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U.S. Airstrikes On Syria: The View From Russia


Now to Russia. While the U.S., the U.K. and France say their joint airstrikes were justified, the action is being seen quite differently in Russia. Russia is, of course, an ally of Syria. Joining us now from Moscow is independent journalist Charles Maynes.

Charles, thank you so much for joining us.

CHARLES MAYNES: Good to be with you.

MARTIN: Just what exactly have Russian officials been saying about the airstrikes?

MAYNES: Well, you know, from President Putin on down to his foreign minister, to his foreign envoy, Russia's been arguing that this attack violates international law. President Putin issued a statement very early this morning on Saturday saying that - calling it an act of aggression against a sovereign state. He said, once again, this is a case where the U.S. has destabilized the Middle East, very much in line with Iraq and that, you know, these charges against Assad using chemical weapons were merely a pretext to attack. The Russian argument - it's really focused on the timing of these attacks, just as this international team of the OPCW, as the previous segment noted, is on the ground investigating these charges of chemical weapons used.

And just remember that Russia says that, you know, the - Bashar al-Assad's government gave up these weapons, these chemical weapons, back in 2013 when he - when Putin brokered a deal with the Obama administration. So that, you know, any remaining stocks, Russia says, are either in the hands of terrorists or pro-Russia backed rebels. Or, as they say here, it's just fakery to serve Western aims to depose Assad.

MARTIN: Has this affected the relationship between Washington and Moscow, and, more specifically, between President Trump and President Putin?

MAYNES: Well, you know, the relationship between President Trump and President Putin or Russia and the U.S. has been on such a rollercoaster ride over - since Trump took office. I mean, we had first this incredible excitement here over Trump's election win. That then turned all this dismay over the gulf between what candidate Trump said he wanted, which was better relations, and what the realities of Trump presidency abroad, which has been more sanctions, not less.

You know, but still, Moscow also kind of gave Trump a pass. I mean, they blamed the problems on hawks in Congress or the so-called deep state that won't let Trump, you know, be Trump. You know, and it seemed occasionally to pay off. You had this moment where Trump extended the idea of a summit meeting with Vladimir Putin, something that the Russian government was very eager for.

You know, but then we have Syria. And Trump has really, you know, singled out Putin, saying that he personally bears responsibility for Bashar al-Assad's use of chemical weapons. You know, the president is kind of known for bending over backwards to not say anything negative about Putin, and suddenly, this is a real shift. So although it's, I suppose, important to point out that he hasn't exactly given him one of his famous Twitter nicknames yet. But maybe that's coming.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, Charles, was there any danger that U.S. and Russian forces would find themselves facing each other in these airstrikes? And is that something to be concerned about going forward?

MAYNES: Well, it was, and it still is, I think. Russian media in particular has been ratcheting up this idea of, you know, full-on panic - that World War III was just, you know, minutes away, perhaps - telling people how to stockpile water, survive a nuclear apocalypse. You know, and yet still we here - are all here. And so I think part of the reason for that is Russia's defense ministry came out today. They said - they confirmed that the U.S. airstrikes avoided hitting Russian bases in Syria. There are no Russian casualties, which is important.

And the fact was that the Russian air defenses, which they said they might deploy, actually hadn't been deployed. So for all this, you know, bluster that we hear out of Moscow, Russia really kind of sat this one out. The defense ministry also said today that they were considering helping Damascus beef up its air defenses, including giving them Russia's much-vaunted - this S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. And that's certainly worrisome.

But there is one good sign that you've got also a hint here in Moscow of some kind of back-channel diplomacy. We heard from the U.S. ambassador, Jon Huntsman, who said that, in fact, the U.S. had informed Russia in advance of its of its moves to avoid Russian casualties with that specific purpose. So there is this, you know, sign that perhaps, despite all this heated rhetoric, at least on - both sides kind of acknowledged that there's - it's important keep this from spinning out of control.

MARTIN: That is independent journalist Charles Maynes joining us from Moscow.

Charles, thank you.

MAYNES: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF GRAP LUVA'S "WORK IS NEVER DONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.