On Syria, Putin Is Catering to an Audience at Home

Дата публикации: 26 Сентябрь 2015, 17:01

MOSCOW — A funny thing happened on the way to theUnited Nations General Assembly, where President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia will speak on Monday for the first time in 10 years.


In the weeks leading up to the meeting, the war in Ukraine all but disappeared from the state-run television channels that monopolize news coverage in Russia. In its place: War in Syria!

There was Dmitry Kiselyov, the infamous news anchor who repeatedly accused Washington of plotting every step of the Ukraine crisis, instead damning the Islamic State. “The barbarian caliphate in the Middle East is an absolute evil, slithering in the direction of Russia,” he said, “But we have a firm ally in the Middle East: Syria. To surrender it means inviting terrorists to come to us.”

With that, Mr. Kiselyov introduced a report by a prominent war correspondent, formerly stationed in eastern Ukraine, who filed the latest in a series of dispatches suggesting that the valiant Syrian military could not win on its own.

The Kremlin’s effort to change the conversation at home to Syria marks an important, if ultimately temporary, shift. It shows that Mr. Putin’s military and diplomatic moves leading up to the United Nations meeting are aimed as much at his domestic audience as the international front.

In some ways the goals are intertwined, with Mr. Putin’s stature overseas meant to shore up his ability to single-handedly dominate Russia, as he has for much of the past 15 years.

“The most important goals, and the ones he really cares about, are the domestic ones,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, the editor-at-large of the newspaper Vedomosti.

First, the focus on Syria allows Mr. Putin to move the conversation away from Ukraine, which most Russians are tired of anyway. Acting as if the whole thing is over in Ukraine gives him latitude to make compromises there that will spur the lifting of Western sanctions without him looking as if he is caving to foreign pressure.

Second, it gives Mr. Putin the opportunity to play the statesman, too busy reasserting Russia’s rightful position in the world to get caught up in problems like recession, 16 percent inflation and a weak ruble.

“He wants to keep the society consolidated and to present himself continuously as a high-profile leader who lives somewhere above everything in the country,” Mr. Trudolyubov said, “so you cannot connect anything that he is doing to what is happening with the ruble, or the hospitals or the schools or the roads. All that is beneath him.”

Third, there is a kind of “bread and circus” aspect to it all. In keeping with the paternalistic traditions of czarist Russia, Mr. Putin constantly assumes the role of national superhero.

That requires a constant supply of new feats, however, from organizing the 2014 Winter Olympic Games to plotting the annexation of Crimea totaming Islamic terrorists (with the occasional wrestling with tigers in between).

“A lot of heroic things should be done by a hero in this land,” said Konstantin V. Remchukov, owner and editor of Nezavisimaya Gazeta, a Moscow newspaper.

Certainly, Russia has real concerns about the events in Syria and maintains a good sense of its military weaknesses from having advisers in key war rooms in keeping with longstanding military aid contracts. The forces of President Bashar al-Assad of Syria were reportedly so depleted by the end of the summer that Damascus sent a senior envoy to Moscow to warn that the government was weighing a retreat from the capital to the coastal heartland of the Alawite minority that constitutes much of the elite. As in southeastern Ukraine, Mr. Putin could not contemplate any military humiliation for an ally.

In August, the United States and Saudi Arabia endorsed a renewed effort by Russia to seek a political solution to the Syria conflict. Russian officials told diplomats here that they hoped to get negotiations between the government and the Syrian opposition started again by the end of October. But progress was constantly impeded by the question of Mr. Assad’s future in any political solution, apparently persuading Moscow to switch to the idea of a military coalition to fight the Islamic State.

No one is quite sure what Mr. Putin will say on Monday, whether he will propose specific military action or stick to general themes. He will spend only the day in New York and not stay overnight, his spokesman, Dmitri Peskov, told the Russian news agency RIA Novosti.

This month Mr. Putin began emphasizing the idea that Mr. Assad was the ally needed to fight the Islamic State on the ground. First, target the Islamic State, Russia officials now say repeatedly, then worry about shaping a political transition in Damascus.

Mr. Putin laid out many of those themes in a speech at a regional security conference in Tajikistan two weeks ago, and some diplomats and analysts expect his United Nations speech to echo that one.

If the Islamic State seemed a distant threat at one point, the Kremlin now appears genuinely concerned about blowback. About 2,400 Russians have joined the extremist movement, a senior security official announced recently, and an additional 3,000 men from Central Asian states are believed to be fighting in Syria.

It is considered unlikely that Mr. Putin will propose sending Russian troops to join the fighting. The memories of the Russian debacle in Afghanistan in the 1980s remain too fresh. Even Russian casualties fighting next door in Ukraine — a war the public accepted as necessary for its own protection — were hidden by the state.

By proposing a grand coalition against the Islamic State and providing the weapons to back it up, Mr. Putin has already leveraged himself into a meeting expected Monday with a reluctant President Obama. The leaders of Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have all held talks with the Russian leader in the last week.

“All these preparations are aimed at attracting more attention to Putin,” said Nicolai Petrov, a political-science professor at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “It helped change Obama’s mind about meeting Putin, which showed that it is effective.”

Mr. Putin has claimed repeatedly in recent years that the chaotic state of the world, particularly the level of violence in the Middle East, is because the United States is the solitary power. The underlying idea is that things were better off when the Soviet Union was around to check American might.

Some expect Mr. Putin to frame his arguments in those terms at the United Nations, where he is likely to find a receptive audience. “It will be about establishing a new pillar so that power in the world is more balanced,” Mr. Remchukov said.

Traditionally, Brazil opens the General Assembly, followed by a speech by the president of the United States. After that, the audience scatters. But Mr. Putin is due to speak sixth. Given the intense interest in what he will say, the government heads might actually stick around to listen and applaud.

The applause, of course, is the short-term reason Mr. Putin is coming to the United Nations for the first time in a decade. Because of the Ukraine crisis, he was thrown out of the G-8 countries of leading economic powers, andfelt so snubbed at the last G-20 meeting in Australia that he flew home early.

“He has to leave Russia to demonstrate that he is not isolated, that he is a respected member of the international community gathering in New York,” said Alexandr I. Shumilin, the head of the Center for the Analysis of Middle East Conflicts, in Moscow.

“For the Russian audience it will be an attempt to send the same message, that Putin is always right,” Mr. Shumilin said, “that he is always a driving force, he is still raising Russia from its knees and flexing muscles. It is an attempt to maintain the level of propaganda that proved so successful with the Ukraine crisis.”

The New York Times