Black Bread and Caucasian Circuses

Russian Intervention in Syria

by Stewart Pollock

A new show has hit the Russian airwaves! It’s called “Syrian Civil War”, and it depicts the adventures of heroic jet-fighters as they battle in the desert with a group of masked villains.  The star of the show is Vladimir Putin, a macho ex-spy who is an expert in judo and fights tigers, while dating a rhythmic gymnast. The show has received rave reviews from the Russian public, with a poll by the Levada Center suggesting that well over half of the population wants a second season.  Unfortunately, “Syrian Civil War” has pre-empted an older show, “Ukrainian Civil War,” whose ratings were rapidly falling. Both of these shows, of course, aren’t fiction; they are the supposed realities presented to the Russian population on the nightly news.

This is an old trick, dating back to the Roman “bread and circuses” tactic: violent entertainment is used to distract the public from a weak economy and political corruption. And this is the way the Russian public has been exposed to their country’s military intervention in Syria, with footage of explosions playing while analysts discuss how Russia is “saving” Syria after years of irresponsible meddling by “the West”. Dmitri Kiselyov,  of Rossiya Sevodniya, Russia’s biggest nightly news channel, is one of the more “liberal” pundits. He declared that America was secretly allied with the Islamic State, and seeks to overthrow Bashar Al-Assad’s government in order to impose a new caliphate. Putin himself, who has in the past likened NATO intervention in Libya to an “imperial crusade,” has in his rhetoric stressed moderation, and has firmly ruled out the deployment of ground troops. While the current air campaign is popular with the Russian public, over two-thirds say they would not support ground operations.

Few want anything that even smells like a repeat of the 1979 intervention in Afghanistan, or for that matter in the republic of Chechnya, where between 1999 and 2000, Russia fought a brutal war followed by a nine-year insurgency. Over 7,000 Russians, along with 30,000 Chechen civilians, were ultimately killed while Chechen militants pursued a campaign of terrorism in major cities, including Moscow. Lingering bitterness about the war remains—in fact, thousands of Chechens and other Caucasian militants have joined ISIL’s ranks, this summer declaring the creation of a Wilayat Qawqaz, an Islamic emirate in the Russian north Caucusus.  One of Putin’s arguments for intervention, it so happens, is confronting the potential jihadist threat to Russia itself.

However, Russia will do little but fan the flames of violent separatism in the Caucusus.  On October 5th, the Guardian reported that Chechen and Dagestani members of groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, the Levant Front, and Islamic Army, were travelling to the coast specifically to seek out Russian troops around the bases at Latakia and Tartus. The risk of Russians being captured and beheaded—a phenomenon which became gruesomely common during the Chechen war—surely informed the Russian president’s decision to avoid ground operations.

But as the Russian media’s portrayal of the conflict shows, Vladimir Putin is no stranger to war as propaganda.  As Russia’s newly-appointed Prime Minister in the late nineties, he rose to national prominence during the Chechen conflict. In contrast with the country’s highly unpopular President, Boris Yeltsin, Putin cut a respectable and militarily confident figure.  His ruthless handling of the war as Prime Minister, and later President, was exemplified by the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis, where Russian Special Forces pumped a theater full of Chechen terrorists and hostages with poison gas, resulting in the deaths of all the captors, but also saw the death of over 150 hostages (out of 800 total).

Putin goes to pains to present his foreign and domestic policy as logical and dispassionate.  Russian involvement in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea were cast in a similar “professional” light: Russian media such as Perviy Kanal and NTV (owned by the government and Gazprom, respectively) referred to the Russian commandos who seized Crimean cities as “polite green men.” Putin has criticized the “idealistic” nature of U.S. foreign policy, such as its support for the moderate Syrian opposition rather than the uncompromising and ruthless Assad government.

Putin may have gained Crimea, but he has also earned the undying enmity of Eastern Europe, specifically in western Ukraine. 

However, just as was the case in Ukraine, there are limits to how much propagandistic benefit Putin can get to overseas military adventurism.  The underlying problems of the Russian economy have not gone away, and while Russian audiences are enraptured by the reports of successful military operations against “terrorists” (the Russian government draws little distinction between the moderate opposition and extremist groups) the honeymoon will eventually end.  The ruble remains weak, and the low price of oil will continue to hurt Russia’s economy as long as Saudi Arabia has cash to spare. For all the lauding he gets as a political mastermind, Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy is still reactionary: rather than expanding Russian influence, he is struggling to prevent its further atrophy.  Putin may have gained Crimea, but he has also earned the undying enmity of Eastern Europe, specifically in western Ukraine.  His efforts to prop up Assad belie how few friends he has on the Mediterranean

In flexing his muscles abroad, Putin has shown just how weak some of those muscles have become since the fall of the Soviet Union.  On October 7th, four cruise missiles, out of a volley of 26 launched from the shore of the Caspian Sea, fell short of their Syrian target and landed in a field in Iran. These embarrassing misfires do not serve the narrative Putin is pushing, nor does the fact that his “precision” strikes are doing little to halt ISIL’s advance near Aleppo.  Of course, Putin should have known that airstrikes had limited effectiveness: he himself has repeatedly excoriated the “anti-ISIL coalition,” itself guilty of many failed air attacks, for its failure to make a visible dent in ISIL’s operations.

In the end, Putin may have bitten off more than he can chew. If it is hard to imagine an endgame to the Syrian Civil War at all, it is harder still to imagine one that leaves Assad as the country’s ruler.  Putin has tried to kill two birds with one stone by demonstrating his defiance to the West while maintaining the domestic image of a strong action hero.  But this show is an expensive one, in terms of money as well as lives.  And the Russian audience may soon find that they can’t just change the channel when they don’t like what they see. TKO

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