Russian media avoid invoking memories of Afghanistan in the Kremlin’s ‘righteous’ Syrian war
Tunis- As Russian and US special forces square off along the banks of the Euphrates River in Syria, risking a further escalation in the country’s long war, Russian media are engaged in a battle of their own. They are trying to justify the moral force of Russia’s Middle Eastern mission while avoiding any comparison to the country’s involvement in the Soviet Union’s military debacle in Afghanistan.
For the Kremlin, the stakes are high. Russia has established an operating base at Latakia in Syria and benefits from lucrative arms deals that come with being a principal player in one of the world’s bloodiest conflicts. Despite these possible gains, public enthusiasm for the war remains tepid. A recent Levada poll stated that 49% of Russians asked said they supported the country’s withdrawal from Syria and 32% expressed concern over becoming embroiled in a bloody repeat of past Afghan adventures.
For Russia’s media, the challenges are relatively clear. Despite Western preconceptions that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is a totalitarian state, independent media and public dissent do exist.
However, over the past decade, vaguely worded legislation, ostensibly intended to target extremism and public disorder, has been used to, Freedom House said, “intimidate journalists and encourage self-censorship.”
The goal has been to position potential deviations from the official state line beyond the realm of legal safeguards. As such, much of the Russian media maintain a consistent line in which the conflict in Syria comes to readers filtered through the prism of patriotism and imbued with the bellicose rhetoric of the Cold War.
When the bloodshed of Aleppo was at its highest and accusations of war crimes were abounding, Russia Today ran regular reports of the Syrian Army’s humanitarian relief efforts within the city. Earlier this year, as the world recoiled in horror over the sarin gas attack at Khan Shaykhun, the state-owned Sputnik news network blamed the “staged”’ attack on Qatari news channel Al Jazeera.
Throughout the war, the Kremlin has shown itself to be intensely cautious over how the Syrian conflict is presented to the Russian public.
“The Russian media [are] very careful with Syria coverage because the Kremlin does not want news of Russian casualties to be prominently featured,” said Natalia Antonov, a Moscow-based writer and associate editor of openDemocracy Russia. “Since the vast majority of the media in Russia [are] docile, you end up with a situation in which coverage is tightly controlled.”
Russia’s armed opposition to religiously inspired violence predates its involvement in Syria. It is as hard-wired into much of the popular psyche as the country’s place at the forefront of the world’s nations, allowing opinion writers an easy context in which to place Russia’s role in Syria’s violence.
“The majority of Russians see their country’s involvement in the Syrian conflict as part of the fight against global Islamic ‘terrorism’, a continuation of the fight against Chechen militants,” said Lilit Gevorgyan, the Russia and Commonwealth of Independent States senior economist at IHS Markit, referring to Russia’s protracted battles upon its southern border.
While this may be the case, bitter memories of Afghanistan, as well as the closer conflict in Ukraine, conspire to play their roles in limiting how Russian troops are deployed and how the Russian media narrative is shaped. “If anything, involvement in Syria has brought back the memories of the disastrous war in Afghanistan,” Gevorgyan said.
The Soviet Union lost nearly 14,500 of its soldiers in the Afghan war. Nearly every Russian family has at least one member who was wounded or killed during the ten years of a conflict that few understood.
However, for those on the ground, the conflicting narratives can be bewildering.
“People in Russia who watch TV and the news support our involvement in Syria. Those who don’t believe our mass media have their own opinion on this,” said Anya Mitrofanova, a freelance translator and designer in Moscow. “In Russian news, it’s only black and white. They don’t give space for a doubt. It’s only bad and good. We are good. They are bad. We are right. They are wrong.”