The news has changed, but the message has not.
For five months, news broadcasts on Russia’s national television channels have opened with updates on the country’s military operation in Syria. The news always shows that the campaign is a big success. Russia is fighting the so-called Islamic State practically risk-free. Jets soar, missiles zoom and rebels cower, while the boots on the ground are Syrian, not Russian.
The news clips also underlined that for four years the United States and its allies had done almost nothing in Syria, while Russia could boast great achievements after only a few months. Every day, the Russian military destroyed an Islamic State command unit or a convoy of fuel tankers, and Syrian soldiers advanced against the terrorists in the wake of Russian air strikes. The message was clear: here is the proof that we have the strongest army. The opportunity was also used to show off the latest military technology and to suggest that if Russian air forces can reach Syria from the Caspian Sea, they can certainly move from the Black Sea to Europe.
It looked as though the Russian state propaganda machine would pursue this theme to the end, saying “Nothing less than Raqqa! Nothing less than Victory!” Yet Islamic State is still undefeated and the Russian air force is withdrawing from Syria. Just a few days before the pullback was announced, patriotic television anchor Dmitry Kiselyov was praising the military for its latest successes—and then suddenly the airplanes were headed home.
It seemed a shame to stop when things were just getting interesting, but Russia’s television audiences probably won’t be too disappointed. At least three reasons have been provided to justify Russia’s military withdrawal.
Firstly, Russians are told that the airplanes are returning, but they are returning victorious. Television viewers are being bombarded with numbers. Four hundred towns and villages have been liberated, 2,000 terrorists killed, more than 200 oil production facilities destroyed, hundreds of fuel tanker columns blown up, 9,000 air strikes carried out. Everything has been counted.
Moreover, as the objectives of the operation were never specified in advance, Russians were not told what would constitute a victory—the capture of Raqqa, Palmyra, or Mosul, the complete annihilation of Islamic State? The message now is that the Russian campaign has made life harder for the terrorists, they are slowly but steadily being pushed back and the Syrian government is trying to reach a deal with the opposition. What’s more, Russia’s pilots and artillerymen got some useful target practice.
At the same time, lest Russians develop a nostalgia for “easy wars,” when their country put the West in its place, they have been reminded that wars get harder to fight, that the demand grows for a ground operation with all its resulting consequences. The spin doctors tirelessly repeated that Syria would not become another Afghanistan and now they can say with a clear conscience that it has not. National television channels and the popular newspaper Komsomolskaya Pravda have outlined the risks of a second Afghanistan scenario.
The Afghan argument is a powerful one. The wounds of the Afghan conflict have not yet healed and the prospects of a ground operation cast a shadow even over the optimism of many supporters of an “easy war.” The “no war” argument has stayed in the Kremlin since Soviet days.
Finally, for anyone who still has doubts about the wisdom of an exit from Syria, there is the final and most persuasive argument that ends all news broadcasts. It is that the sudden withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria has thrown the United States for a loop.
“Russia’s leader has outsmarted Obama, disproving his claims that Russia will get stuck in a quagmire in Syria,” boasts the news anchor on Channel One. His words are supported by clips of briefings from the U.S. State Department and White House, in which the spokespeople fail to give a proper response to the events. Their hesitations are exaggerated by the interpreter, who stalls, stutters, and pauses. The viewer can see how difficult the Americans find this situation, and that is priceless.
The theme of the confusion of the United States has been covered by Russia Today, Rossiiskaya Gazeta and RIA Novosti and is presented as proof for the age-old thesis that “Putin is outsmarting everyone.” Just in case, some backup scenarios are also rehearsed: Russia will cooperate with the United States from now on, but Obama needs to stay on his toes, even if he is more of a friend than a foe.
The Russian propaganda machine will have no problem surviving without its triumphant reports on the successes of the Russian air force in Syria. The withdrawal can stay the main news for a few more days while viewers are readied for another leading story. After all, in September 2015, the events in the Donbas were also pushed into the background without particular repercussions.
The withdrawal of troops from Syria was announced on March 14, between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. The eight o’clock news on Rossiya-2 television channel had to make do without its go-to subject and the sky did not fall in. President Putin spoke about traffic laws, German Chancellor Angela Merkel lost regional elections, there was a bombing in Ankara, and Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk was asked to resign. The Russian news lives for stories outside Russia and, even where there is no Syria, there is plenty to talk about.