Trans-Europe Express: Playing the proxy, St. Petersburg and the Syrian chemical attack

Sent out every Friday at noon, Trans-Europe Express gives you an insider's view of the most important coverage from across the EURACTIV media network, its media partners and much more.

At first, the Russian approach was to admit to everything. Well, almost. Following the first reports of the Syrian chemical attack on Khan Sheikhoun on Tuesday, the defence ministry appeared almost too willing to confirm what happened.

For nearly an hour, the Syrian air force had struck an ammunition dump, Major General Igor Konoshenkov explained.  “On the territory of the depot there were workshops which produced chemical warfare munitions.”

Though its aircraft were said to be operating in the area at the time, Russia claimed it had not taken part in the air strike, which, at time of writing, had left at least 80 dead and hundreds injured, through exposure to nerve agents.

To add insult to injury, the Syrians are reported to have rocketed clinics where victims of the attack were being treated.

For followers of Russia’s involvement in Syria, the carnage was not out of place. Collateral damage follows Russian military operations wherever they occur and tends to get framed in unusually brutal terms.

Take the Russian attack on a UN aid convoy in Syria last September. Attempting to deliver badly needed supplies to starving civilians in the Aleppo area, over 20 were killed and relief supplies were destroyed. Aid workers were among the casualties. It’s an especially cruel narrative.

If Moscow needed to communicate deterrence, this was one way to do it. Certainly, given its intention to lead a successful campaign in Aleppo, it had an obvious point to make. Savagery works, particularly when it leads to victory.

The logic of the approach to the Khan Sheikhoun attack is the same. The only difference is that, having been subject to a terrorist attack in St. Petersburg the night before, Russia had a certain amount of capital to work with, that direct retaliation would spoil.

14 civilians had been killed and 50 wounded, in a suicide bombing on a commuter train, while President Putin was visiting the city, 24 hours earlier. The attack was carried out by a Kyrgyz Islamist, who, security forces fear, has ties to ISIS.

Of course Moscow would want to find a way to exact revenge. But would it conduct an operation of the sort that the Syrians undertook?

According to pundits and trolls on regional social media this week, the feeling was yes, albeit indirectly. Damascus had carried out the attack, on behalf of Moscow, which looked the other way, using airspace that Russia controlled.

Belabouring the details of the attack and defending the Syrians was Moscow’s own way of getting something out of the tragedy, if not, admitting that having become a participant in the Mideast conflict, it has no way of insulating itself from its horrors.

That the Syrians would have to take the rap is the price for getting bailed out. It’s not like they haven’t conducted such operations of their own volition before. It would be in keeping, even without Russia.

The Inside Track

Take in more refugees. Representatives from 70 countries and organisations at the Brussels Syria donor conference called for lessons to be learned from the chemical weapons attack that left scores dead. International donors pledged $6 billion in aid.

Diminishes the Palestinian problem. Italy, Israel, Greece and Cyprus pledged to move ahead with the world’s longest undersea gas pipeline from the Eastern Mediterranean to Southern Europe, with EU support.

Recipe for Islamophobia. The German government is investigating 20 Turkish citizens on suspicion of conducting espionage in Germany, Die Welt reported.

Moscow calling. Germany’s army was targeted 284,000 times by cyberattacks in the first three months of 2017. The Bundesrepublik has rolled out its new cyber defence unit in response but its offensive capabilities are already under scrutiny.

Hatred makes him stronger. A group representing EU lawmakers said that they want Parliament to start disciplinary proceedings against Hungary after a crackdown on foreign universities by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Tell them to leave. If democracy was the buzzword of the first two decades following the end of the Cold War, Hungary’s breakthrough achievement, illiberal democracy, appears to be the buzzword of today, writes Daniel Penev.

Democracy means diversity. Albania’s opposition warned it might boycott June legislative elections if its demands for fair elections and for Prime Minister Edi Rama to resign are not met.

Don’t y’all forget about me. Albanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Ditmir Bushati spoke to Georgi Gotev about the tough situation in his country, and the so-called ‘Tirana platform’ that’s alarmed Macedonia, and Balkan geopolitics.

Double fantasy. European Council President Donald Tusk said in Macedonia that he hopes the country’s leaders will avoid fuelling ethnic tensions and focus on advancing towards EU membership instead.

Just a matter of time. Russia has developed the capability to launch an attack on the Baltic States with as little as 24 hours’ notice, limiting NATO’s options to respond, according to Lithuanian intelligence.

They must want war. Polish prosecutors said that they would press charges against two Russian air traffic controllers for deliberately causing a 2010 plane crash that killed Poland’s president and 95 other people.

One step forward. In 1998, Vladimir Meciar, Slovakia’s authoritarian prime minister, signed amnesties for crimes involving the kidnapping of the son of President Michal Kovac. On Wednesday, lawmakers voted to overturn the pardons.

Two steps back. Serbian President-elect Aleksandar Vucic, who scored a convincing victory in the first round of the election on 2 April, will take his time appointing a successor, a position he’s held a firm grip on for three years.

Just say no. Europe’s church leaders want to be more involved in the issues that shape and vex the European Union.

Trans-Europe Express will take Good Friday off. We’ll see you again on 21 April.