Russia-US ties face long haul to recover from 'zero'

Story highlights

  • Moscow is angry at the US airstrikes on Syria
  • Any idea of a honeymoon between the US and Russia after Trump's inauguration has gone
  • Amid this, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson meets his Russian counterpart next week

Moscow (CNN)Ever since the inauguration of US President Donald Trump, Russia's expectations of a "reset" in relations with Washington have ebbed -- to the point that last week President Vladimir Putin said they were basically "at zero."

The US missile strikes against Moscow's main ally in the Middle East have driven relations to a new low -- but just may have opened a very small window of opportunity.
    For sure, Moscow is angry. Within hours of the Tomahawk cruise missile strikes, the Kremlin was denouncing "an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of the norms of international law." The Foreign Ministry announced the immediate suspension of the mechanism that prevents misunderstandings between Russian and US aircraft over Syria. In other words: next time you call, we won't pick up.
    The threat of a direct collision between the US and Russia in Syria had "significantly increased," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Friday on a conference call with reporters.
    There is also considerable anxiety here that Moscow's preferred presidential candidate is short on policy, long on gestures, and also unpredictable.
    "It's quite noteworthy that President Trump was the one who -- during his campaign -- proclaimed the fight against international terrorism and ISIS as one of his main goals, and he stressed how important it is to establish a comprehensive international coalition," Peskov said.
    "Everything turned out to be exactly opposite. We are very sorry about that and we are very concerned," Peskov added.
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    Facts on the ground

    Beyond denunciations, Russia's calculus in Syria appears unchanged. Its own forces in the country were neither targeted nor affected. It seems to have concluded that the strikes were a "one-off" response to the Syrian regime's alleged use of chemical weapons this week.
    Moscow was informed that the strikes were imminent, but decided not to use its S-400 missile batteries, which cover much of Syria, to try to intercept the Tomahawks. The Russians appeared to accept their ally was about to get a bloody nose, but that the overall military balance in Syria would not be affected.
    Later, they minimized the impact of the strikes and announced that improved air defenses would be dispatched to Syria. Military sources said a Russian warship equipped with cruise missiles --- the Admiral Grigorovitch -- would be sent to the Mediterranean.
    There is absolutely no sign that Russia will dilute its backing for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad --- despite the warning earlier this week from US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that Moscow should "consider carefully their continued support for the Assad regime."
    The situation on the ground remains the most favorable to the regime and its allies --- Russia and Iran --- than for several years, following the eviction of rebel groups from Aleppo in January. The regime still has plenty of planes and airbases and controls all of Syria's major cities, even if many of them have been pulverized by years of war.

    Hopes for a reset?

    After 11 weeks of the Trump administration, any illusions in Moscow of a honeymoon, or even a modest improvement in relations, were already shredded.
    Russian officials expressed growing frustration that the furor in the US over alleged links between Kremlin surrogates and Trump associates had all but overwhelmed efforts to begin a dialogue on everything from terrorism to Syria to Ukraine and international sanctions.
    Moscow was also disappointed that President Trump's key national security picks -- especially following the removal of retired Lt. General Michael Flynn as national security adviser -- have all taken a hard line on Russian "aggression" in Ukraine and "meddling" in the US elections.
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    Whether the damage can be assessed, let alone repaired, may begin to become evident next week, when US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson visits Moscow.
    A senior State Department official said Thursday that Tillerson's core message would be that the US "is willing to work with Russia in areas of practical cooperation... but we remain committed to hold Russia accountable when it violates international norms."
    Speaking about the missile strikes, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lamented Friday that "it's sad how damaging this is to the already bad relations between US and Russia."
    But he went on to say: "Hopefully, it won't lead to any irreversible damage."
    For those who prefer to view the glass as half full, it's difficult to see how relations could get any worse. Some analysts in Moscow think that if anything -- by his action in Syria -- President Trump may liberate himself from the image of being Russia's man in the White House.
    In turn that might present the opportunity for a clear-eyed, hard-headed encounter next week between Lavrov and Tillerson. Which would be a reset, of sorts.