A martyoshka doll showing Donald Trump, U.S. president elect, left, sits beside a doll showing Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, dressed as a military pilot, in a souvenir store in Moscow, Russia (Photographer: Andrey Rudakov/Bloomberg)

Russia, U.S. Near Brink in a Syrian Standoff With Nuclear Risks

(Bloomberg) -- Russia has spent years testing state-of-the-art products of its defense industry in Syria. Now it’s warning that some of those weapons could be turned against the U.S., as tensions between the powers reach new heights.

U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening to strike Russia’s Syrian ally in response to an alleged chemical attack -- and Russia is threatening to retaliate if its forces there suffer harm. While both sides have dialed back the brinkmanship in the last couple of days, they remain locked in what could be the most dangerous standoff between nuclear-armed countries for decades.

Tensions have erupted out of the Syrian battlefield, where the U.S. and Russia back opposing sides and forces from Iran, Turkey and Israel have also been sucked in. Delivering a somber address to an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council early Friday, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres drew a Cold War parallel -- and said the threat could be even more acute now.

“The mechanisms and the safeguards to manage the risks of escalation that existed in the past no longer seem to be present,” Guterres said. “This is exactly the risk we face today -- that things spiral out of control. It is our common duty to stop it.”

‘Get Ready’

Trump told Moscow on Wednesday to “get ready” for an American missile strike in Syria, after a Kremlin diplomat said that any rockets aimed toward Russian forces there -- as well as any plane or ship that fired them -- would be targeted.

Since then, hopes of averting a direct confrontation have risen. Trump put his attack on pause as he consulted allies, and a senior Russian official said the envoy’s threats had been misinterpreted. Still, Western diplomats in Moscow say the situation remains unpredictable.

Russia doesn’t expect the U.S. to abandon its proposed strikes on Syria, according to Alexander Golts, an independent defense and security expert in the Russian capital. Its threats of retaliation are part of a strategy that seeks to limit the scale of American action, and ensure that Moscow receives advance warning, he said: “Russia is raising the stakes in an effort to de-escalate on its terms.”

That’s what happened a year ago, when Trump ordered cruise-missile attacks to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for another alleged use of chemical weapons -- while forewarning the Russians so they didn’t suffer casualties.

‘Out of Control’

But there’s no guarantee of a repeat. And if the two countries do end up clashing directly, even the worst outcomes can’t be ruled out, said Golts. “Russia has what it takes to strike back at the American warships,” he said. “What would happen next is hard to say. It could fairly quickly escalate to a nuclear level.”

In Washington on Thursday, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was delivering a similar warning to Congress. Mattis told the House Armed Services Committee that while it’s important to “stop the murder of innocent people,” his greatest fear about a strike on Syria is that the conflict could “escalate out of control, if you get my drift.”

President Vladimir Putin boasted last month about a new generation of “invincible” nuclear arms -- including high-speed underwater drones, and hypersonic weapons capable of dodging U.S. defenses at 10 times the speed of sound.

New Weapons

The new weapons Putin has deployed in Syria are more prosaic, but some have grabbed the attention of defense analysts in America, and potential buyers elsewhere.

  • Sea-based Kalibr cruise missiles were fired at Islamic State militants in Syria from warships and submarines as far away as the Caspian Sea, some 1,000 miles to the east. (It’s not clear if they all reached their targets.)
  • Air-launched Kh-101 cruise missiles, which have also been used against the jihadists, have a range of 2,800 miles, giving the Russian bomber fleet a long-range precision strike capability. The Defense Ministry has said they could carry nuclear warheads.
  • The Bastion coastal defense missile system is deployed in Syria. Armed with up to 36 missiles, it’s said to have a range of 350 kilometers for targets at sea, and 450 kilometers by land.
  • The S-400 anti-missile system, deployed to Syria in 2015 after Turkey downed a Russian military jet, has perhaps drawn the most attention. Supposedly able to hit aircraft and missiles from 400 kilometers away, and engage up to 36 targets simultaneously, the S-400 has never actually been used. Still, governments including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, close U.S. allies, are lining up to buy them.
    In January, Russia sent four more S-400 systems to Syria, installing them at its Hmeimeem air base and the naval facility at Tartus on the Mediterranean. They’re capable of shooting down U.S. cruise missiles, according to Igor Korotchenko, head of the Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade in Moscow.

Earlier this week, as the U.S. and its allies threatened to strike, Russian warships moored at Tartus headed out into the open sea. Russia currently has 15 warships and vessels in the Mediterranean, including frigates and diesel and nuclear-powered submarines, according to the Kommersant newspaper. The U.S. is bolstering its presence there: on Friday, the guided-missile destroyer USS Winston Churchill, which can carry as many as 90 Tomahawk cruise missiles, arrived in the region.

On Russian media, there’s been some talk of a potential war with the U.S., and even of apocalyptic consequences. But such worries aren’t widespread, and the Kremlin has offered reassurance, saying that military chiefs are in touch via their “deconfliction” hotline.

Among the American top brass, “there are no madmen,” said Frants Klintsevich, a member of the Russian upper house’s defense and security committee. “These are professionals who aren’t populists and know what this could lead to.”

In the end, such contacts are likely to produce an agreed-upon set of targets for U.S. strikes, where there’ll be no Russian servicemen at risk, said Vladimir Frolov, a former Russian diplomat.

‘Fog of War’

“The residual risk is of a mistake by weapons operators in the fog of war,” he said. “With communication channels open, that should be controllable.”

Some U.S. allies in Europe called on Friday for a shift away from policies carrying even that residual risk. The foreign ministers of Germany and Belgium said the focus should be on a political solution, involving pressure on Russia to reconsider its support for Assad.

That’s a strategy that has made little headway during more than seven years of the civil war in Syria, in which about half a million people have been killed.

But the priority now is “to avoid a military escalation,” said Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders. “That is the most important element for the next days and weeks.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.