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U.S., Russia keep from escalating conflict after Syrian strike

Russian President Putin on Saturday condemned a series of strikes on Syrian targets, calling the military action by the U.S. and its allies "an act of aggression against a sovereign state." Kimberly Marten, director of a program on U.S.-Russia relations at Columbia University's Harriman Institute, joins Hari Sreenivasan for more on Russia's reaction means and what may come next.

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  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Kremlin immediately condemned the trilateral attack on Syria last night. A statement from Russian President Putin called the missile strikes "an act of aggression against a sovereign state" that is having a devastating impact on the whole system of international relations. Mr. Putin also said the attack would exacerbate the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Joining me now to sort out what the Russian rhetoric means and what may come next is Kimberly Marten a professor of political science at Barnard College and the director of the program on U.S. Russia relations at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. So how are we to square the statements that we had from the Russian embassy in the U.S. last night posted their Facebook page with what President Putin is calling for with the actual military actions that haven't happened?

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    I think we have a look at what's actually been happening on the ground, it's cause to have a lot of confidence that both sides are actually trying to tamp down the situation and make sure that it doesn't escalate beyond the current situation. So we know that the U.S. had and the British and the French had some contact with the Russians in advance using the Syria deconfliction line to maybe reassure the Russians that no Russian installations in Syria would be hit. We know from the Russian side that they did not activate their own missile defense systems and so it just is an indication that the deconfliction line is working. That at least the military's on both sides want to keep the crisis limited even though the rhetoric coming from politicians in Russia has been a lot stronger.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    So some of that rhetoric could be saving face?

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    It could be saving face although it doesn't seem very convincing to the international community because NATO came out unanimously in favor of the airstrikes and against what Assad had been doing with the chemical weapons. It seems like the United Nations is not agreeing with Russia's perspective. So I think probably the rhetoric is more likely for a domestic audience in Russia to justify the Russian continuing support of the Syrian regime which you know might actually be kind of embarrassing for Russia that they find themselves having to support somebody who uses chemical weapons.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    But that hasn't slowed Russia's support in the past few years as there's been evidence that there have been chemical attacks in Syria.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Yes and you know no one really knows how to explain the continuing Russian support for Assad. Maybe it's just that Putin wants stability in the region. Maybe it's that he sees that as a way of demonstrating Russian strength and the ability of Russia to have an impact on Middle East politics. Maybe it's that he has a paranoia of regime change and that extends to Syria as well as to Russia and to Ukraine. It's also possible that he just sees the Assad family as being somebody who's been in the Russian leadership's patron client network for many decades and therefore feels that by supporting Assad he's sending a message to his supporters at home about how strong he is and how he can support people who are in his patron client network of

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    The Iranian leadership has called this a military crime depends on what NATO says what the U.N. says. I mean are there any repercussions that Russia actually faces from continued support of Syria right now.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Well I don't think that there's going to be any military action taken against Russia. I think that part of the reason that the sanctions regime has stayed in place against Russia for as long as it has has been real unhappiness in the Western community about what Russia is doing in Syria even though that's not explicitly mentioned as being part of the sanctions regime. I think it's probably a part of it but you know there's a limit to the repercussions that Russia could face because there's just not that much that the Western community can do to harm Russia without getting involved in direct military conflict. And I don't think anybody wants that.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    What about the stability you mentioned that in the region. What are Russia's core interests? Is it their access to military bases that have kind of a launching point is it a strategic value to have a presence that they have in Syria?

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Well it has some strategic value but I think we have to remember that Russia hasn't demonstrated that currently its military has the projection capability to actually use those bases for much that's significant. So we've seen that the Russian military has performed quite well in the takeover of Crimea in some of the things that have happened in eastern Ukraine where the Russian military has been involved. But that doesn't mean that Russia is on the verge of becoming a superpower who's going to engage in power projection out into the oceans. I just don't foresee that happening anytime soon.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    This is also not happening in a vacuum it's happening in the context of a recent election that the U.S. Intelligence Committee says that the Russians did meddle in. It happens in the context of poisonings in the UK of former spies. This is kind of a larger pattern of behavior does that all factor into how the world feels about Russia?

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Oh I'm sure it does. But one thing to keep in mind especially about the poisoning case that happened in the United Kingdom is that there is some evidence that that particular kind of nerve agent Novik truck was used in the mid 1990s in an organized crime hit against a Russian banker and we don't know that for sure. But there is some evidence there's a recent investigation that's continuing on that point. We know that the item was manufactured in Russia. That doesn't mean necessarily that it was Putin as an individual who ordered it and because we know that there are organized crime connections with Russian intelligence services. It could actually be something that was done by a state agent but not necessarily with a state goal in mind of punishing a spy. It might have been for organized crime reasons in addition.

  • HARI SREENIVASAN:

    All right. Kimberly Marten thanks so much.

  • KIMBERLY MARTEN:

    Thank you, Hari.

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