War-themed rhetoric has helped the Russian government control crisis-related discontent, but it could backfire.
“And here goes Syria as well. They will be sending Russian troops to Syria, I thought,” says the 53-year-old Afghan war veteran. “Politicians take decisions, and we, the military men, follow orders.”
In 1987, as the war was raging on in Afghanistan, Isaev – then a fresh military college graduate – was waiting to leave for Libya, where he was to work as a military instructor. Just weeks before his departure, the military administration discovered a problem in his papers: He was not a member of the Communist Party. Isaev says he refused to join the party and as a result was sent to fight in Afghanistan. His deployment lasted until the Soviet army withdrew in 1989.
“According to official statistics, 13,400 [Soviet troops] died [in Afghanistan] and I consider that they died in vain,” he says. “We did not need this war.”
Isaev feels the same way about Russian interventions abroad in general, including the war in Syria.
“Russia should not participate. During the Great Patriotic War [World War II], people died for their country, they defended their own country. Now [in Syria], who are we defending?”
At the same time, Isaev says that Russia should be fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS), which he considers a threat. It is Russia’s duty, he says, and air raids on ISIL are a good thing.
Isaev’s attitudes towards the Russian intervention in Syria, while seemingly contradictory, reflect popular opinion in Russia.
According to a poll conducted by independent polling centre Levada in October 2015, some 72 percent of Russians approved of Russia’s “air strikes on ISIL”, which is how the Kremlin framed its intervention in state media at that time. The military deployment was necessary in order to stop the threat from ISIL reaching Russian borders, the government rhetoric claimed – although within the first days of Russian bombardment, the Syrian opposition reported that its positions were targeted.
Two years into Russia’s military operation in Syria, Levada Center conducted another poll which showed that almost half of the respondents wanted the intervention to end.
Part of the public concern has been over the deaths of Russian troops in Syria. Currently, the official number of Russian army personnel who have died in Syria is 40, but media reports have claimed that the number could be higher, as the military reportedly pressures families of dead soldiers not to speak out. The official number also does not include Russian mercenaries currently fighting in Syria.
More recently the opposition has also started discussing the war in economic terms, claiming that within the current economic crisis, Russia cannot afford to spend so much on a foreign war.
“A lot of money from the state budget is being spent on this war, while 17-20 percent of the population live below the poverty line,” says Elena Slesareva, press secretary for the presidential campaign of opposition leader Alexei Navalny.
Opposition party Yabloko has estimated that the war has cost the Russian federal budget at least $2.4bn, a number that does not include some costs, including funding for Russian mercenaries.
While there appear to be signs of war-weariness among the Russian public, they have not translated into strong anti-war rhetoric or reaction. There has been no public interest in discussing civilian deaths caused by Russian aerial bombardment in Syria, which within the first four months of the intervention had reached at least 1,000, according to monitoring groups. The official narrative that Russia uses “precision” air raids and therefore does not cause a significant number of civilian deaths has been widely accepted.
Unlike the war in Ukraine, which provoked public outrage and large antiwar rallies in 2014, the military intervention in Syria has not drawn any comparable condemnation.
According to human rights activist Sergey Davidis, who participated in a small anti-war protest in October 2015, the general attitude of approval of the Russian intervention persists.
He points out that the majority of Russians, including part of the opposition, have bought into the state narrative of the war as an anti-terror operation against ISIL.
“A society in which Islamophobia and fear of Islamic terrorism and migration are well spread does not really worry so much about a war waged far away against unpleasant and dangerous people,” he said.
In his opinion, the opposition, which overwhelmingly rejected the war in Ukraine, perceives the situation in Syria as “bad Putin fighting some other bad people” and has not been so vocal in its condemnation.
At the peak of international attention over the siege on Aleppo in November 2016, a group of activists, including Davidis, sought to hold a protest but the Russian authorities banned it. Davidis says the ban was unlawful and he has taken the state to court over it.
At the same time, official rhetoric continues to portray the intervention as largely successful and many have agreed.
“In my opinion, two years into Russia’s anti-terrorist operation in Syria, the results have exceeded expectations,” says Elena Suponina, a Moscow-based Middle East researcher. “Russia managed to achieve a lot of its goals in Syria at no serious cost or losses.”
She says that Levada’s opinion poll does not necessarily mean less support for the Russian army fighting in Syria. Russians wanting the end of the operation does not mean they want it “quickly”, she says.
Yet the possibility of a prolonged conflict is something that does worry some part of the Russian public. In the same Levada survey, some 32 percent of the respondents agreed that Syria could become Russia’s “new Afghanistan”.
According to Suponina, no one knows how long Russia’s operation in Syria will continue, but the Russian army will continue fighting until “the sovereignty of Syria has been restored”.