As Russian warplanes bomb Syria for a second day, the Kremlin is welding the propaganda and obfuscation it deployed to great effect in Ukraine to the narrative of the U.S. war on terror: Moscow is in charge, and anyone not with it is with the terrorists.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has lashed out at reports, widely covered in U.S. media, that Moscow's airstrike campaign was claiming civilian casualties. At a government meeting Thursday, he called the reports "information attacks" and went so far as to say that "the first information about casualties among the civilian population appeared before our planes took to the air," state newswire TASS reported.
Though Russia says the aim of its bombing campaign is to target militants from ISIS, the airstrikes have mostly landed in areas miles away from ISIS-held territory, including those controlled by the Western-backed opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's government forces. Moscow has countered this by simply calling every group it attacks ISIS, and replacing contradictory information with Moscow's own. Sergey Lavrov, the foreign minister, offered this definition of Moscow's targets at the United Nations: "If it looks like a terrorist, if it walks like a terrorist, if it acts like a terrorist, if it fights like a terrorist, it's a terrorist."
Dmitry Peskov, Putin's spokesman, flat out denied that a speech on Wednesday by Abdallah Al-Mouallimi, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the U.N., criticizing the strikes had so much as taken place, despite the fact that it was broadcast live on television. "There is a lot of distorted, repurposed, and false information" in foreign media, Peskov said.
Glaring discrepancies between official accounts and the reality on the ground are hardly rare in wartime, or unique to Russia. In the U.S., military intelligence analysts are in near-open revolt over assessments of Washington's campaign against ISIS they say are too rosy. Independent reports strongly suggest the airstrikes have killed thousands more civilians than U.S. Central Command admits. Russia's millenarian language of a global "holy war" against the "hydra" of terrorism — defined in the broadest terms as anyone fighting Moscow and its proxies — owes much to George W. Bush's war on terror, crucial in shaping Putin's worldview in the early years of his presidency. So, too, does Putin's legal authorization for the war, which does not name the target country or set a deadline for an end. His ultimate goal, after all, is not to win battles, but to end Russia's geopolitical isolation and show up the U.S. — a point that resonated with, of all people, Donald Trump, who said, "In terms of leadership he is getting an 'A,' and our president is not doing so well."
The framing of Russia's Syrian gambit has clear roots in Moscow's shaping of the Ukrainian conflict, which Putin still denies Russia had anything to do with despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary, and where events on the ground often play second fiddle to the Kremlin's domestic narrative. War correspondents from state-owned media have deserted the conflict in eastern Ukraine in droves to resurface in Syria. Vladimir Soloviev, a popular host on the Rossiya channel, told a reporter beamed in by video link from Damascus that he was "the little green man [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko and all of America are so scared of," referring to the Russian special forces without insignia who seized Crimea last year.
Some of those reports appear to marshal Russian public opinion, which broadly opposes military intervention, behind the strikes by convincing them of the threat ISIS poses to Russia — as much as they warned of the "fascist" menace in Ukraine. On Thursday, Russian jets carried out airstrikes in northwestern Syria against the Army of Conquest, a coalition that includes several Russian-speaking militant groups and has ties to the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's local franchise — but none to ISIS. Weeks earlier, LifeNews, a TV channel with strong ties to Russia's security services, broadcasted a report from Latakia, the base from which Russia is conducting operations, claiming that ISIS had sent veterans of the Chechen separatist wars to Syria.
Experts say Russia's intent to target groups beyond ISIS is likely to unite the myriad Islamist militias there against Moscow. Two Russian-speaking insurgent groups, one mostly comprising ethnic Uzbeks and one with a sizable Caucasian and Tajik contingent, pledged allegiance to Nusra as Russia built up its presence in Latakia over the last week. Earlier in September, Abu Abdullah Taftanaz, a commander of the Army of Conquest, tweeted a message of defiance to the "infidel Russians," vowing to "slaughter your pigs."
Should the campaign spark a blowback against Russia, it would play to the apocalyptic notion of the greater geopolitical conflict in which Russia believes it is embroiled. Putin has repeatedly said the U.S. funded pro-Western "color revolutions" in Ukraine and the chaos of the Arab Spring, which he thinks were dress rehearsals for a plot to oust him. In a speech previewing the airstrike campaign at the U.N. on Monday, Putin said the "export of revolutions, so-called democratic ones" by "an aggressive foreign interference" had "resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself."
On Rossiya, the neo-Stalinist writer Alexander Prokhanov, whose appearances on state TV are a reliable barometer of the Kremlin's desire to fan ultranationalism, told Russians to stop listening to music and watching game shows and start "personal mobilization" for a greater civilizational battle. The Syrian campaign, Prokhanov said, would teach Russia how to deal with "color revolutions" waged online in the same way ISIS recruits militants. "It's symptomatic that the Ministry of Defense is procuring supplies to combat [color] revolutions," he said. "We need to study ISIS as a structure," he added, "because it's a wave of ideology, a wave of emotions, it's a movement of young people going insane."