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Analysis: 'Barbarous' Syria Bombings, MH17 Blame: What Consequences Could Russia Face?

Although U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry (right) and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov (left), reached a deal this month to renew a cease-fire in Syria and work together against terrorist groups, such a partnership now seems highly unlikely in light of recent events.

In terms of its reputation, Russia has had one of its worst weeks ever. Incensed that Moscow is pushing ahead with the "barbarous" bombing of Aleppo and angry over an attack on an aid convoy that is widely blamed on Russian and Syrian forces, the United States is threatening to stop all cooperation with the Kremlin on Syria. And an international investigation concluded that it was a Russian missile system, smuggled into separatist-held territory in Ukraine and then spirited back across the border, that brought down a Malaysia Airlines jet in 2014 and killed all 298 people aboard.

What are the potential consequences for Russia, short-term and long?

No Grand Alliance?

Russian President Vladimir Putin has long sought to forge a common front with the United States on terrorism, casting his country as an indispensable partner whose methods, abroad and at home, should not be questioned by Washington. In place since Putin's 1999-2000 war in Chechnya -- and stepped up in a speech at the UN a year ago, two days before he launched Russia's air campaign in Syria -- this dream seemed close to reality when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, reached a deal this month to renew a cease-fire, work together against terrorist groups, and lay the foundations for peace talks. But for now, such a partnership seems much more unlikely: Kerry said on September 29 that the United States is "on the verge of suspending" its discussion with Russia on Syria "because it is irrational in the context of the kind of bombing taking place." In a phone call the same day, President Barack Obama and German Chancellor Angela Merkel "strongly condemned the barbarous Russian and Syrian regime air strikes against eastern Aleppo," the White House said.

No Grand Bargain

For Russia, a side benefit of a common front on Syria or terrorism would be the hope that the West would put less pressure on Moscow to fulfill its obligations under the Minsk accord -- the February 2015 deal to end the war between Kyiv's forces and Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. The United States and EU say they steer clear of quid-pro-quo arrangements, and the Joint Investigation Team's (JIT) finding about the downing of MH17 makes any such understanding even less likely.

A piece of wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014.
A piece of wreckage from the Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17, which was shot down over eastern Ukraine in 2014.

In The Dock?

Evidence of Russian involvement in the MH17 tragedy prompted calls for Moscow to face a formal war-crimes investigation. The path to such a prosecution would be long and filled with hurdles: Russia has used its clout as a permanent UN Security Council member to block the creation of an international tribunal to try any suspects who come to light, and has passed a law saying its own legislation can take precedence over rulings by the European Court of Human Rights, where a civil case claiming that Putin ultimately bears responsibility has been filed. But Human Rights Watch says that Russia could potentially face charges before the International Criminal Court or the courts of individual countries.

As for Syria, Kerry told a conference on September 29 that the ongoing air strikes on Aleppo amounted to war crimes, and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the same of the bombing of two big hospitals there earlier that day. Faced with criticism over civilian deaths in Syria, Russia seems to have stepped up claims that the United States is no less culpable. Amid calls for a probe into the attack on an aid convoy in Syria, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova demanded "an unbiased investigation" of recent U.S. air strikes that she said killed civilians in Afghanistan.

U.S. Ties

Some analysts were surprised when Russia lashed out vociferously over a U.S. air strike that killed Syrian government troops, saying that the angry reaction undermined the cooperation agreement with Washington -- a deal that took plenty of painstaking diplomacy and seemed to suit the Kremlin's interests in Syria. One reason Russia may be reluctant to seek peace in Syria and smooth relations with the United States now could be concern that the U.S. approach might change after a new president is inaugurated in January. But the ongoing bombing of Aleppo, and the findings of the MH17 investigation, seem likely to decrease the chances that the next president -- whether it is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump -- will seek a swift rapprochement with Russia. Trump has been far more conciliatory than Clinton toward the Kremlin, but the winning candidate is likely to face pressure from Congress and other quarters to be wary of Russia's intentions.

A boy walks amid damaged buildings in a devastated part of the Syrian city of Aleppo.
A boy walks amid damaged buildings in a devastated part of the Syrian city of Aleppo.

Test Of Time

Russia appears to be hoping the United States will not follow through on its threat to suspend talks on a Syria cease-fire and peace process. On September 30 -- two days after Kerry's initial warning, and one day after he said Washington was "on the verge" of halting the discussion -- Lavrov was planning to speak to Kerry again. Western officials have warned that the longer the war in Syria rages on, the greater the risk of a quagmire for Russian forces there and the danger of militant attacks on Russia itself. But if the current efforts fall apart entirely, Putin may believe that he has little to lose in the long run. Continuation of the conflict could enable President Bashar al-Assad's government to take more territory from rebels, potentially strengthening Russia's role in any future peace negotiations and improving its ability to shape a postwar Syria -- however distant that prospect now seems. Putin, who many expect to seek a new six-year term in an election due in 2018, may also believe that the United States and other Western countries will eventually seek to mend relations, as Obama did when he launched a "reset" of Russia ties early in his first term -- about a year after Russian forces invaded ex-Soviet Georgia in 2008.

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    Steve Gutterman

    Steve Gutterman is the editor of the Russia/Ukraine/Belarus Desk in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague and the author of The Week In Russia newsletter. He lived and worked in Russia and the former Soviet Union for nearly 20 years between 1989 and 2014, including postings in Moscow with the AP and Reuters. He has also reported from Afghanistan and Pakistan as well as other parts of Asia, Europe, and the United States.