“With this step Washington has struck a significant blow to Russian-American relations, which were already in a sorry state,” Peskov said on Friday. The Russian response to the missile strike was one of almost unanimous condemnation, though it is unclear how much appetite Moscow has for a real escalation with the US in Syria.
Prime minister Dmitry Medvedev wrote on Facebook that the strike left the US “on the verge of a military clash with Russia”.
Putin held a meeting of his security council to discuss the Russian response on Friday lunchtime. “The participants expressed deep concern at the inevitable negative consequences of these aggressive actions for the joint efforts to fight terrorism,” said Peskov.
He said the security council also expressed regret at the harm the strike would do to US-Russia relations, and they discussed ways to continue the Russian airforce operation in Syria to give support to Assad’s army.
Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian defence ministry, said Russia would help Syria strengthen its air defences, though he did not mention whether Russian air defences currently in place in Syria were told to stand down. He said a “range of measures” would be put in place to help “protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities”.
Konashenkov claimed only 23 of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles reached the base, with the rest missing the target. He said six Syrian fighter jets at the base had been destroyed, but many remained undamaged and the runway was undamaged. The Pentagon claimed all but one of the missiles had hit their target.
Russia continues to scoff at evidence that Syrian government forces carried out the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhun earlier this week. Peskov claimed Syria had no chemical weapons, and that the destruction of them had been monitored by international observers.
Russia has claimed the incident could have happened when government jets bombed a factory where rebels were making chemical weapons. A recent visit by a Guardian reporter to the town discredited this theory.
Konashenkov said Moscow was also pulling out of an airspace safety agreement with the US, which had been put into place to ensure there were no collisions or misunderstandings between the two countries. Russian analysts said the move was largely symbolic and would not greatly alter how the countries operated in the air in Syria.
Moscow may wait until secretary of state Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Russia next week before weighing up how to respond fully. For now, the response has been mainly rhetorical.
“This step will have far-reaching consequences,” said the Russian MP Mikhail Yemelyanov. “There’s a risk of a direct confrontation between Russia and the US and the consequences could be very difficult, right up to an armed clash and exchanging strikes – nothing can be excluded here.”
Higher-ranking politicians sounded equally angry but refrained from making threats of such consequences, possibly waiting for the Kremlin line on the issue. While the rhetorical anger is predictable, only time will tell whether Russia braces for heightened confrontation with Trump’s administration or is amenable to compromise over the role of Bashar al-Assad, whom the Kremlin has supported since the start of the conflict.
Tillerson is due in Moscow on Tuesday and is expected to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Putin on Wednesday. The meeting will take place amid continuing concerns about the role of Russia in the election of Donald Trump, but now the focus will be on what is next for Syria.
The analyst Mark Galeotti wrote that Trump’s gambit opens up “an opportunity for Moscow to show some kind of flexibility and willingness to come out of the trenches” by ditching their unwavering allegiance to Assad in return for other guarantees. “My money, sadly, is on their not being willing or able to make the move,” he wrote.
It may be that little changes on the ground in Syria. For now, the main effect of Trump’s move seems to be a final disillusionment with Trump, and realisation that for all Trump’s warm words about Putin, he may not be the easy president to deal with that some had hoped.
“Soon after his victory, I noted that everything would depend on how soon Trump’s election promises would be broken by the existing power machine. It took only two-and-a-half months,” wrote Medvedev.
Margarita Simonyan, the editor-in-chief of the Kremlin-funded Russia Today television network, wrote after Trump’s victory that she was so happy she wanted to drive through the streets of Moscow waving an American flag. On Friday, she tweeted: “Well, my friends, we had a chance. The chance has been completely fucked up. And not by us.”