Fears of a US missile strike forced Russia’s navy to leave Syria
President Donald Trump's threat to bomb Syria despite Russia's ally ship and protection of Syrian forces has yielded an immediate and tangible result — Russian warships docked in Syria have left port for fear for their safety.
"This is normal practice" when there is the threat of an attack, Vladimir Shamanov, the head of Russia's defense committee in its lower house of parliament, told Russian media.
Satellite images on April 11, 2018, captured 11 ships leaving, including a submarine and some offensive ships, in the immediate aftermath of Trump's threat. With the ships at sea, and moving, they can better situate themselves to avoid fighting on land, and spread themselves out.
As the ships were in port, a single pass of a few US bombers could have easily decimated the fleet.
Trump's threat scrambles Russia, Syria's militaries
Trump's promised military strike on Syria has yet to materialize, though the US, its allies, Syria, and Russia all seem to have moved their assets around in preparation for battle.
Syria relocated its air assets to Russian bases, likely to put them under Russian protection, and the US has dispatched an aircraft carrier to the region.
According to Dimitry Gorenburg, a senior research scientist at Harvard's Davis Center for Russia and Eurasian studies, Russia has also flown in aircraft that specialize in anti-submarine warfare, as speculation that the US or its allies might fire submarine-launched missiles at Syrian targets builds.
While Trump has done nothing militarily to respond to the recent chemical weapons attack the US blames on Syrian forces, the president has rallied US allies and Russia on the defensive by promising action Moscow can't hope to stop.
"Putin is not interested in a shooting war with the West," Gorenburg said. Due to the extreme risk of war escalating into a nuclear conflict between the world's two greatest nuclear powers, and the fact that "the Russian conventional forces just aren't as strong as the US forces," such a fight "would not be a good outcome for Russia."
Trump will reportedly warn Russia before the strike, but does Putin trust him?
A report from Russian media said that the US had been coordinating with Russia to avoid Russian casualties in a US strike on Syria, and that the US would inform Russia of the targets before the strike. The Kremlin's spokesperson also said that Russia and the US had actively been using an established hotline to avoid military clashes.
Russia's move to send their ships from port may reveal that they don't know really know what's going on, and either can't predict or can't trust how Trump will approach the strike.
Russia "really did not respect Obama and felt that they had not figured out US foreign policy," Gorenburg said. "From that point of view, dealing with Trump is a little bit more fraught."