“Absolute Mistrust”: Sovereignty, Historicism, and US-Russian Relations After Shayrat

The past several days have seen a dramatic escalation of US involvement in the Syrian conflict, and, with it, a profound shift in the timbre of US-Russian relations. On the morning of April 7, US warships in the Mediterranean Sea fired 59 cruise missiles against the Syrian government’s Shayrat airbase, which is believed to have been the staging site for a deadly chemical weapon attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Shaykhun on April 4. The strike has prompted a flurry of emotions in the United States, ranging from effusive endorsements by long-time proponents of US military intervention in the Syrian conflict, to frustration from those who had supported Trump in the belief that he would keep America out of any and all foreign entanglements.

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View of damage to hanger at Shayrat Airbase, as recorded by a Russian military drone (Russian Ministry of Defense)

By contrast, many Russians have reacted to the strike with a more uniform blend of anger, anxiety, and disappointment. Yet much of this dejection appears to have stemmed not just from the fact that the United States had targeted Russia’s Syrian allies – but also from the perception that the Trump White House had shown itself to be no different than preceding administrations in terms of its flagrant disregard for Russian national interests. This sense of dejection was perhaps most clearly expressed by Prime Minister Dmitri Medvedev, who later vented his exasperation in a lengthy Facebook post:

That’s it. The last remaining election fog has lifted. Instead of an overworked statement about a joint fight against the biggest enemy, ISIS (the Islamic State), the Trump administration proved that it will fiercely fight the legitimate Syrian government, in a tough contradiction with international law and without UN approval, in violation of its own procedures stipulating that the Congress must first be notified of any military operation unrelated to aggression against the US. On the verge of a military clash with Russia.

Nobody is overestimating the value of pre-election promises but there must be limits of decency. Beyond that is absolute mistrust. Which is really sad for our now completely ruined relations. And which is good news for terrorists.

One more thing. This military action is a clear indication of the US President’s extreme dependency on the opinion of the Washington establishment, the one that the new president strongly criticized in his inauguration speech. 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. (/END)

The thrust of Medvedev’s polemic is more or less clear from the last paragraph. Whereas the Kremlin previously had hoped that Donald Trump would overcome the “existing power machine” and leave Russia to pursue its strategic interests in Syria, the April 7 operation indicated that Trump had no intention of breaking ranks with the “Washington establishment.” Yet this begs the question: what did Moscow believe it would gain from such a break in the first place?

In order to answer this question, it is important to understand first the central importance given to “sovereignty” in Russian foreign policy. Per its classical definition, sovereignty refers to the right and capacity of an organized political body to govern itself independently of external influence or interference. That most countries conduct a “sovereign” foreign policy goes largely without saying; after all, the ability to conduct a completely autonomous foreign policy is arguably the sine qua non of sovereignty itself.

For Russia, however, the ability to operate an autonomous foreign policy is not only an inalienable facet of sovereignty, but a matter of historical precedent granted it by the dual legacies of the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union. Putin himself best articulated this view in a now-famous speech at the 2007 Munich Security Conference, in which he asserted that “Russia is a country with a history that spans more than a thousand years and has practically always used the privilege to carry out an independent foreign policy,” adding, “We are not going to change this tradition today.”

The upshot of this fundamentally historicist mindset is that Moscow today regards itself as being entitled to the same prestige that had been afforded to its Imperial and Soviet forbears. To that end, Russia has long sought to secure acknowledgement of its “great power” status from the United States, whether in the form of a bilateral partnership or through demonstrations of diplomatic influence and military strength. Yet while such actions may often at cross purposes with US objectives, their aim is not to challenge the United States as such, but rather, as Russian foreign policy expert Jeffrey Mankoff puts it, to “remind the United States that Russia still matters.”

Understood in this light, the Shayrat operation represents much more than an attack on a Russian ally. It also demonstrated contempt for Russian power, which does not appear to have figured prominently as a concern in US military and diplomatic calculations beforehand. In this respect, the events of April 7 appear to have greatly disappointed those Russians who believed that Trump would treat their nation with the respect hitherto denied it by previous administrations.

Dmitry Drobnitskiy articulated this disappointment best in an April 10 op-ed for Russian online periodical Vzglyad: “They [the United States] did not discuss the strike with us. They did not take us into consideration.” To the extent that Russia still can create problems for the United States and its allies, the Trump administration should at least acknowledge Russia’s concerns, lest its further alienate the Kremlin with its indifference. The alternative is an increasingly assertive Russia, intent on demonstrating its power so that it might at last be taken seriously. Indeed, hell hath no fury like an aspiring Great Power scorned.