US and Russia closer to open conflict than any time since Cold War

Analysis: 'There is an enormous sense of alarm,' says Mikhail Gorbachev in rare media intervention

Oliver Carroll
Wednesday 11 April 2018 12:16 BST
US v Russia on Syria: The story so far

Following Tuesday evening’s abortive UN Security Council meeting, air strikes on Syrian military targets now seem a matter of hours away. With this, the world has moved one step closer to a potential direct clash between two military superpowers.

On its part, Moscow has refrained from walking back on the stark red lines first issued in March by the chief of its general staff, Valery Gerasimov. On Wednesday morning, Russia’s ambassador to Lebanon reiterated Mr Gerasimov’s warnings: Russia would shoot down missiles and strike any platforms used to launch missiles to Syria if it considered its servicemen to be under threat. He appeared to go further to suggest any missiles fired at Syria would be shot down.

Not since the Cold War has Moscow made such a direct and public threat to military engage with the US army — to strike at its ships and planes.

The response of the US Commander-in-chief, sent via Twitter, was typically diplomatic. “Russia vows to shoot down any and all missiles fired at Syria. Get ready Russia, because they will be coming, nice and new and “smart!” You shouldn’t be partners with a Gas Killing Animal who kills his people and enjoys it!

The prospect of a military clash stimulated Mikhail Gorbachev, one of the architects of the end of the previous confrontation, to make a rare media intervention.

“There is an enormous sense of alarm,” said the last Soviet leader. “I’m incredibly disappointed with the way that our current leaders are dealing with things — they seem incapable of dialogue, of using diplomatic mechanisms, and politics has instead turned into an exchange of accusations, sanctions and military strikes.”

The West has accused Syrian government troops of organising a chemical attack on 7 April in eastern Ghouta, an enclave close to Damascus controlled by anti-government rebels. The attack allegedly used a nerve agent disguised with chlorine, resulting in the deaths of several dozen people. The World Health Organisation has estimated 500 patients went to health facilities with “signs and symptoms consistent with exposure to toxic chemicals”.

The Kremlin has dismissed reports of the chemical attack carried out by its ally, dismissing them as a fantasy designed to force a military intervention. At the Security Council of the United Nations, Russian permanent representative Vasily Nebenyza described the events as “a provocation needed by the rebels like they need air to breathe — and in order to receive support from the US and other Western countries.”

At home, the Russian propaganda machine has been working in overdrive. For several days, it is encouraged comparisons with the Cuban missile crisis. It has also created the image a country under siege — attacked by the United States for reasons of jealousy and geopolitics. That picture has been compounded by Friday’s unexpectedly severe U.S. sanctions, which has led to a share sell-off and currency depreciation. As of Wednesday morning, the ruble had lost 13 per cent of its value against the euro.

The Russian economy is expected to take another hit if the situation in Syria deteriorates. Given the inevitability of US-led military intervention, the question is now the nature of Russia’s response. Does it follow through on the tough-talking? Or does it try to save face?

Official spokesmen have offered few clues on the their thinking. In recent days, its military has kept a studious silence. In his daily briefing on Wednesday, presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov told journalists the Kremlin would not comment on the possibility or otherwise of airstrikes.

It was not sensible, he said, to base judgements based on press speculation — “less so those based on ephemeral sources.”

But there was a sense, that, having raised the stakes, Russia was trying to create some room for manoeuvre.

Yevgeny Serebrennikov, the deputy head of the parliamentary defence committee said he hoped US strikes would not threaten Russian servicemen. “Russian bases in Syria have serious defences,” he said. “I think the US understand this, or, as the head of our general staff has already said, our answer will be immediate.”

At this stage, the Kremlin would accept a limited airstrike of the nature of last year, suggested Fyodor Lukyanov, an expert considered to be close to the Russian foreign policy elite. Then, 59 tomahawk missiles were directed at a Syrian military airfield with no obvious damage to Russian infrastructure. It was a limited operation, and the US gave Russian command 90 minutes notice.

“If it is an attack of this kind, limited to Syrian military installations, then you can expect a loud reaction, but nothing much more,” he told The Independent. “But if the strike hits Russian infrastructure in any way, or, god forbid, Russian servicemen, the response will be potent — right up to ships being hit.”

Donald Trump’s big mistake was to threaten Vladimir Putin publicly, he said: “Trump talked about Putin paying a big price, but he should have known that fire meets fire.”

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