- - Sunday, October 25, 2015

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.

SEE ALSO: Russian airstrikes in Syria target Assad foes, not Islamic State

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.

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