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Russian Media and Russian Popular Opinion on Syria

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Vladimir Putin of Russia met in Moscow to discuss the military operations in Syria.
President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Vladimir Putin of Russia met in Moscow to discuss the military operations in Syria on 21 October 2015. Source: http://kremlin.ru/events/president/news/50533/photos

By Maia Otarashvili

Since Russia annexed Crimea, started a war in Ukraine’s east, and began to support the Assad regime in Syria, it has become greatly isolated from the majority of the rest of the world. Moreover, thanks to the sanctions that were imposed upon Russia by the West, the country is now in its second year of a deep economic recession. Yet president Putin’s approval ratings at home are at 82%, and according to Levada Center’s recent research, 68% of Russians approve of Russia’s military involvement in Syria. Majority of the Russians (77%) also believe that Russia does not pose any threats to other countries’ national security. When asked whether or not there is a threat to other countries’ security from the US today, 59% of Russians said yes.

Why is there such a contradiction between the perceptions of the Russian government from within the country and from the outside? In my previous article, published in the July issue of Majalla, I analyzed the potency of the Russian media propaganda machine that’s been effectively creating chaos and uncertainty in the public opinions outside Russia, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe. But a closer look at the Russian media propaganda directed towards the Russian citizens reveals a similar, but even more severe picture. The messaging tactics of the local media directly correlate with the public opinion polls, helping the government obtain popular support for its otherwise unpopular actions abroad.

What is Russia Doing in Syria?

Russian military engagement in Syria has sparked controversy across much of the globe. Skeptics say Russia is simply trying to counter America’s interests in Syria by supporting the Assad regime and taking part in the Syrian civil war, while others believe that Russia has its own interests there – from energy to security to pure pursuit of nurturing alliances in the Middle East. The record of Russia’s involvement in Syria so far shows that all of the above is true; while Russia is indeed trying to serve its own interests in the war-shattered country, its actions have also directly undermined the US-led coalition’s efforts there.

Why is Russia involved in Syria? According to recent polling data, 58% of Russians believe that in Syria Russia should be “attempting to neutralize and liquidate the threat of military action by Islamic radicals and terrorists spilling over into Russia.” 27% of Russians go further in their support of Russia’s involvement in Syria and add that Russia should be “defending Bashar al-Assad’s regime in order to prevent a series of ‘color revolutions’ provoked by the US around the world.”

Russia’s role as the “defender of Syria” (Syria at all times being directly associated with Bashar al-Assad and his very legitimate government), appears to have been fulfilled, at least according to the Russian media. Reports of Russia’s bravery in Syria are plenty in popular Russian news channels and magazines, from Russia Today to Vesti to Rosiiskaya Gazeta. A recent headline in RIA Novosti offers the reader a taste of how the Russian media has been amplifying the voices of Russian leaders who consider Russia’s actions in Syria heroic. The headline read that Russia had saved Syria from 624 NATO cruise missile strikes. Why did Russia get involved with Syria to begin with? According to the Russian media by working with Syria and the international community and arranging for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons Russia helped the world avoid a war.

Since then, not only has Russia been fighting ISIS in Syria, it also helps defend Syria’s interests against the West’s “wrongful and disorganized” actions there. The recent Russian-language media headlines present Russia as a sort of a community organizer, one that has its act together, unlike the US-led coalition forces currently fighting ISIS in Syria. Thus President Putin’s ability to mobilize Iran, Turkey, and China, to fight together in Syria is greatly celebrated in the media. Rosiiskaya Gazeta (RG) in a recent article entitled “Iran to Help” (or “Iran to the Rescue”) explores the nature of the recent Russia-Iran arrangement –according to which Russia can now use Iran’s military airbase in order to more effectively and efficiently carry out its airstrikes in Syria — and points out that US government officials have criticized this otherwise remarkable deal as illegal: “it should be noted that not everyone liked the fact that Iran has allowed Russia to use its airbase. The representatives of the US State Department have accused our military of allegedly violating the UN Security Council resolution.” The article quotes a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman who quickly dismissed the criticisms of the American side, “normally, it is not for us to give advice to the leadership of the US Department of State … but they should check their knowledge of the UN Security Council Resolution N 2231 of 2015, which refers to the need to obtain permission of the UN Security Council on ‘sale’, ‘transfer’, or ‘use’ of combat aircraft ‘inside Iran’,” thus implying that no actual violation of the Resolution is taking place by Russia’s use of the Iranian military airbase. This statement mirrors Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov’s response to the same criticisms, where he in a similarly worded argument dismisses the question of illegality of the Russia-Iran arrangement.

In another article Rossiiskaya Gazeta’s military issue hails Iran’s decision to work with Russia in Syria as a “historic decision.” According to the article, this decision “may play an important role in defeating the terrorists in Syria.”

In its English Language issue Russia Today (RT) summed up the main message of the Russian-language media coverage of Russian activities in Syria: the US-led coalition has been lacking resolve and effectiveness in Syria. Russia is showing results. Now all other parties want to work with Russia instead of the US. Turkey, Iran, and China are joining Russia in what can only be described as a “balance shift in the region.”

RT, who encourages its audience to “question more,” published an interview (one of many on the topic) with a political commentator in early August. The interview concluded that “Russia’s new partnership with Iran is a model kind of military cooperation which has been lacking so far in the West regarding the Syrian conflict, and is the type of action needed to defeat the menace of ISIS,” said political commentator John Wight.” The interview went on to hail these events as causing “a seismic shift in recent weeks” in favor of Russia.

Diminishing Reputation of the US in Russia

Moskovskii Komsomolets (MK) recently wrote that “much like in the American movie “Wag the Dog” (1997), the US is trying to use the war in Syria for its entertainment value,” and is trying to distract the Americans with the coverage on Syria, away from bigger problems at home. This is an argument often used by Western commentators when they try to justify Putin’s adventures abroad.

According to May 2016 polling data, 70% of the Russians have a negative view of the US, 62% have a negative view of the EU. The Russians consider their biggest allies to be Belarus, Kazakhstan, and China. On the list of countries most hostile towards Russia the US is number one. According to the polling data in this category America’s ratings have worsened twofold. In 2014 38% of Russians considered America to be hostile towards them. In 2016 that number is at 72%. Considering RT’s focus on the flaws of Western liberal democracy in its daily coverage, and a constant diet of US-related conspiracy theories the Russian mainstream media feeds to the Russian people, the polling data is not much of a surprise.

On the other hand, Russians seem to trust the authorities in charge of their safety. While 67% of Russians said that they were anxious about the possibility of terrorist attacks, 59% of them said they think that the Russian ministry of Internal Affairs and Russian intelligence agencies are capable of protecting Russia from any new terror attacks. How much of this confidence is influenced by the image of strong Russia going after terrorists in Syria? It is safe to say that this is a major reassuring factor for the Russians.

Finally, when asked what the Russian authorities’ foreign policy priorities should be, 57% of Russians answered that it must be the task of “guaranteeing the peaceful and safe existence of Russia,” however, 51% of Russians also believe that the main priority should be “remaking Russia into one of the most influential countries in the world, without which no important question is decided.” This wish also appears to be coming true if one is to look to the Russian-language media for clues. Afterall, Russia’s “selfless leadership in the Middle East is causing seismic shifts in the region,” ones that are most likely to succeed in defeating ISIS.

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Maia Otarashvili
Maia Otarashvili is a Research Fellow and Deputy Director of the Eurasia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). She is co-editor of FPRI’s 2017 volume Does Democracy Matter? The United States and Global Democracy Support. Her research interests include the geopolitics of the Black Sea-Caucasus region, the post-Communist CEEE countries, EU’s eastern enlargement policies, and Russian foreign policy. Maia is a regular contributor for the Majalla Magazine. She holds an M.A. in Globalization, Development and Transition from the University of Westminster in London. Maia is currently pursuing her PhD at the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London, researching the post-Soviet conflicts of Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and Transnistria.

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