As Russia escalates Syria bombing, the 1980s war that killed 15,000 Soviet soldiers weighs heavy on the minds of many.
Most Russians support their country’s military operation in Syria – but with limitations.
The air strikes have demonstrated Russia’s might, turned the course of the war, and made sure that Russia is once again treated as a world power on a par with the United States. And all at little cost.
When Russia began its air campaign on September 30, there were fears it would turn into a repeat of the disastrous Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in late 1979, which ended nine years later with thousands dead and a humiliating withdrawal.
Those fears have been dispelled as President Vladimir Putin has kept his word that there will be no ground action.
Denis Kuzichov, a 36-year-old artist in Moscow, said he supports Russia’s involvement in Syria as long as it is limited to air strikes.
“If we’re talking about bombing terrorists and the fight against incorrect forms of Islam, then yeah,” Kuzichov said.
“If our ground troops move in, and by that I mean if they start giving weapons to people on the ground – tanks, heavy guns – then of course it’s bad.”
|UpFront – Ukraine, Russia and a new cold war|
Most Russians judge the situation in Syria based on what they see on state television, said Nataliya Zorkaya, who heads the social and political survey department at the Levada Centre, an independent polling agency.
The news programmes on Kremlin-controlled television have shown Russia’s strategic bombers and new long-range cruise missiles making direct hits on targets described as assets of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).
The reports have noted the threat posed to Russia by ISIL, which has won the allegiance of armed fighters operating in Russia and recruited thousands of Russian citizens to join the battle in Syria.
The news broadcasts also have featured interviews with displaced Syrians who have been able to return home after Russian air raids helped the Syrian army to liberate their town.
Foreign reports about Russian bombs destroying hospitals or killing civilians have been denied by the Kremlin and spurned as Western attempts to smear Russia.
“The West has blamed us for something or other since ancient times,” said Yulia Zhalbe, a 28-year-old Muscovite. “But if you notice, Russia has never been the first to strike. We just protect our own.”
Zhalbe said she supports Russia’s intervention in Syria because she has trust in Putin and “our president is always right”.
Cost of war
Russia has lost three men in Syria, including a pilot killed when his warplane was shot down by a Turkish jet in November and a marine who died on a mission to rescue the pilot’s crewmate. Blame for the two deaths was put on Turkey,and Putin struck back hard by imposing an array of economic sanctions and deploying more weapons to Syria.
In recent weeks, Russian television has provided heavy coverage of the flurry of diplomacy leading up to the week-old ceasefire for Syria reached by Russia and the US.
In announcing the agreement in a televised address after speaking with US President Barack Obama, Putin portrayed the cease-fire as the achievement of Russia and the US working together as partners.
The deal has allowed Putin to cast Russia as indispensable to a settlement of the nearly five-year-old conflict and a world power equal to the US.
Nearly 60 percent of Russians support the Russian air strikes in Syria, according to a Levada Center poll. Of the remainder, about 25 percent said they did not support them, and 15 percent said they had trouble answering. The poll, conducted January 22-25, had a margin of error of 3.4 percentage points.
Critics of the Syria campaign have called it an unnecessary expense at a time of economic crisis. But by limiting its presence in Syria, the Kremlin has been able to keep spending on the military operations to an estimated $2mn to $4mn a day, an easily sustainable level even for the crisis-stricken Russian economy.
The military intervention, Russia’s first outside the former Soviet Union since the 1991 Soviet collapse, also helps deflect attention from economic problems and build national pride at a difficult time.
For most Russians, the worsening economy and inflation are more immediate concerns than a military operation far from Russia’s borders.
“What’s important to me? It’s important to bring up children, but probably the economy,” said Sergei Kabatsyn, a 45-year-old resident of the southern Krasnodar region who was sightseeing in Moscow with his wife and teenage daughter.
But Kabatsyn said he was following the news about Syria and supports Russia’s policy.
|Russia halts air strikes as Syria truce takes hold|