EXACERBATING TRADE OF ACCUSATIONS
The past two days have seen an exchange of fierce words between the two nuclear powers. US President Donald Trump, who had kept from lashing out at Russia and President Vladimir Putin over Ukraine and many other issues, attacked Putin several times in a move many US experts saw as "groundbreaking."
Calling the recent chemical attack in Syria "SICK" on Sunday, Trump tweeted that "President Putin, Russia and Iran are responsible" for backing the Syrian government, warning that there will be a looming "big price" for them to pay.
At a cabinet meeting on Monday, Trump said Putin "may" have to bear responsibility for the Syrian incident.
"If he does, it's going to be very tough. Very tough," he said. "Everybody's going to pay a price. He will, everybody will."
He also hinted that Syria, Iran and Russia are behind the attack.
"They're saying they're not. But, to me, there's not much of a doubt. But the generals will figure it out, probably over the next 24 hours," said Trump.
Later on Monday, envoys of Washington and Moscow traded barbs at a United Nations Security Council special meeting over the alleged Syrian attack. US Ambassador Nikki Haley said Russia has the "blood of Syrian children" on its hands, and Russian envoy Vassily Nebenzia said the incident was staged and that possible US military action could trigger "grave repercussions."
TENSIONS IN RELATIONS
US-Russia relations have already hit rock-bottom. Recently, Washington stepped up its pressure by kicking out 60 Russian diplomats last month to join Britain's retaliation over the disputed ex-Russian spy poisoning case, and launching sanctions against Russian business leaders and high-ranking officials in the two months over alleged Russian intervention in the US 2016 presidential elections.
Such US moves have sparked fierce responses from Russia. Besides a counter diplomat expulsion, Russia vowed tough measures against US sanctions on Friday, and said "there remains only a desire of the United States to ensure by all means its global hegemony."
Trump's threat on Monday of military option in response to the alleged Syrian chemical attack further strained ties with Russia, endangering the "de-escalation zone" and hotlines the two sides have agreed to set up so as to avoid conflicts on the Syrian battleground.
MILITARY ACTION OR WITHDRAWAL?
Experts said Trump's military threat, an apparent setback compared with his statements last week to take the US troops out of Syria very soon, could further complicate the US-Russia ties.
Russia and Syria have been urging a withdrawal of US troops, whose presence they say is uninvited and is a violation of international law.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in early April said he welcomes Trump's pledge of an early withdrawal from Syria, despite what he called "worrisome" signs that US troops were becoming "deeply entrenched" in areas east of the Euphrates River in fighting the Islamic State (IS) group.
Afshin Molavi, a senior research fellow from US John Hopkins University, told Xinhua that Trump's warning to take military action in response to the alleged "chemical attack" will not change the balance of power on the ground fundamentally, but create a confusing situation for Washington itself.
"If he (Trump) goes for something larger this time, for example, targeting Syria's air force, I think that could play a much more significant role in changing the balance of power on the ground at the end of the day," he said.
"But as long as Russia and Iran continue to be on the ground while President Trump is talking about pulling America's special forces out of Syria," it creates "a confusing situation, just got a lot more confusing," he added.
"It's a very muddled policy," he noted. "On the one hand, you declare that you want to remove the US troops from a battle zone. On the other hand, you are threatening military strikes."
Daniel Davis, a retired army lieutenant colonel and fellow at the Defense Priorities military think tank, cautioned against US military action.
An expert said the US military presence over years in Syria failed to facilitate the humanitarian relief there.
"Realistically, the 2,000 American troops have not made a huge difference to the landscape of the war in terms of humanitarian assistance, because the United States never had a vested interest in protecting the Syrian population," Janine di Giovanni, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations think tank, wrote on New York Times on Friday.