Rus­sian TV sells Putin story of mil­i­tary cam­paign in Syria

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY MARC BEN­NETTS

MOSCOW | Not so long ago, Rus­sia’s state me­dia were dom­i­nated by sto­ries about east­ern Ukraine’s war-torn ci­ties and the heroic ex­ploits of Rus­sian-backed sep­a­ratists bat­tling the gov­ern­ment in Kiev.

Th­ese days, how­ever, Syria’s bat­tle­fields and the der­ring-do of Rus­sian pi­lots are the over­whelm­ing fo­cuses of broad­casts by Krem­lin-run TV chan­nels.

From tri­umphant re­ports about the “liq­ui­da­tion” of “ter­ror­ist train­ing camps” to Krem­lin-friendly an­a­lysts prais­ing Moscow’s grow­ing in­ter­na­tional in­flu­ence, the of­fi­cial me­dia’s cov­er­age of Rus­sia’s dra­matic en­try into Syria’s more than 4-year-old civil war has been de­cid­edly up­beat — and one more re­minder of the Krem­lin’s abil­ity to dic­tate the terms of pop­u­lar de­bate. The cov­er­age has done its work. In a pub­lic opin­ion sur­vey pub­lished Oct. 8 by the in­de­pen­dent Le­vada Cen­ter poll­ster, more than 70 per­cent of Rus­sians said they backed Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin’s de­ci­sion to launch airstrikes against forces op­posed to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad.

But the sur­vey also car­ried warn­ing sig­nals for Mr. Putin, who de­fied Western na­tions with his risky mil­i­tary cam­paign in sup­port of his long­time ally.

In the same Le­vada Cen­ter opin­ion poll, just 14 per­cent of re­spon­dents said they would ap­prove of send­ing Rus­sian sol­diers to fight in Syria. Mem­o­ries of the Soviet Union’s dis­as­trous in­va­sion of Afghanistan, which cost the lives of some 15,000 Red Army sol­diers, re­main fresh. Se­nior Rus­sian of­fi­cials, in­clud­ing Mr. Putin, have re­peat­edly pledged that the Krem­lin will not com­mit ground forces to aid Mr. As­sad.

But an­a­lysts say Moscow may be forced to de­ploy ground troops if its air base at Latakia, in western Syria, comes un­der at­tack. Rus­lan Pukhov, di­rec­tor of the Moscow-based Cen­ter for Anal­y­sis of Strate­gies and Tech­nolo­gies and a mem­ber of the De­fense Min­istry’s Pub­lic Coun­cil, es­ti­mates that sev­eral hun­dred Rus­sian elite mil­i­tary troops are al­ready in Syria to pro­tect the base.

Mr. Putin has cited the pres­ence of 5,000 to 7,000 re­cruits from Rus­sia and other former Soviet re­publics among the ranks of Is­lamic State and other Is­lamist groups in Syria as a rea­son for Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary cam­paign.

He has also re­peat­edly em­ployed his trade­mark tough, crowd-pleas­ing rhetoric against Rus­sia’s crit­ics, led by the United States. Late last week, he ac­cused the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion of play­ing a “dou­ble game” in the Mid­dle East by falsely claim­ing to back “mod­er­ate” rebel el­e­ments in the mul­ti­lat­eral civil war.

“It’s al­ways hard to play a dou­ble game: to de­clare a fight against ter­ror­ists, but at the same time try to use some of them to move the pieces on the Mid­dle East­ern chess­board in your own fa­vor,” Mr. Putin said in an ad­dress to a Moscow think tank. “There’s no need to play with words and split ter­ror­ists into ‘ mod­er­ate’ and ‘ not mod­er­ate.’ I would like to know what the dif­fer­ence is.”

The ar­gu­ment has found fa­vor among or­di­nary Rus­sians, for whom the war in Syria has been pre­sented by state me­dia as a black-and-white fight be­tween Mr. As­sad and Is­lamist ter­ror­ists. Most Rus­sians re­main un­aware that the Syr­ian civil war be­gan af­ter Mr. As­sad cracked down on peace­ful pro­test­ers call­ing for demo­cratic re­form, and that Is­lamist groups gained a foothold in Syria only well af­ter the civil war had be­gun.

“I’m afraid that [the Is­lamic State], th­ese blood­thirsty ter­ror­ists, will come to Rus­sia and be­head peo­ple,” Irina Ak­in­feeva, a se­nior cit­i­zen in Moscow, told The Wash­ing­ton Times. “God save Rus­sia.”

T-shirts for As­sad

Pub­lic sup­port for Mr. Putin’s Syria ad­ven­ture might not be as en­thu­si­as­tic as the fer­vent back­ing for the hy­brid war against what state me­dia dubbed a “fas­cist junta” in Ukraine, but it isn’t too dif­fi­cult to find pas­sion­ate ap­proval for the Krem­lin’s first mil­i­tary cam­paign out­side the former Soviet Union in more than two decades. Shops in cen­tral Rus­sia are sell­ing “We sup­port As­sad” T-shirts, and so­cial me­dia out­lets are full of memes in sup­port of Rus­sia’s air force.

Mr. Putin’s ap­proval rat­ings hit a new high of al­most 90 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to a poll pub­lished Thurs­day by the state-run VTsIOm.

“Such a high rat­ing of ap­proval of the Rus­sian pres­i­dent is reg­is­tered, first of all, in con­nec­tion with events in Syria, Rus­sian avi­a­tion’s airstrikes at ter­ror­ist po­si­tions,” the poll­ster said in a state­ment.

Rus­sia’s pow­er­ful Ortho­dox Church also has ex­pressed its back­ing for Mr. Putin. Church spokesman Vsevolod Chap­lin has called the Krem­lin’s mis­sion a “holy bat­tle” against in­ter­na­tional ter­ror­ism. His com­ments trig­gered a call for ji­had against Rus­sia from the Is­lamic State and the al Qaeda-linked al Nusra Front. Other com­men­ta­tors on state-con­trolled tele­vi­sion have echoed Mr. Chap­lin’s com­ments.

“Syria is a holy land,” Se­myon Bag­dasarov, a pro-Krem­lin an­a­lyst, said dur­ing a broad­cast this month. “Civ­i­liza­tion came to us from Syria.”

Dissent has been muted, with just 300 peo­ple at­tend­ing an anti-war protest in Moscow ear­lier this month. Some crit­ics say the Krem­lin is us­ing the con­flict in Syria to dis­tract its do­mes­tic au­di­ence from charges that Rus­sian-backed rebels downed Malaysia Air­lines Flight MH17 in the sum­mer of 2014.

“This is an at­tempt to re­fo­cus pub­lic opin­ion in Rus­sia,” said Dmitry Gud­kov, one of a hand­ful of gen­uine op­po­si­tion law­mak­ers in the Rus­sian par­lia­ment. The Rus­sian For­eign Min­istry has re­jected such ac­cu­sa­tions.

Mr. Putin is also tak­ing a gam­ble with Rus­sia’s own siz­able and restive Mus­lim mi­nor­ity, many of whom live in Chech­nya and other ar­eas in the south­ern Cau­ca­sus re­gion.

Alexei Malashenko, an an­a­lyst on Is­lam at the Carnegie Moscow Cen­ter think tank, has es­ti­mated that as many as a half-mil­lion Rus­sian Mus­lims may sym­pa­thize with the Is­lamic State and said a num­ber of Rus­sians are in po­si­tions of author­ity in the ji­hadi group’s armed forces.

“Th­ese are peo­ple who want to build a state founded on the prin­ci­ples of Is­lam,” Mr. Malashenko said. “Many of them say [the Is­lamic State] is fight­ing for so­cial jus­tice and for fair gov­ern­ment. Oth­ers like the fact that it is fight­ing against the West.”

Some an­a­lysts be­lieve many Rus­sians ap­prove of the Krem­lin’s mil­i­tary cam­paign in Syria be­cause it re­minds them of the days when the Soviet Union was a global su­per­power and a coun­ter­weight to the United States in one of the world’s most volatile re­gions.

“Rus­sia’s pop­u­la­tion is not con­cerned about the fate of the Syr­ian pop­u­la­tion,” said De­nis Volkov, an an­a­lyst with the Le­vada Cen­ter poll­ster. “Peo­ple are watch­ing this from afar, on their tele­vi­sion screens. What is im­por­tant for many peo­ple is that Rus­sia is seen as a great coun­try, re­solv­ing in­ter­na­tional is­sues. They are less wor­ried about where the bombs fall, or even if this mil­i­tary ac­tion leads to a so­lu­tion of the cri­sis.”

Mr. Volkov said the dom­i­nant nar­ra­tive on Rus­sian tele­vi­sion is that “the West is med­dling in Syria, and the le­git­i­mate gov­ern­ment has been suf­fer­ing as a re­sult.” There is lit­tle to no dis­cus­sion of the fact that the As­sad regime also bears a great deal of re­spon­si­bil­ity for the civil war, he said.

An­a­lysts also have ex­pressed con­cern that the Krem­lin’s back­ing of Mr. As­sad, who hails from the mi­nor­ity Alaw­ite sect, and Shi­ite mili­tias from Iran and Le­banon could in­flame sec­tar­ian pas­sions among Rus­sia’s es­ti­mated 20 mil­lion Mus­lims, who are mainly from the Sunni branch of Is­lam.

Krem­lin-ap­proved Mus­lim lead­ers have ap­pealed for calm.

The head of Rus­sia’s Coun­cil of Muftis, Ravil Gain­ut­din, has called on his fel­low be­liev­ers not to politi­cize the mil­i­tary cam­paign in Syria.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Mean ‘Busi­ness’ Rus­sian jets fly more mis­sions over Syria than the U.S. and drop un­guided bombs that kill civil­ians in­dis­crim­i­nately and “in­tim­i­date” the rebels, a re­tired U.S. Air Force of­fi­cer says.

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