As Rex Tillerson lands in Moscow, Vladimir Putin has decided to escalate the war of words over the US response to a chemical-weapons attack on civilians in Syria’s Idlib province. The Russian president again denied that any such attack took place, and accused the Trump administration of conducting a false-flag operation as an excuse for military action:

Russian President Vladimir Putin has compared recent accusations of a chemical attack levelled at the Syrian government how the United States justified its intervention in Iraq in 2003.

“It reminds me of the events in 2003 when U.S. envoys to the Security Council were demonstrating what they said were chemical weapons found in Iraq,” Putin told reporters on Tuesday. “We have seen it all already.”

Normally, Putin would outsource accusations like this through his propaganda/”fake news” organs, where it might get a tiny but passionate audience. It’s a measure of how bad things have gotten for Moscow since the election that Putin has decided to escalate this conspiracy theory to an actual government position. What makes this more amusing is that Donald Trump himself insinuated much the same thing about Iraq while on the campaign trail, accusing the George W. Bush administration of “lying” about the cassus belli at a contentious and memorable debate. That shoe, at least, is on the other foot.

Unfortunately — for Putin, anyway — that accusation doesn’t make much sense for that very reason. Trump didn’t win election by professing faith in interventionism; Trump campaigned on non-interventionism bordering on isolationism. His strike on Syria might be narrowly popular now, but that won’t do much in the long run for his popularity, and it will do damage to him among his base. Bush’s critics will believe that he wanted a pretext for a deeper military involvement in the Middle East, but who believes that about Donald “America First” Trump? He also seems reluctant to offer any sort of follow-up at all on Syria other than tough talk from his Cabinet advisers.

Russia also demanded a UN investigation into the chemical weapons attack, in order to disprove that Assad has anything to do with it:

Putin told reporters on Tuesday that Russia would appeal to a U.N. agency in the Hague, urging it to hold an official probe.

Putin also said Russia has received intelligence about planned “provocations” using chemical weapons that would put the blame on the Syrian government.

There are two problems with that strategy. First, the UN has already concluded that Assad has chemical weapons despite the Russian guarantee of having removed all of them in 2013, and that Assad has used them in attacks before last week. The August 2016 report from the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) laid the blame on Assad’s military for chemical-weapons strikes on Talmenes in April 2014, and Sarmin in March 2015. An official probe from OPCW is not likely to let Assad — or Putin — off the hook.

Second, Turkey has confirmed that three victims of the attack on Idlib died from exposure to sarin gas:

Turkey’s health minister says test results conducted on victims of a chemical attack in northern Syria confirm that sarin gas was used.

Recep Akdag said Tuesday that blood and urine samples taken from the victims confirmed that they were subjected to the nerve agent. His comments were reported by the state-run Anadolu news agency.

Turkey last week conducted autopsies on three victims of the gas attack who were brought from Syria.

Putin’s public rhetoric might just be a stall tactic, a brushback pitch to determine just how committed Trump will be to his new tough foreign-policy line. Laura Rozen reports that Russian officials are privately “furious” with Bashar al-Assad for his chemical-weapons attack and are calculating just how much more they should invest in him:

Privately, Russian officials are furious with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for a suspected April 4 chemical weapons attack in Idlib province that killed over 80 people, Russia analysts said. They see it as threatening to sabotage the potential for US-Russia rapprochement ahead of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s first visit to Moscow this week. …

“Assad committed suicide here,” Michael Kofman, a Russia military expert with the Kennan Institute, told Al-Monitor in an interview April 10. Russia “will never forgive him for this.”

The suspected April 4 nerve gas attack on rebel-held Khan Sheikhoun that killed over 80 people, many of them children, “is a complete disaster” for Russia, Kofman said. “It destroyed the legacy of the 2013 deal [to remove Syria’s chemical weapons] that both countries [the United States and Russia] certified. So it made liars of both of us.”

He noted, “It provided all the ammunition to sabotage rapprochement between the United States and Russia. Look at the atmospherics. It caused public embarrassment. [Russian President Vladimir] Putin has to swallow US cruise missile strikes. Notice he has not defended Assad. It looks bad for Russia.”

That suggests that a commitment to the tough stance might bring about a change in the relationship between Russia and Syria, which Tillerson demanded earlier today. The false-flag conspiracy theory floated by Putin notwithstanding, it appears that Russia is running out of diplomatic fantasies to justify its continuing protection of Assad. Putin will have to decide whether he wants to stay married to a genocidal nutcase for appearance’s sake, or look for greener pastures with the West — and that’s the box into which Tillerson intends to put Putin.