Putin and Trump kissing and European murals last - so 2016...

SIEGEL: (Laughter).

SESTANOVICH: ...From my point of view.

SIEGEL: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to arrive in Moscow on Tuesday. This is a trip that was long in the works. How do you think that visit is going to go now?

SESTANOVICH: Well, it's become more important. They certainly see Tillerson now as an out-front spokesman for American policy. What they want to know from him is, is this a one-off punishment of Assad for bad behavior, or is this now a sign of a new campaign against Assad by the United States and its allies because if it's just a one-off punishment, they can live with that. If it's this - a new campaign, they are going to have to recalibrate, figure out what the real cost-benefit of their relationship with Assad is.

SIEGEL: Stephen Sestanovich, thanks for talking with us.

SESTANOVICH: A pleasure.

SIEGEL: Former Ambassador Stevens Sestanovich is also a professor at Columbia University.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOCAL NATIVES SONG, "DARK DAYS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.