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Kremlin backers warn of threat of war with US as Syria tensions rise

By: Anton Troianovski, The Washington Post
April 10, 2018 Updated: April 10, 2018 at 1:40 pm
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FILE - This Feb. 1, 2018 file photo provided by the Syrian rebel group Army of Islam, shows a fighter with the Army of Islam rebel group, firing a weapon during clashes with government forces in Housh al-Dhawahira in the eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, Syria. Violence broke out in and around a rebel-held town near the capital Damascus on Friday killing at least two people after nearly two weeks of calm signaling an apparent collapse of a truce and an evacuation deal for opposition fighters to leave the area, state media and opposition activists said. (Army of Islam, via AP, File)

MOSCOW - In the Kremlin's telling, this is a country under siege.

The United States is considering strikes on Russian ally Bashar Assad in Syria, prompting ominous speculation among people close to the Kremlin that such a move could touch off a wider conflict. One scholar who advises the Russian Defense Ministry even raised the specter of "World War III."

At the same time, U.S. sanctions against top Russian business executives wiped billions of dollars off Russian stock market values this week, prompting fears the country's already stagnant economy could be thrown back into recession.

As if to drive the point home, a new article from a top Kremlin aide declared Russia must prepare for a century of "geopolitical solitude" and its "epic journey toward the West" was over.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and his supporters have for years been casting their country as one that has to rally around their leader and fight back in the face of an increasingly aggressive West.

That "besieged fortress" narrative has now roared back to the forefront in ways not seen since the height of the Ukraine crisis in 2014 and Russia's internationally denounced annexation of Crimea.

The question now is how Russia responds - both to the sanctions and to any U.S. strike in Syria, where Moscow has military forces aiding Assad's regime.

Putin himself has said little on both issues in recent days. He visited Russian scientists on Tuesday and thanked them for their role in helping develop new Russian nuclear weapons.

"This all strengthens the isolationist, consolidating logic of a besieged fortress," Andrei Kolesnikov, a domestic policy specialist at the Carnegie Moscow Center, said of the sanctions and Syria developments. "The regime won't fall. It will only become more isolationist and aggressive toward the West."

Slides in the Russian stock market this week showed last Friday's U.S. sanctions represented the Trump Administration's most damaging move against Moscow so far. The ruble fell to 63 against the dollar, the Russian currency's weakest level since December 2016, and government officials said they were preparing to take steps to stabilize the Russian businesses affected.

"A blow to any of the groups of companies" affected by the sanctions "is a blow to the economy as a whole," Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich said Tuesday.

Sanctioned businessman Oleg Deripaska's company Rusal, an aluminum giant that employs 62,000 people worldwide, has lost more than half its stock-market value since the sanctions were announced. Sberbank, Russia's biggest bank, has lost some 15 percent on the stock market this week even though it was not sanctioned. Monday's more than 8 percent plunge in the benchmark MOEX Russia Index was the worst since March 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea, though the index recovered some of those losses on Tuesday.

"If a very strong sanctions regime spreads to other sectors, this can lead to a financial crisis and certainly a renewed recession," said economist Alexandre Abramov, a financial markets expert at Moscow's Higher School of Economics. The risk, he said, was that investors would shun all Russian company stocks fearing further sanctions.

Even as Russia reeled from the blow to its economy, another crisis was deepening in Syria.

The suspected chemical attack in rebel-held Douma brought dire predictions in Moscow that disaster could follow if Washington launches airstrikes in response. Russia denies its Syrian allies used chlorine or other agents in the Saturday attack that claimed dozens of lives. The West says overwhelming evidence points to Assad's forces - with its backers Russia and Iran sharing responsibility.

Igor Korotchenko, a Russian military scholar and a member of the Defense Ministry's public advisory council, said any U.S. attack that killed Russians in Syria would compel a military response, potentially against a U.S. plane or ship. That could bring about a chain of events as dangerous as the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, Korotchenko said, and potentially "provoke World War III."

"Trump has to understand that we're going to be talking about the possibility of nuclear escalation if we have a collision of the U.S. and Russian militaries," Korotchenko said. "Everything can happen very quickly, and the situation can spin out of the control of the politicians."

Russian General Staff chief Gen. Valery Gerasimov claimed last month Russia had information that the United States was planning to fake a chemical attack in Syria and use it as a pretext for a strike on Assad. If such a strike endangered Russian lives, he warned at the time, Russia would respond by hitting the missiles and their launchers.

Russia has said that suspected chemical attack in Douma was, indeed, fake - staged in part to distract from another episode Russia has also described as falsely blaming Russia: the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal in England last month.

"The U.S. declared economic war on us, they also declared diplomatic war and everything now indicates that they want to test our armed forces in a local conflict," lawmaker Igor Morozov said on a state TV talk show Monday.

On another such show, war correspondent Yevgeny Poddubny warned: "Russia has the forces and the means to stop the American groups - the question is how far does this conflict, this confrontation, go."

Representatives of the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, as well as Russian specialists, have visited the site of the Douma incident "and found no trace of any use of chemical weapons," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said Tuesday.

He said Russia would propose a U.N. Security Council resolution later Tuesday that would call on international experts from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons visit the site, on the invitation of the Syrian government. Syria and Russia, he said, would be prepared to guarantee the inspectors' security.

If the West rejects the Russian proposal, Lavrov said, this would be further evidence of its "anti-Syrian and Russophobic line."

Amid the fast-moving developments, a longtime architect of Putin's rule, Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov, this week published an article in the journal Russia in Global Affairs that presented a theoretical foundation to the estrangement between Russia and the West.

Only now is it becoming clear, he wrote, that the year 2014 - the year of the Ukraine crisis - for Russia marked "the end of multiple and fruitless efforts to become part of Western civilization."

"A new period of unknown length now spreads before us, the '14+' era, in which we face one hundred (two hundred? three hundred?) years of geopolitical solitude," Surkov wrote.

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