Moscow ended a coordination agreement to avoid accidents involving military aircraft of the two countries over Syria.
Donald Trump is not quite 100 days old in his new job as US President, but the world has got to know him as someone who can throw up surprises every day, if not every hour. The United States is renowned as a country of think tanks of a bewildering variety, quick to build doctrines for a new leader. They are all at their wit’s end trying to anticipate what he will do next.
President Trump ordered the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles to hit a Syrian airbase from where Syrian warplanes supposedly took off to spray nerve gas on civilians in Idlib, killing scores.
It had echoes of former President Barack Obama’s decision not to retaliate against Syria although it deliberately crossed publicly-declared “red lines” and upended his own policy of “America First” foreshadowing his distaste in fighting other people’s wars except to decimate the so-called Islamic State.
Second, Mr Trump has seemingly negated his trademark policy of befriending Russia’s President Vladimir Putin even as America’s security establishment is all worked up over the Kremlin’s alleged role in influencing the US presidential election.
Moscow’s reaction to the missile strike was expectedly severe, although Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov later indicated a more flexible line. Moscow ended a coordination agreement to avoid accidents involving military aircraft of the two countries over Syria.
Thus far, the major actors are assuming that the strikes are a one-off, and US secretary of state Rex Tillerson is visiting Moscow on Tuesday for his first get-to-know trip. The secondary role Britain plays in world affairs was underlined by the cancellation of a Moscow visit by its foreign secretary Boris Johnson.
What next? That’s what the world is asking as the Syrian civil war enters its seventh year, with deaths mounting and millions of Syrian people displaced at home or living abroad as refugees.
There are no clear answers, even as Russia has organised the evacuation of rebels and their families to safe zones. But Moscow has an obvious responsibility to stop the carnage, given its bolstering of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
One of the consequences of the gas attack is that President Trump, who was indifferent to Mr Assad’s fate in line with his “America First” credo, now wants his ouster. How it will translate itself into policy remains to be seen.
Russia has travelled a long way from the early days of the Trump presidency. Its enthusiasm for the new man in the White House has waned over weeks and months, as the Kremlin’s alleged interference has become a salient feature of American internal debate, with Mr Trump losing his national security adviser. Mr Putin seems to suggest that the next move is Mr Trump’s.
These are formative stages of the Trump presidency, but many American experts worry that with his aversion to doctrines and spelling out foreign policy directions, the President relies on instinct, rather than considered policy, to chart out his moves. And the reported tussle between his senior right-wing aide Steve Bannon and son-in-law Jared Kushner further complicates the picture.
Judging by the compliments Mr Trump has showered on Mr Putin’s qualities as a resolute leader, he can tap the goodwill he has created in Moscow to begin a serious dialogue with his counterpart.
Mr Tillerson’s probing this week will indicate if the two nations can get together for meaningful discussions.
Ironically, the important get-to-know talks Mr Trump was having with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Florida retreat were overshadowed by the Syria missile strikes. But it gave his visitor an opportunity to size up the new White House occupant, and the optimistic note taken by the official Chinese media after the two-day trip means that Beijing is careful not to annoy the US.
Conventional wisdom holds that the world’s fate will be largely decided by the US, Russia and China.
After the Soviet Union’s breakup, President Putin has asserted his clout by helping President Assad, thus becoming an actor in the Middle East. Further, he annexed Crimea and is supporting rebels in eastern Ukraine to undo the West’s desire to grab Russia’s important neighbour in the aftermath of Moscow’s defeat in the Cold War.
Much will depend on the chemistry between Mr Putin and Mr Trump and Moscow’s success in guiding events in Syria to a stage where the carnage can stop before the mind-boggling task of rebuilding a ruined nation can start, if indeed it can remain one nation.
President Putin, as the steadier of the two leaders, has a greater responsibility to find a way out.
Domestically, Mr Trump has succeeded in temporarily boosting his sagging poll ratings as he has stumbled in making his executive orders barring visitors from largely Muslim countries stick. An even greater embarrassment was his failure to get rid of Obamacare, one of his major campaign promises, through a substitute measure which had to be withdrawn due to opposition within his own Republican Party.
In one respect, President Trump’s instinct is right, in seeing Russian cooperation as a key to resolving major world problems. But the US agencies’ probe into Moscow’s alleged interference in the US election is a continuing distraction, and the bitterness in the two nations’ relationship is acute.
In a sense, it all boils down to Mr Trump’s capacity to evolve in his new role. He has set his own rules by bringing his family into the White House’s decision-making process.
His daughter Ivanka has got space in the West Wing and her husband Jared Kushner is one of the President’s key advisers. It is not known whether Mr Trump took inspiration from India’s dynastic politics.
Opinion is divided in Washington’s policymaking elite over Mr Trump’s capacity to outgrow his realty tycoon and reality TV ways and rely less on instinct than on considered policy.
He related his change of heart on Syria in emotional terms, his horror in seeing children choke to death by the chemical attack. Emotions are, however, not the best guide to framing policy.