Russia uses US tactics to 'market' Syria foray

MOSCOW • Russian President Vladimir Putin and his circle have spent years criticising what they said was Washington's calamitous 2003 military intervention in Iraq and its pernicious habit of meddling in the Middle East. But faced with marketing their own foray into the region for the first time since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - in Syria - the Kremlin is borrowing United States government and broadcast tactics to replicate the media campaign that Mr George W. Bush used to win American hearts and minds.

The Russian Defence Ministry has turned itself into a 24-hour news station, pumping out slick TV footage of cruise missiles and air strikes, complete with animated graphics.

With post-9/11 Afghanistan, Mr Bush declared a war on terror. In Russia, Moscow's Syrian intervention is being similarly sold. Only this time, the enemy is Islamic State in Iraq and Syria militants who the Kremlin says could come to Russia once it is done with Syria.

Weathering a worsening economic downturn and weary of hearing about the travails of Kremlin-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine, many Russians appear to be enjoying the show and buying into the Kremlin's message that its intervention is evidence of the country's military and diplomatic renaissance.

The propaganda push, which has even extended to a TV weather presenter describing the climatic conditions for air strikes, seems, from a Kremlin viewpoint, to be working so far. Less than two weeks ago, just 14 per cent of Russians said they backed direct military intervention in Syria. This week, a similar poll, by the same Levada pollster, showed that 72 per cent had a broadly positive opinion of Russian air strikes.

"There was a sharp change (in opinion)," said Mr Stepan Goncharov of the Levada Centre. "Before, the conflict was regarded as someone else's. But the media were able to present it in such a way that it came to be viewed as an essential intervention by Russia in the region."

Since Sept 30, when Russia first launched its air campaign in Syria, TV viewers have been treated to movie-like images of Russian jets bombing targets, to palls of smoke rising in their wake, to Russian warships based in the Caspian Sea firing cruise missiles across Iran and Iraq to hit Syria.

Images of Russia projecting force so far beyond its borders while showcasing its military and technological prowess were, at least for now, giving Russians "a warm and fuzzy feeling", said Dr Samuel Greene, director of the Russia Institute at London's King's College.

But if something goes wrong, most analysts believe public opinion could sour.

Mr Igor Yakovenko, a popular blogger and journalist, points out an important difference between the US campaign in Iraq and Russia's actions in Syria. "In Iraq, the Americans toppled a dictator," he told Reuters. "In Syria, Russia is supporting a dictator."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 12, 2015, with the headline 'Russia uses US tactics to 'market' Syria foray'. Subscribe