A few weeks ago, Donald Trump invited Vladimir Putin to meet — maybe even at the White House. After US-led missile strikes in Syria, the two nations’ officials can’t get into the same room without insulting each other.
Speaking at an emergency session of the United Nations Security Council, hours after the US, France and the UK launched missiles intended to take out Syria’s chemical weapons capability, American Ambassador Nikki Haley called on Russia — the main backer of the Syrian regime — “to take a hard look at the company it keeps.” Her Russian counterpart Vassily Nebenzia retorted that the US and its allies were engaged in the “diplomacy of myth-making.”
For the moment, the angry rhetoric isn’t scaring financial markets. Oil fell from its highest close in three years in New York amid speculation that US-led military intervention in Syria won’t go beyond the weekend’s missile strikes. The ruble held steady against the dollar as senior officials declared the worst of the crisis over.
But the strikes against the regime of Russia’s ally Bashar al-Assad put an exclamation point on how swiftly ties between the former Cold War foes have deteriorated in recent weeks, with President Trump even overcoming his past unwillingness to criticise President Putin by name.
Now, the US-Russia relationship, already under severe strain over issues from Russian meddling in the 2016 American presidential campaign to its role in Syria and Ukraine, may be irretrievably broken for the foreseeable future. There may be too much bad blood, too much suspicion and too much anger on both sides to turn the animosity around.
“I don’t see things getting better,” said Boris Zilberman, deputy director of congressional relations at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a Russia expert.
“We’re at a very low point and clearly the administration’s position on Russia has hardened.”
The result has been an unprecedented wave of retaliations and tit-for-tat actions.
After the UK blamed Russia for the poisoning of a former spy in Britain, more than 150 Russian diplomats were expelled by the UK and allies including the US. The Trump administration followed with new sanctions on Russian oligarchs including billionaire aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska. His company lost half its value in a day after the sanctions were announced.
Haley raised the prospect of still more sanctions on Russia, saying Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that a fresh round of penalties would “go directly to any sorts of companies that were dealing with equipment” related to Assad and his chemical weapons. While for now no significant new US sanctions seem likely in Moscow, lawmakers are starting Monday to discuss a draft law with counter-measures against the US.
Russia gets “new sanctions and threats every week,” he said. “Americans believe that you can humiliate and put pressure everywhere and at the same time offer cooperation where they need it. This does not happen.”
The two countries routinely accuse each other of fabricating events, as they did during the Cold War.
The US says Russia is blocking investigators from the scene of the chemical attack that prompted the latest airstrikes.
Russia has argued both that the attack in the Syrian city of Douma never happened or that it was orchestrated by the US and its allies to provoke a military response.