Russia freezes communications with US in Syria
Russia reacted to US military strikes on its ally Syria Friday by cutting a hotline intended to prevent mid-air incidents, a response that demonstrates Moscow's readiness to defy Washington and could even put the two nuclear superpowers on a course towards military confrontation.
President Vladimir Putin signalled he was ready to risk a clash with the US and abandon hopes for mending ties with the US under President Donald Trump, rather than accept the humiliation of standing by while his ally is bombed.
Russia's decision to suspend the hotline established after the launch of the Russian air campaign in Syria in September 2015 effectively means that Russian and US planes could fly dangerously close to each other during combat missions, raising the risk of inadvertent or deliberate clashes in the crowded skies over Syria.
By freezing the information channel between the two potent militaries, Russia is signalling to Washington that it will tolerate no further strikes on Syrian government facilities.
Syria has ageing Soviet-built aircraft and air defence missile systems, while Russia has deployed dozens of its cutting edge warplanes and air defence batteries at its base in Syria's coastal province of Latakia. It also has a strategically important naval outpost in the Syrian port of Tartus, which is protected by air defence assets.
Further upping the ante, the Russian Defense Ministry said it will now help strengthen Syrian air defences.
US officials accused Russia of failing to ensure Syrian President Bashar Assad's commitment to a 2013 deal for the destruction of Assad's chemical weapons arsenal. The US says that arsenal was tapped for a chemical attack that killed dozens of civilians in the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun in Idlib province.
Trump cited the chemical attack as justification for the missile strike on a Syrian airbase. But the Kremlin insists Assad's government wasn't responsible for the attack, saying civilians in Khan Sheikhoun were exposed to toxic agents from a rebel arsenal that was hit by Syrian warplanes.
"President Putin believes that the US strikes on Syria represent an aggression against a sovereign state in violation of international law under a far-fetched pretext," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a statement. "Washington's move deals a significant blow to Russia-US relations, which are already in deplorable shape."
Until the attack on the Syrian airbase, the US had avoided striking Assad's forces for fear of provoking a clash with the Russian military.