MOSCOW — A new joke was making the rounds in the Russian capital this week: A Russian military recruit is talking to his mother. “Son, be careful in Donbas,” she says. “Mom, I’m already in Damascus,” he says.
It’s OK if you didn’t laugh because you didn’t quite get the references. They’re telling nonetheless. Donbas is the eastern part of Ukraine where thousands of people have died, including many Russian troops, but Moscow won’t admit it. Damascus is the Syrian capital, of course. And, as The Daily Beast was among the first to report, Russia has been sending troops to Syria to shore up the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
Reports have swirled around the Internet that some Russian commanders traveled straight from eastern Ukraine to Syria. In one photograph of a Russian soldier, apparently taken in Syria, a Russian commander known as “Motorola,” Arseny Pavlov, posed with Bashar al-Assad’s portrait next to his friend who was holding a Syrian flag.
But Russian state television channels, the main source of information for Russian citizens, whose reports are produced in close coordination with the authorities, have been putting across a very limited picture of what’s going on. They are not saying how many Russian army experts have been deployed to the Middle East, and Russians have not been told of the Russian army’s potential combat role in supporting the al-Assad government.
The old Soviet Union historically conducted military operations in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa that were kept secret from the public. And today, as in the past, mothers are the first ones to learn the truth about their sons being sent abroad.
“We received the first call from a mother this week—her son, an officer of air defense troops, was given a passport to travel abroad and deployed to Syria,” Valentina Melnikova, the head of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers, tells The Daily Beast. “We explain to mothers that their sons can always quit and if they go, they should make sure the army pays them their bonus of $52 per day and that their families would receive compensations, if they do not come back.”
“Traditionally, the public awareness awakes when people see the first soldiers returning with amputated legs or arms,” said Melnikova.
A majority of Russians do not welcome the idea. The latest VTSIOM social polls show 77 percent of Russians do not support any military operation in Syria.
“Putin has always been serious about social polls, that is why the Kremlin orders such public research from VTSIOM, not for coordinating actions with public opinion, but rather for finding the right words for upcoming propaganda,” says Denis Volkov, a Levada Center sociologist. “The propagandist message for Donbas, ‘We have to help our Russian brothers,’ was largely supported by the society,” Volkov said.
This week, Syrian President al-Assad became the main propagandist and interpreter of the conflict in the Middle East for Russian television viewers.
In an almost hour-long interview with Russia’s leading state television channels, al-Assad condemned the United States and Europe for supporting terrorism in Syria.
“What are ISIS and other terrorist groups? Extremist projects by the West,” Assad explained to Russian television viewers, listing Russia, Iran, and Iraq as Syria’s only allies in the war.
The Syrian leader blamed the West for seeing him as the main enemy and made parallels to Russian President Vladimir Putin: “Ever since the coup in Ukraine, President Putin has been viewed by Western media as an enemy, a czar, a dictator clamping down on the opposition, someone who came to power in an undemocratic way even though he was elected as a result of a popular vote recognized by the West,” Assad said.
Meanwhile, Russian military aircraft and a cargo ships continue delivering artillery and armored vehicles to Syria.
“Russia has been sending advanced air defense systems to Syria, including Pantsir and Yahont, on contracts that we had signed before the war,” says Vsiliy Kashin, an expert at CAST, the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies affiliated with Russian defense ministry. “The number of deliveries has been sharply growing over the past few weeks, as well as some expert personnel and security units for the port,” he said. “This information is public now, nobody hides it any longer.”