Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Russia gets plenty of practice at pulling its poker face these days.
At the United Nations, it has recently denied all knowledge of the use of chemical weapons, be it in Syria or the United Kingdom.
Its ambassador to the UN accused America of gambling with the future: “Do you understand the dangerous threshold to which you are bringing the world?” Vassily Nebenzia asked his US counterpart, Nikki Haley.
Yet it is Russia that seems to insist on this style of confrontation, where it acts in its own interests, then dares the world to take action.
Though that’s not how Russia sees it. Nebenzia plays Russia as the victim: “Russia is being unpardonably threatened,” he said.
That Russia’s international credibility is largely shot – witness the record worldwide expulsion of Russian diplomats recently – appears to have not yet sunk in.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has a track record of reaching again and again for what he wants. At times, he gambles on outcomes, like international reaction, that he cannot control.
He got away with it to a degree over the annexation of Crimea and fomenting unrest in Eastern Ukraine, mostly weathering the sanctions storm that followed.
Backing President Bashar al-Assad in Syria so soon after his westward incursions looked at first like another folly with an uncertain outcome. Yet, over time, Russian forces stabilized Assad’s loses and turned the tide in his favor. Putin’s risk, apparently, was rewarded.
Meddling in the US and other elections might have made the Russian President feel that he’d played another winning hand. Initially, he got what he wanted: not Hilary Clinton, whom he despised, but the other contender, Donald Trump.
But be careful what you wish for: Taking that risk may have come back to bite Putin. His reward has been heavy sanctions, resulting in Russia’s ruble falling in value, as well as doing financial damage to several of Putin’s closet oligarch friends.
Undoubtedly, he intends to recover from the impact. His foreign ministry promised a “harsh response”.
What that could be, however, remains unclear. Maybe another foray of troops toward – or even into – Ukraine, reigniting the embers of resentment there. Such action could distract international attention from what he cares about more: the Russian economy and Syria.
As with any gambler, debts can mount fast – as Putin saw last month with the expulsion of 150 of his diplomats. But an even bigger bill may be coming due at the United Nations.
On multiple occasions now, Russia has been blamed for not convincing Assad to faithfully negotiate peace in Syria.
In December 2015, Russia voted to support the unanimously passed UN Security Council Resolution 2254, which committed Assad to a transition from power.
At each of the UN peace talks since, when push has come to shove, Russia has failed to live up to its part of the agreement and persuade Assad that he must go.
As Russian air power is a principle force keeping Assad’s enemies at bay, Putin undoubtedly has the clout to follow through on what his diplomats signed up for in New York. But he hasn’t, and each time he doesn’t, what little trust he had at the United Nations has ebbed away.
Russia was the guarantor that Assad would make good on his commitment to get rid of his chemical weapons, of which the OPCW – the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – was led to believe it oversaw the complete destruction in June 2014.
The OPCW and UN’s own evidence now shows that was all a lie. Assad either didn’t get rid of all his chemical weapons or he started making them again.
The UN created an investigative body – Joint Investigative Mechanism, or JIM – to determine with the OPCW who used what chemical weapons in Syria. Of six incidents, two were found to be ISIS, four by Assad’s regime.
Any doubt that Russia wasn’t fulfilling its obligations was blown away when it refused late last year to renew the mandate of the JIM.
If Russia has nothing to hide, the logic goes, then why effectively ban the only organization with the international backing to apportion blame for chemical weapons attacks?
Perhaps the end of Russia’s credibility on the subject of chemical weapons came in the past few weeks, when it claimed that terrorist groups were planning to fabricate an outrage near Damascus.
After years of gambling no one would call it out on its nefarious plots, Russia seemed to ask for too much. How long can disbelief be suspended with such a track record as Russia has revealed?
Which leaves the United Nations waiting to see if Russia will accept an international investigation to find who was responsible for the alleged chemical weapons attack near Damascus or, more importantly, if it won’t?
As Russia is failing once again to put pressure on Assad, the next course of action may be for Trump and his allies to use pressure of their own: military strikes.
Last year, Trump fired off 59 cruise missiles at a single military base suspected of being a chemical weapons load point for Assad’s aircraft, with little overall effect.
Right now, I wouldn’t gamble against limited strikes closer to Assad’s own personal interests: houses, palaces, holiday homes.
No single strike is going to turn the tide of the war. But it might just apply enough pressure to Russia that it starts living in the real world – and transition Assad from power.