Seldom in the strained history of US-Russian relations have signals seemed more dangerously crossed, or the misunderstandings more unfathomable, than they are right now, even as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson tried to chart a way forward on Syria in meetings with Russian leaders.
No breakthroughs occurred during Mr. Tillerson's visit to Moscow, but after lengthy meetings with his counterpart Sergei Lavrov and with President Vladimir Putin, Tillerson and Mr. Lavrov emerged Wednesday to tell journalists that despite the "low level of trust" between the US and Russia, they were prepared to move forward on diplomatic solutions to the crises in Syria, Ukraine, and North Korea.
"I believe we understand each other better after today," Lavrov said.
After investing high hopes in things President Trump used to say, such as a desire to "get along" with Mr. Putin, some Russian experts are now wondering if the Trump White House has any coherent foreign policy – or even whether it's possible to make any lasting deals with it at all.
"It's dawning on a lot of people in Moscow, as some of us warned, that we may be confronted with someone who is trying to behave like Putin, but who does not have Putin's savvy in conducting these games of brinkmanship. Of course he's trying to prove that he's tough, that he's not Obama," says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs, a leading Moscow foreign policy journal. "But Putin knows the limits of these things, he's pretty experienced at this. We are very unsure about Trump."
What's the plan?
As Tillerson was arriving Tuesday, the Russian Foreign Ministry complained of a growing list of "irritants" between the two countries, and not just over Syria. Putin warned that relations were at "their lowest since the cold war."
The overt message Tillerson brought to Moscow – that Russia must choose between Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and the US – looks too much like an ultimatum to be even worthy of discussion, Russian experts say. Rather, they argue, any US-Russia deal over Syria is going to have to take Moscow's interests squarely into account. For the first time in decades, they warn, the specter of Russians fighting Americans looks like something other than a far-fetched Hollywood thriller.
"The message from Trump's missile strike is that the US is back in Syria, and intends to play a role in the settlement of that conflict. We get that," says Mr. Lukyanov. "But Putin does not respond well to pressure, and this will make him redouble support for Assad in the short term....
"And if there is a plan, or if Trump develops the habit, to keep striking Syria to put pressure on Assad and Russia, then Russia will have no option but to escalate," he adds. "This time Russia did not employ any of the military defenses it has in Syria, but it will probably have no choice if such attacks continue. That opens up the possibility of war, and it's quite scary.... And if [Trump's] strike was not part of any plan, then it just looks ridiculous to us."
Russia has consistently supported the Assad regime – Syria has been a Moscow client state since 1971 – since the civil war began almost six years ago. It intervened directly 18 months ago when the regime appeared on the verge of collapse, and has since bought Assad a wave of battlefield victories that have ensured his survival and practically guaranteed him a place in any peace deal.
That addresses one of the key reasons Russia intervened in the first place, says Sergei Karaganov, a senior Russian foreign policy hand. "We were drawing a 'red line' of our own against any more wars of regime change," he says. "This policy does not lead to more democracy or stronger world order. It leads to chaos and disaster, and we've seen as much in Iraq, Libya, and other places. We are open to different ways of solving problems, and we are not married to Bashar al-Assad, but there is no chance that we will abandon him at this point."
A second key reason for Russia's involvement was fear of jihadi victory in Syria, a very real threat in 2015. Such a victory could have major repercussions for Russia – in its restive north Caucasus region; among its very large mainly Sunni Muslim community; and in the mainly Muslim Soviet successor states of central Asia, where dictatorship and poverty have created fertile ground for Islamist extremism. In an interview with a Russian TV station Wednesday, Putin estimated that 9,000 Russian Muslims were fighting alongside jihadi groups in Syria. "We understand the scale of this threat, and will do everything possible to minimize it," he said.
A third motivation for the Kremlin was to bolster its traditional client, Assad, and to expand Russian influence in the turbulent Middle East. Russia has a long-standing naval station at Tartus, and has built at least one big new air base in Syria that it clearly intends to keep.
"We have a lot of interests in Syria, including economic and military ones, and we're not going to give this up," says Dmitry Orlov, director of the independent Agency for Political and Economic Communications in Moscow. "Assad is our long time partner there, and Russia believes that no acceptable settlement is possible without him."
'A complex and subtle conversation'
The Russian presence in Syria is now entrenched, and any suggestion that Trump might revisit Obama's 2013 decision to intervene in Syria to effect regime change there is unrealistic, Russian analysts say.
"Maybe it was possible a few years ago for the US to go in and remove Assad, and they might have made it into another Iraq," says Lukyanov. "But it is not possible today when the regime is protected by Russian military force. This path can only lead to confrontation between us."
Cooperation, however, remains possible down the road, says Sergei Strokan, foreign affairs columnist with the Moscow daily Kommersant.
"Russia would be happy to have an exit strategy, but demanding that we should just ditch Assad will only antagonize Putin," he says. "Russia will need to preserve its gains and its hard-won leading role in Syria, but it could walk away from Assad. But that's a complex and subtle conversation, nothing like the crude all-or-nothing dialogue that's taking place now. Our main question right now is: are the Trump people capable of that?"