One of President Donald Trump’s stated goals during the presidential campaign was to bring the US and Russia closer together. Based on the events of the past few days, the two nations seem further apart than ever — and potentially at real risk of coming to blows.
Take the events of the past 72 hours alone. Yesterday over the Baltic Sea, a Russian fighter jet flying too fast and erratically came very close to a US plane, perhaps to within 5 feet.
This past Sunday, the US shot down a Syrian warplane, the first time America had done that during Syria’s civil war. That angered the Russians — allies of the Syrian government — to the point that its Ministry of Defense threatened to target US or allied aircraft flying over Syria west of the Euphrates River. The US ignored Moscow’s harsh words and shot down a Syrian drone Tuesday, something certain not to go unnoticed in the Kremlin.
Taken together, the incidents highlight the deteriorating relationship between the United States and Russia, the world’s top two nuclear powers. And it’s not looking like they’re going to become friends anytime soon, especially in Syria.
There, both countries have a contact channel open to ensure they don’t get into a military altercation. But Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesperson, today seemed to indicate that the communications channel is not working like it did before last Sunday’s skirmish in Syria.
“We prefer to keep this channel of communication open,” Davis told reporters today. “We still maintain our end of it. I’ll leave it to the Russians to state what they’re doing.”
That bodes poorly for the Trump administration as it tries to keep the already tense situation in the active war zone from getting worse. In effect, the risk of a military skirmish between the two countries is growing — and fast.
“Our relationship’s at an all-time low”
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is already aware that the relationship with Russia isn’t going well.
“Our relationship’s at an all-time low, and it’s been deteriorating further,” he told members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. “Our objective is to stabilize that.”
But it doesn’t help that the countries are on different sides of the Syria conflict.
Both Russia and the US say they’re fighting ISIS, but Moscow’s real goal is to keep Bashar al-Assad in power. Washington, meanwhile, has consistently attacked pro-Assad forces when they threaten US troops or members of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a US-backed militia aiming to defeat ISIS.
To be sure, Sunday’s downing of the Syrian jet in order to protect the SDF was the fourth time in a month that the US has struck pro-Assad forces, and the first time the US brought down a Syrian military plane since the war’s start. It looks like the US strategy in Syria is shifting to confront Assad more directly, which won’t make Russia happy.
These events come at a bad time for Trump, who has wanted a closer counterterrorism relationship with Russia. “We’re going to have a lot of great success over the coming years, and we want to get as many to fight terrorism as possible,” Trump said in a press conference last month, saying he wants Russia to join the official anti-ISIS fight.
But at least in the short term, it’s not looking like Trump will get his wish. Even members of Senate are making it harder, passing sanctions against Russia by a 98-2 margin (although it’s dealing with a procedural snag in the House right now).
Only the military equipment from both countries seem to be coming closer together. And that means some kind of military problem between the US and Russia, once unthinkable, is now a distinct possibility.