By: Sam Skove, Columnist
Photo Credit: Viktoria Odissonova/Novaya Gazetta
The United States’ increasing focus on Syria poses a hard policy problem for Russian President Vladimir Putin as he readies for important March 2018 Presidential Elections in Russia. If the United States raises pressure on the Assad regime and Russia does nothing, Putin will lose face internationally. If Moscow ups support for Assad in response to US pressure, Putin risks alienating Russians even as a wave of anger over the economy sweeps across the country.
This is not to say that Putin’s victory is in doubt. The Kremlin’s tight control over the media, bullying of opposition parties, and willingness to rig the vote guarantees that he will serve another six-year term.[i] However, if Putin’s win is unconvincing, the Kremlin risks emboldening the opposition and sparking a repeat of the mass protests that occurred in 2011 over the blatantly fraudulent Duma elections.[ii] If Putin wants to pull off a convincing victory at the polls next year, therefore, the Kremlin must find an elusive middle ground between backing Assad to the hilt and dialing down support.
The Kremlin so far has kept its Syrian campaign from weighing down Putin’s popularity by casting its presence there as successful and relatively light. One way it has done this is by celebrating its victories loudly and often. In March of last year, Putin declared that Russian operations were over in Syria.[iii] Operations continued, of course, but the media message was that Russian involvement was one long mop-up operation. Likewise, the Kremlin celebrated the liberation of Palmyra from ISIS with a grand splash last May, busing in international reporters for a classical musical concert on top of the ruins.[iv] When ISIS recaptured the historic site this December, Russian state media conveniently pinned the blame on the United States, stating that they had purposely allowed ISIS fighters to mass for the attack.[v]
The Kremlin has also kept the true cost of the war hidden from the Russian public. A key way this is done is through the employment of mercenaries.[vi] These mercenaries are effectively a non-uniformed Russian military unit in that they serve alongside the Russian army and receive Russian military honors and pensions.[vii] However, because they are classified as contractors, the Kremlin does not have to officially count their combat deaths. Russia’s media largely refrains from reporting on their deaths, and their families are threatened with punishment if they speak about them openly.[viii] Consequently, Russians have little sense of how much the Syrian war is costing them in lives.
So far, the Kremlin’s strategy is working. On the whole, Russians don’t care strongly one way or the other about the war in Syria. “Syria is far away, and what happens there does not directly concern us,” Lev Gudkov, head of the respected pollster Levada, summed up popular sentiment to news site Lenta.ru in January.[ix] The war isn’t popular—only 49 percent of Russians polled by Levada approved of it last year—but nor is it unpopular.[x]
US pressure on Syria, however, threatens to alter this balance. Following the United States’ missile strike against a Syrian airbase last week, Russia has chosen to double down on its support for Assad. So far this support is mostly diplomatic, although Russia did send an extra warship into the region.[xi] However, should the United States pursue more attacks against Assad, Russia might gradually be drawn into a greater and greater role propping up the Syrian regime. If this occurs, Putin risks being drawn into a war that only enjoys lukewarm support in Russia.
The United States’ rising involvement in Syria also comes at a tricky time domestically for Putin. Russians are increasingly unhappy about corruption and the economy, which has limped along since 2014 due to low oil prices and Western sanctions over Ukraine. Last month, thousands of Russians marched in protest against corruption in a rare sign of public dissent.[xii] These protests were all the more remarkable for their broad geographic distribution, indicating that resentment of the government has extended beyond the traditional opposition centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg.
Putin thus faces a tough choice. Matching US pressure in Syria will preserve Russia’s international prestige, but risks weighing down the government with one more problem ahead of the important 2018 elections. Edging away from Assad, though, seems unlikely. If Moscow has stuck with him even as he conducts chemical weapons strikes on his own people, they’re unlikely to stop doing so now. At the end of the day, Putin may be left with the worst of all possible outcomes: conflict with the United States over Syria, and rising domestic discontent at home.
[i] Ellen Barry and Michael, “After Election, Putin Faces Challenges to Legitimacy,” The New York Times, March 5, 2012, accessed April 13, 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/06/world/europe/observers-detail-flaws-in-russian-election.html.
[iii] Patrick Wintour and Shaun Walker. “Vladimir Putin Orders Russian Forces to Begin Withdrawal From Syria,” The Guardian, March 15, 2016, accessed April 13, 2017, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/mar/14/vladimir-putin-orders-withdrawal-russian-troops-syria
[iv] Steve Rosenberg, “Russia’s Valery Gergiev Conducts Concert in Palmyra Ruins,” BBC, May 5, 2016, accessed April 13, 2017,http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-36211449
[v] Chanel One Russia “Boeviki igil snova zahvatili nedavno otbituyu siriyskuyu palmiru”, December 12, 2016, accessed April 13, 2017,http://www.1tv.ru/news/2016-12-12/315945-boeviki_igil_snova_zahvatili_nedavno_otbituyu_siriyskuyu_palmiru
[vi] Maria Tsvetkova and Anton Zverev, “Ghost Soldiers: The Russians Secretly Dying for the Kremlin in Syria,” Reuters, November 3, 2016, accessed April 13, 2017, http://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-russia-insight-idUSKBN12Y0M6
[ix] Mikhail Karpov, “Terpeli I Terpet Budem,” Lenta.ru, January 9, 2017, accessed April 13, 2017, https://lenta.ru/articles/2017/01/09/hopesandfears/.
[x] The Levada Center, “Ot Siriskoi DO Tretei Mirovoi,” November 7, 2016, accessed April 13, 2017, http://www.levada.ru/2016/11/07/ot-sirijskoj-do-tretej-mirovoj/
[xi] Alec Luhn, “Russia Sends Warship to Battlegroup Of Syrian Coast,” April 8, 2017, accessed April 13, 2017,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/apr/08/russia-sends-warship-syrian-coast.
[xii] Joshua Yaffa, “What the Russian Protests Mean for Putin,” March 27, 2017, accessed April 13, 2017,http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/what-the-russian-protests-mean-for-putin