In Russia, they call it kozyrnut’. It means “to play a trump card.”
Donald Trump’s missile strike this week against the Russian-backed Syrian regime not only damaged its chemical weapons program, it also happened to give the U.S. president a useful political tool.
Now, whenever anyone accuses Trump of being too cozy with Russia, he can point to the strike against Syria as evidence that he’s willing to defy the Kremlin: Kozyrnut’.
The missile strike on a Syrian airbase came just days before Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is due to visit Moscow, and the implications could be wide-ranging for Trump’s relationship with Russia, which kept its push-back largely rhetorical.
The political side effect, meanwhile, could burnish Trump’s defense against claims he is too close to Russia amid ongoing federal probes into whether Moscow tried to swing the 2016 election his way.
“Many people have had concerns that Trump was going to be too soft on Russian President Vladimir Putin, but clearly the actions this week would alleviate some of those concerns, at least in the short term,” said Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who previously worked for Sen. Marco Rubio, a Trump 2016 rival.
The missile strike came after a toxic gas attack blamed on Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime killed scores of people in the Arab country’s Idlib province. Asked whether political motivations played into the decision, White House spokesman Michael C. Short told POLITICO: “Zero. Your line of questioning is insulting, frankly.”
Trump has cast his decision to strike Syria as driven by humanitarian and strategic interests. He appeared genuinely distressed by images of children killed by the poison gas, believed to include sarin, and said he wanted to prevent more such deaths while signaling that the United States will not tolerate the use of chemical weapons.
But it was a stunning turnabout for Trump, who had long warned against U.S. intervention in Syria’s civil war, which has killed around a half-million people in six years.
Back in 2013, when then-President Barack Obama weighed attacking Assad over far deadlier chemical weapons assaults, Trump publicly urged him not to. Throughout his presidential campaign, Trump said the U.S. should find ways to work with Russia, despite its military backing of Assad. Just last week, Trump aides said that Assad’s continued rule was a political reality that must be accepted and that the fight against the Islamic State terrorist group was far more important.
Days later, Trump has changed his tack, drawing Russian opprobrium as a result.
"If the Russians had hopes that the Trump administration would go out of their way to make the relationship better, this obviously makes that more difficult," said Vann Van Diepen, a top U.S. counterproliferation official for the past 25 years.
Following Thursday night’s strike, Russia, which denies Assad’s culpability in the chemical weapons attack, accused the United States of violating international law. A Russian diplomat at the United Nations said the U.S. action would fuel terrorism.
But Russia did not cancel the April 12 meetings with Tillerson or take any other notably punitive actions against the United States. Moscow reportedly said it would help strengthen Syria’s air defenses, but it did not announce plans to send more troops to help Assad, who also has Iranian backing.
Russia also said it would stop cooperating with the United States on “de-confliction” — a process that helps avoid airspace collisions, but analysts suspect that move will be short-term. U.S. military officials told reporters they had spoken to Russian counterparts as recently as Friday. And the same Russian diplomat at the United Nations said his country still welcomes cooperation from Washington on ending the Syrian war.
The Trump administration appeared to walk a similar line in its own tough talk. Tillerson used exceptionally harsh language against Moscow after the missile strike, saying it had “failed” to live up to its promise in the 2013 deal.
“So either Russia has been complicit or Russia has been simply incompetent in its ability to deliver on its end of that agreement,” Tillerson told reporters.
But the United States has not announced any punitive measures toward Moscow, and Russians in the region got a short heads-up ahead of the missile strike.
A tough posture that keeps channels open to Moscow could create opportunities for cooperation on Syria, analysts said.
As determined as they are to keep their foothold in Syria, the Russians aren’t enamored of Assad and wouldn’t mind seeing the Syrian conflict end, said Jeffrey Mankoff, a Russia analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Moscow also has indicated it isn’t keen on chemical weapons; it helped broker a 2013 deal that was supposed to removed most of Assad’s stockpile.
“They’re making a lot of noise and complaining about this and that, but the Syrians in some ways put Russia in a bad position by carrying out the chemical attack,” Mankoff said. "The U.S. strike creates an opportunity for the Russians to get some leverage over Assad if — this is a big if — it looks like the U.S. is going to be more involved and this wasn’t just a one-off strike."
Tom Graham, a managing director who deals with Russia at the consulting firm of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, said the U.S. strike — 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles — also sent a muscular message to Moscow, which has been bragging about its own military’s upgrades.
“This can be, in a strange way, an opportunity,” said Graham, who said he supports continued engagement with Russia. “The United States used more cruise missiles in one night than the Russians may have in their entire arsenal. They’ll come away with the appropriate conclusion, that the United States is still more technologically capable.”
A senior U.S. intelligence official involved in regional security issues said the reaction by Iran and its proxy fighting force Hezbollah, and whether they believe the missile strike was a one-off or part of a coordinated strategy, could also impact Russia’s response.
Tillerson and others in the administration have taken pains to insist that the fundamental U.S. approach to Syria has not changed, a sign that there’s no plan to keep raining American missiles on the Assad regime for now. The idea appears to be to stop Assad from using chemical weapons again, even though killing is likely to otherwise continue. The Trump administration also appears determined to keep as its foremost priority the battle against the Islamic State, which controls territory in Syria and Iraq.
Still, Trump has already proven that he’s not afraid to change his mind, even when it’s about weighty things like attacking a foreign government. The missile strike “shows that the president is going to do what he thinks will protect American national interests regardless of what people are saying about him politically,” said Jim Talent, a former GOP senator from Missouri.
So even as the investigations into Russian interference continue, Trump can, at least for a while, stand up to anyone who claims he’s just a tool of the Kremlin — kozyrnut’.
Josh Meyer contributed to this report.