Vladimir Putin views the US missile strikes on Syria as “aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law, and under a false pretext,” according to his spokesman, Dmitry Peskov.
“With this step Washington has struck a significant blow to Russian-American relations, which were already in a sorry state,” said Peskov. The Russian response to the missile strike was one of almost unanimous condemnation, though it is unclear how much appetite Moscow has for a real escalation with the US in Syria.
Putin held a meeting of his security council to discuss the Russian response on Friday lunchtime. “The participants expressed deep concern at the inevitable negative consequences of these aggressive actions for the joint efforts to fight terrorism,” said Peskov. He said the security council also expressed regret at the harm the strike would do to US-Russia relations, and they discussed ways to continue the Russian air force operation in Syria to give support to Assad’s army.
Igor Konashenkov, spokesman for the Russian defence ministry, said Russia would help Syria strengthen its air defences, though he did not mention whether Russian air defences currently in place in Syria were told to stand down. He said a “range of measures” would be put in place to help “protect the most sensitive Syrian infrastructure facilities”.
Konashenkov claimed that only 23 of the 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles reached the base, with the rest missing the target. He said six Syrian fighter jets at the base had been destroyed, but many remained unscathed and the runway was undamaged.
“This step will have far-reaching consequences,” said the Russian MP Mikhail Yemelyanov on Friday morning. “There’s a risk of a direct confrontation between Russia and the US and the consequences could be very difficult, right up to an armed clash and exchanging strikes – nothing can be excluded here.”
Higher-ranking politicians sounded equally angry but refrained from making threats of such consequences, possibly waiting for the Kremlin line on the issue. While the rhetorical anger is predictable, only time will tell whether Russia braces for heightened confrontation with Trump’s administration or is amenable to compromise over the role of Bashar al-Assad, whom the Kremlin has supported since the start of the conflict.
The US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, is due in Moscow on Tuesday and is expected to meet the Russian foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, and Putin on Wednesday. The meeting takes place amid continuing concerns about the role of Russia in the election of Donald Trump, but now the focus will be on what is next for Syria.
Peskov, along with many other Russian officials, said there was no evidence Syrian government forces carried out the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhun earlier this week. Peskov claimed Syria had no chemical weapons, and that the destruction of them had been monitored by international observers.
“The Americans understand quite well that the Syrian government did not use chemical weapons, because they don’t have any,” said Maria Zakharova, spokeswoman for the Russian foreign ministry.
Russia has claimed the incident could have happened when government jets bombed a factory where rebels were making chemical weapons. A recent visit by a Guardian reporter to the town discredited this theory.