Sun Tzu said that “all warfare is based on deception.” War is, therefore, about the management of perceptions. Given this, what if the recent American airstrike in Syria, and the Russian cyber attacks earlier this week, were a way for both countries to manage public perceptions, while Presidents Trump and Putin prepare to make a deal? And, rather than America and Russia being the enemies, what if the real enemy — the group that needs their perceptions most managed — is the American media establishment?
Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump expressed a desire to stabilize relations between the United States and Russian Federation. After winning the presidency, virtually every foreign policy adviser to the president who shared this view has been conveniently removed from power. The president himself has been subject to one of the most invasive, politically charged investigations into his purported illicit ties to Russia. So, in the current political environment, President Trump cannot simply make a deal with Putin.
Rather than go directly to Vladimir Putin, could it be that President Trump is engaging in this brouhaha over a purported Syrian chemical weapons attack to distract the easily distracted mainstream media?
The Syrian Sideshow
Shortly after President Trump expressed a desire to draw down American forces from Syria, a chemical weapons attack was reported in the jihadist-held Damascus suburb of Douma. Almost immediately, President Trump took to Twitter and expressed his disgust at the situation, blaming both the “Animal Assad” and Vladimir Putin for the horrific attacks. The Russians cried “foul!” Assad denied the attack even happened.
Although the president had almost instantly promised retaliation against Assad, and even though American allies had either struck Syria or were preparing to, there was little indication that the United States itself was going to conduct a retaliatory strike there. A great show was put on by the American ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, in which she publicly excoriated the Russians and Iranians for their support of Assad. By that point, though, a full 96 hours had passed from the president’s tweet to the moment in which the bombs started falling. In that time span, the Syrians had moved their personnel and air force away from their air bases and into Russian-controlled bases, knowing full well that the Americans would not strike at Russian bases, and risk an escalation with the Russians.
After the attack, only three of the five key Syrian military bases were targeted. Despite the massive barrage, no Syrian military personnel were killed and no serious damage was done to Assad’s ability to launch further chemical weapons attacks. The Russians, naturally, claimed they shot down the bulk of the American cruise missiles fired at Syria. But, in truth, Russian coastal S-400 batteries were in standby mode for the duration of the predictable American-led attack. In fact, there is little evidence that the Russians did anything other than observe the attack while it occurred.
The American attack was nothing but a public spectacle.
Several days after the American airstrike in Syria, cyber attacks against American systems increased. Western intelligence agencies believe that Russia was the source of these attacks. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, for just as Mr. Trump publicly vowed retaliation against Assad for his purported chemical weapons attack in Douma, so too did Vladimir Putin promise retribution for any American attack on Assad. While the operational tempo and scope of the cyber attacks was greater than what Western security officials are used to, the targets (or even the source of the attack) were nothing new. And, the attacks themselves were mostly ineffective. Just like the American airstrikes in Syria last week, the Russian response was relatively toothless.
Was this by design or by accident?
The Mother of All Deals
We know that President Trump has a deep desire to make the mother-of-all geopolitical deals with Mr. Putin (and he is right to want to do that). Even as Trump beat the proverbial war drums in Syria recently, he refused to ratchet up sanctions on Russia. This is likely not an accident; Trump is laying the groundwork for a big diplomatic move with Russia.
Putin fully understands that he cannot sustain the Russian intervention in the Syrian Civil War for much longer. And, despite their public alliance, the Russians do not want to see Iran become the regional hegemon in the Middle East (particularly if it threatens their burgeoning trade partnerships with both Israel and Saudi Arabia). However, in both the American and Russian cases, the publics of both countries (and the world, for that matter) expect these countries to behave a certain way when faced with a select set of crises.
Unfortunately, Putin has made commitments to Tehran and Damascus that he simply cannot back out of — not without first standing firm against purported Western aggression. In fact, much of the legitimacy surrounding Mr. Putin’s regime rests on the notion of Putin being the last bulwark against Western hegemony in the world. Just as Trump is politically prevented from simply flying to Moscow and offering Putin a fair shake, so too is Putin politically restrained by his own domestic politics from reaching out to Washington with an open hand. Make no mistake, though: Putin desperately wants to deal with Trump.
But, now that the two sides have raised each other in this public game of chicken, their bona fides have been established; the media perceptions are being managed. It took years of frigid relations between the United States and China before Mao Zedong could reach out to Richard Nixon (and before Nixon could happily embrace Mao), and create a tenable balance of power that lasted the duration of the Cold War. Something similar might be afoot here in the current public hostility between Russia and the United States. If it is, both Trump and Putin must continue distracting the American media, since they are the greatest foes to real peace.