Magazine article The Spectator

If Trump Is Listening to His Generals, It's Great News for Britain

Magazine article The Spectator

If Trump Is Listening to His Generals, It's Great News for Britain

Article excerpt

The Russian president is learning the drawbacks of intervention

For Vladimir Putin, Syria has been the gift that kept on giving. His 2015 military intervention propelled Russia back to the top diplomatic tables of the world -- a startling comeback for a country that had spent two decades languishing in poverty and contempt on the margins of the world's councils. At home, the war took over as a booster of Putin's prestige just as the euphoria over the annexation of Crimea was being eroded by economic bad news caused by low oil prices and sanctions. In the Middle East, Russia was able to show both friends and enemies that it was once again able to project power every bit as effectively as the Soviet Union had once done. And in Europe, the refugee crisis rocked the EU just as the bloc had united behind sanctions against Moscow -- and strengthened the hand of the kind of anti-immigrant, anti-Brussels parties that the Kremlin has supported in France, Hungary, the Netherlands and Italy. -Another summer of refugee boats may well serve to shatter the EU completely. As George Soros wrote in the Guardian on Monday, 'the most effective way Putin's regime can avoid collapse is by causing the EU to collapse sooner'.

So until last week, Syria was a win-win game for Russia. Continuing war would sow useful chaos in Europe, while a Russian-brokered peace would bring Moscow a new sphere of influence and chalk up a significant strategic victory for Putin.

Then two things went wrong: Assad overreached, and Trump changed his mind. The two events are linked. It has not yet been definitively proved that the Assad regime used sarin gas on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhun. But if, as mounting evidence collected by the UN suggests, Assad regime generals were responsible, they apparently made the mistake of -taking Donald Trump at his word. They never expected America's self-declared isolationist president to intervene in Syria, whatever outrage they perpetrated.

Assad was not the only one to be surprised (or rather, not entirely surprised -- the US gave the Russians 90 minutes warning under an early-warning protocol established four years ago, and the Russian general staff apparently alerted the Syrians immediately). The Kremlin was shocked too. Russia's political elite had convinced itself that Trump's election would bring in a golden new era of non-intervention. 'An America that minds its own business is an America that suits us,' State Duma member Vyacheslav Nikonov told me after Trump's inauguration. Some Russian politicians fantasised that Trump and Putin would strike some kind of grand bargain that would leave Moscow a free hand in Ukraine and its near abroad in exchange for Putin's support in Syria and Iran.

But with Trump's bombing of a regime airbase this week, Syria suddenly went from being an asset to Russia to being a dangerous liability. Instead of being a diplomatic multipurpose tool, the fallout from Trump's Syria raid now threatens a series of Russian vital interests. First, America and Britain are talking about renewed and broader sanctions as punishment for Moscow's support for Assad -- just as the Kremlin was hoping to fracture Europe's unanimity on renewing its set of Crimea-related sanctions. Second, the raid signalled a breakdown in a new relationship with Trump on which Putin had -- and perhaps still has -- put high hopes. …

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