Until recently, one-third Russians said they had no interest at all in Syria. Just 18 percent welcomed the idea of providing military support to Bashar al-Assad, according to a national survey this month by Levada Center pollsters.
Public opinion did not seem a significant factor in Vladimir Putin’s decision-making Wednesday: No sooner had the Russian president returned from his meetings and speech at the United Nations in New York then he asked the Russian senate to allow him to use the country’s military for foreign combat missions.
Yet not many understood the purpose and targets. “Here is what’s going on,” Aleksei Venediktov, editor in chief of Echo of Moscow radio, told listeners while broadcasting from New York. “There are two countries where ISIS is fighting. They cross two borders in Iraq and in Syria. Putin told us straight away, at the United Nations, about Iraq—that Iraqi authorities asked for its participation in the coalition because ISIS comes and goes from Iraq and back to Iraq, so the planes would fly to the Iraqi border. That is why the foreign countries are not specified.”
While senators voted in favor of the president’s decision, Echo of Moscow listeners had their own vote online. The vast majority—81 percent—did not approve of Russian military participation in Syria’s civil war. The idea of fighting in foreign countries has never been popular in Russia: Last February, more than 60 percent of Russians said they did not want their military involved in the war in eastern Ukraine.
“For now, a majority believe that this is not a war but a military operation. So far Russians have not thought of Syria much, [because they’re] feeling depressed about [their] economic decline, empty fridges,” Igor Bunin, president of the Center for Political Technologies think tank in Moscow, told The Daily Beast in an interview Wednesday. “Putin’s popularity depends on how soon people draw a conclusion that their personal wealth depends on the Syria events.”
The senators’ vote quickly inspired sarcastic jokes on social media: “Russian pensions fly to Syria.” Former finance minister Alexei Kudrin, one of the few people Putin has called his friend, predicted that in 2016 Russians would grow even poorer. “We have ended up in Zugzwang,” Kudrin told the Vedomosti newspaper, using a chess term—it means “When every move worsens the situation.”
Among the nation’s 20 million Muslims, many were thinking more about Syria than the average Russian, Bunin told The Daily Beast. “Over 3,000 Russian citizens are fighting in Syria right now; Russian Muslims are divided in their opinion on Syria issues, between those who support Assad or ISIS or other groups fighting in the Middle East,” Bunin said. Most Russian citizens who have defected to the self-declared Islamic State have come from the Northern Caucasus republic, which experts have dubbed “ISIS’s province” since the terror group claimed responsibility for attacking a Russian military base in Dagestan.
Did Russian Muslims need more explanations about Putin’s intentions?
“People do not understand who Russian aviation is going to bomb in Syria. We see that the situation in Syria is very complicated, that Assad is fighting against several groups, not just ISIS. It is unclear if Russia is going to fight against all Assad’s enemies or just against ISIS,” Idris Yusupov, an expert on Islam and an independent observer in Dagestan, told The Daily Beast.
Events unfolded at head-spinning speed. By 3:30 p.m. in Moscow, Putin comforted television viewers by saying that Russia was not going to “plunge into this conflict head-on.” By 4 p.m., a defense ministry spokesman announced that Russian pilots conducted their first airstrikes in Syria.
“Our authorities always ignore what people think, the less we know about what they are doing in Syria the better, it seems,” Aleksanda Sedelnikova, a Nizhny Novgorod pediatrician told The Daily Beast. The first memories that came to Sedelnikova’s mind as soon as she heard of the senate’s decision were of “Black Tulips”—the dark nickname for the planes that brought dead Russian soldiers back from Afghanistan in the 1980s.
“I thought of a line from a famous song about Black Tulips, ‘Once again we bring our heroes back to motherland / to dig up graves for 20 year olds.’”