Is Putin using Syria to distract Russians from hardships at home?

Alan Philps writes: In Moscow, enormous efforts are in hand to raise spirits. During the balmy evenings, spectacular sound and light shows are projected on to such monuments as the Bolshoi Theatre and St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square, all with a strongly patriotic soundtrack.

With people enjoying the last of the warmth before the onset of winter, it is hard to detect a sense of impending doom. But the storm clouds are gathering. With inflation at 16 per cent, the oil price low and Russia unable to borrow from western financial markets, the only real prospect is gradual impoverishment of the poor and middle classes. The super rich can move their wealth abroad and speak confidently of Russia’s “resilience”, which they say is always underestimated by the West.

So far the grim economic prospects have been cushioned by the undeniable popularity of the annexation of Crimea, territory that most Russians believe is a historic part of the Motherland and came under Ukrainian rule by accident. For the past year, the mood has been: there may be no cheese – or even worse, there may be cheese made with palm oil – “but at least Crimea is ours”. Television, a powerful tool of state propaganda, has pumped out the story of American and European connivance with Hitler-loving Ukrainian “fascists” to threaten Russia.

But Mr Putin’s Ukrainian adventure is stuck. The separatists he has supported in the east of the country are a rough and unruly bunch, and incapable of uniting the local population. As he tries to focus attention away from Ukraine, he has found a new enemy and new adventure in Syria. [Continue reading…]

The Daily Beast reports: 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. [Continue reading…]

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