Russia’s military operations over the past two and a half years—from the seizure of Crimea, to support for separatists in Donbas, to its intervention in Syria—have revealed differing aspects of the country’s growing military capability. While the use of hard power in these divergent theaters was also mixed with soft power, Moscow maximized the potential results and simultaneously obviated the risks. Operations in Syria have exemplified this approach with fairly minimal losses for the Russian Armed Forces and high impact in terms of international diplomacy. The information campaign has clearly proved successful at home and is being conducted vigorously abroad to promulgate Moscow’s take on its motives and aims in Syria. However, despite serious allegations over the Russian bombing of Aleppo—with wide-scale reported civilian damage, including to hospitals—paradoxically, the overall campaign and targeting of Aleppo remains popular among most of the Russian public (RIA Novosti, October 18, 17). Careful media management by the Kremlin and the defense ministry has consequently served to supply a significant boost to the wider prestige of the Russian Armed Forces generally and the Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno Kosmicheskikh Sil—VKS) in particular.
According to the reputable Russian Public Opinion Research Center (VTsIOM), 73 percent of Russian citizens believe the criticism of VKS operations in Aleppo is unfounded. The agency conducted the polling on October 8–9, across 46 regions of Russia, among 1,600 people; the statistical margin of error was 3.5 percent. VTsIOM found that its respondents consider the Russian intervention has “caused serious damage to terrorists” and saved Syria from disaster; though it remains too early to draw a fuller conclusion. The survey found that 32 percent support the current government policy; these respondents believe the campaign needs to continue. Around one in five (21 percent) consider it necessary to slow down the air operations or choose a more cautious stance. While 14 percent believe Russia should exit the conflict. Less clear were results regarding the future outcomes or consequences of Moscow’s involvement in the conflict, with 53 percent finding it difficult to make any predictions. Some fear negative consequences (27 percent), such as increased tensions with the West or fresh sanctions imposed on Russia. And approximately one in ten (11 percent) believe Russia will strengthen its global standing, improve its defenses and acquire new allies as a result of the Syria campaign (RIA Novosti, October 17).
Although the polling reveals some nuances, including uncertainty about the long-term consequences of the Syria operation for Russia, the most interesting feature of the findings is the rather high level of support and lack of substantial domestic questioning of the VKS bombing of Aleppo. This stands in stark contrast to the international outcry concerning reports of civilian targeting in Aleppo and accusations that the air strikes are indiscriminate. Even the latest VKS pause in the bombing for humanitarian reasons, was met skeptically by the international community. British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has been at the forefront of such criticism of Moscow’s actions, accusing the country of behaving like a “pariah state,” arguing in favor of deepening the sanctions against Russia, and calling for protests outside its London embassy (Interfax, October 15).
Moscow’s dismissive response to such criticism was swift and targeted. Russia’s ambassador to the United Kingdom, Alexander Yakovenko, demanded that the UK Foreign Office should provide tangible evidence to support the accusations made against the Russian air force. It seems Moscow was especially enraged about the accusation of its possible war crimes in Syria, and responded in turn by accusing the UK and its allies of trying to cover up their support for the Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front). Yakovenko dismissed the accusations against the VKS as fabricated and based solely on the use of social media. The presentation by the Russian defense ministry concerning the alleged targeting of the United Nations humanitarian aid convoy also differed from the reporting by Western media (Interfax, October 17).
Whether the targeting of civilians is a deliberate or inadvertent act on the part of the VKS, Moscow moved quickly to challenge the emerging Western narrative. This speed and consistency with which Russia has counter-attacked foreign critique of its actions serves to lessen the impact of negative international opinion domestically. Even when things go wrong, the weight of Russian state propaganda machinery can confuse, vigorously rebut and mitigate any potential damage. In this case, the official Kremlin line on the recent hospital and UN aid convoy bombings is that Western allies are trying to deflect attention away from their own purported tacit support for al-Nusra by questioning the Russian “evidence” that has been offered and demanding that convincing proof should be furnished. The diplomatic response to criticism of Russia’s military action in Syria is a familiar variant of plausible deniability (Rossiyskaya Gazeta, October 17). In this informational battleground, the actual facts become of secondary importance in a sea of confusion and counter-accusation.
In other words, both in terms of public opinion within Russia and among the political-military leadership, the actual conduct of the campaign and its strategic aims are relegated to only second-order importance. What is clear, however, considering the VKS campaign to date, is Moscow’s willingness to see it through and play a patient game in its Syrian adventure. This is further underscored by the announcement that the naval logistical facility at Tartus, a key supply hub for the VKS operations in Syria, will gain the status of a naval base (see EDM, October 13). According to Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov, the 2015 bilateral agreement has been ratified and documents are being prepared to cement this for a 50-year period. The message is clear: the Russians are in Syria to stay (Interfax, October 17).
The continued popularity of the Syria operation in Russian domestic opinion is sure to continue, as the Kremlin and the public adjust to the rarity of a low-cost, high impact conflict with a minimal price in blood for Russian military personnel. In turn, the VKS’s performance and its knock-on effects strengthen public esteem for the Armed Forces—on a level that eclipses Crimea. Equally, Moscow believes it can ride out any criticism of its actions in Syria owing to both the complex nature of the conflict and the lack of progress by the United States after several years of a more “surgical” approach. Yet, beneath the information operation to support the VKS is the quite real effort to test Washington in the twilight of Barack Obama’s presidency (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, October 14).