Letter From the Editors: April 10 - 16, 2017

Author: Laurence Bogoslaw

Syria Hems Putin In: Is There No One to Lend Him a Hand?

In 1840, Russian bard Mikhail Lermontov wrote one of his most famous and poignant poems, beginning with the line: "I’m lonesome and sad and there’s no one to lend me a hand." Knowing Vladimir Putin’s fondness for Lermontov (whom he famously quoted at rallies in 2012), we wonder if this lyric is ringing in his ears this week? Judging from recent news, Russia is getting desperately short of friends.

For example, a long-anticipated visit to Moscow from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did not bring any gift-wrapped "big deals" (to use Trump’s oft-quoted phrase). Tillerson came to talk tough, rather than to extend a hand in equal partnership. Why? Both Vladimir Frolov and Fyodor Lukyanov say the Syria situation was the game-changer. Last week’s chemical attack, which most of the world attributes to Bashar Assad, showed that Russia either cannot or does not want to keep the Syrian strongman in check. In Tillerson’s words, Moscow is "either complicit or simply incompetent."

The Tomahawk air strikes launched by the US in response to Syria’s use of chemical weapons seem to have isolated Russia even more. For one thing, most other countries - including Putin’s longtime ally, Turkey - supported the US action. Even China, generally leery of American aggression, did not object to the strikes, writes Vladimir Skosyrev. Furthermore, Aleksei Malashenko argues, the fact that Russian air defense systems (set up as part of the Aerospace Forces’ initial intervention in the conflict) did not stop the Tomahawks raises the question of whether Moscow was incapable of warding off the strikes - or chose not to. This doubt hurts Putin’s credibility in the eyes of the whole world. On the other hand, Malashenko writes: "Moscow simply can’t turn its back on Assad, because that would tantamount to acknowledging that its policy ...

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