LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
Vladimir Putin says the U.S. airstrikes on Syria were an act of aggression. And yet, despite defiant words and claims that U.S. missiles were intercepted and did little damage, Russia has not retaliated. To help us understand why, we're joined by Angela Stent of Georgetown University. She's also a State Department veteran from the Clinton and Bush administrations. Good morning.
ANGELA STENT: Good morning. Good to be here.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So can you remind us why Russia has interests in Syria at all? And briefly - I know it's a complicated story.
STENT: (Laughter) Well, the short version of this. So the Soviet Union and Syria were allies during the Cold War, at the end of the Cold War. So, you know, Russia lost many of its positions in the Middle East, but that relationship with Syria has always been important. Then Putin was horrified by what happened in the Arab Spring, particularly what happened in Libya, and he was determined to shore up, you know, his ally, his partner in Syria. And he went into Syria in September 2015 in a big way - bombing - really to show the United States and the rest of the world that we were trying to isolate Russia after what happened in Ukraine, but Russia was definitely back. Russia also has its own - only warm-water port in Syria and a significant airbase. And it's really used this intervention now in Syria to increase its influence in the Middle East as the U.S. has withdrawn.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: So why hasn't Syria retaliated? In many ways, Putin sees this as a sort of proxy war between the United States and Russia.
STENT: I think Russia wants to get to the edge with the United States, but the Russians realize it's - you know, the U.S. and Russia should not get into a major conflict with each other. And so I think the Russians have understood we, I think, very carefully calibrated with them what we were going to do in Syria. We deconflicted our operations. There were no surprises. And I think they don't want to, you know, make the situation any more dangerous than it is. I would just mention that about six weeks ago, Russian mercenaries started attacking U.S. troops in Syria and we killed a couple of hundred of them and, you know, no one wants this to escalate beyond what it is now.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: The Russian ruble plummeted about 9 percent against the U.S. dollar this week - right? - in the wake of U.S. sanctions against Russia. Russia is actually hurting. Will we see Russia retaliate in a different way outside of Syria?
STENT: I mean, it could. I think Russia is hurting. It's said that it's going to impose sanctions on the U.S. economic ones. I don't know what those are going to be. There's not that much it can do. It doesn't have that much leverage. So right now, I think it will focus on just being, again, the major power in the Middle East that all the countries there talked to on making sure that Assad, you know, prevails, and with this heightened level of rhetoric with the U.S., but - and you've heard that from Mr. Putin and Mr. Trump - still trying to keep open the possibility of an off-ramp so that the U.S. and Russia can sit down together.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Russia seems to be in a good position in the Middle East. I mean, Assad seems to be winning the war. Just briefly, was this all theater - these airstrikes and the bombastic response from Russia?
STENT: I don't think it's all theater because I think, you know, they're going to keep him in power. And they obviously must have known that he had those chemical weapons and didn't do anything to deter them. But I think some of it is bombast, and I think the Russians want us to believe that we're in this very dangerous situation and we mustn't do anything more to provoke them. But in fact, they're not going to retaliate.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Angela Stent of Georgetown University. Thank you so much.
(SOUNDBITE OF JOEL HARRISON'S "FOLK SONG FOR ROSIE (A SLIGHT RETURN)")
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