Syrian War Is Next Great Russian Reality TV Show
Photo by Guillaume Piolle, published under CC-BY-3.0
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While Moscow has managed to shift the publics attention away from it’s clandestine war in Ukraine to its latest military adventure in Syria, is the Russian public throwing their support behind a military operation, or a televised spectacle?

From the vertiginous heights of Ostankino, it was decided that Russia’s first war outside of the Soviet Union since its invasion of Afghanistan would be a gala event. Among a population reeling from the loss of empire, nothing says we are back like a foreign military campaign. But just like the collapse of the Soviet Union itself, Afghanistan had come to represent a time of trauma many have struggled to leave behind. 

As one popular Afghan war song goes, “drink to those who gave their live for the happiness of others; who can’t see their own mothers through zinc coffins.”

In some ways, the Soviet Union itself was buried in that zinc coffin. The East, as Russians know, is a delicate affair, especially when the graveyard of empires is filled with tombstones blanched under the white, desert sun. Returning would not be easy, a reality confirmed by the independent Levada Center, whose polls provided the earliest focus group. 

Less than two weeks before Russian bombs started falling over the Levant, only 15 percent of Russians said they were following events in Syria closely, and an even smaller minority (14 percent) believed Russia should give the regime of Bashar al-Assad direct military support.

But that was before Moscow’s mighty PR blitz got underway. In a land where television is the “only force that can unify and bind” a nation, the Syrian intervention simply needed to be sold. It needn’t remind people of a past trauma, in fact, it could help them reconcile it with the right spin. And seemingly by a stroke of good fortune, a prime time viewing slot had just opened up. 

Following production overruns (read: sanctions), ‘The Great Ukrainian War Show’, Russia’s number one television hit, was seemingly canceled with the ceasefire on September 1. The public needed another 220-volt distraction.Time to pump out a spinoff with even broader international appeal. And thus the Syrian show began, with a little help from old friends. 

Just in case people were unsure of the new cast, star Russian war reporters were shifted from Ukraine to Syria (or in the case of Yevgeny Poddubny, shifted back) to add familiar faces to the new local. 

Round the clock coverage would promise more graphics, glitz and glare than any previous war drama had ever provided the public. 

And then the country’s most beloved action hero came out in full force to market the latest thriller with aplomb. 

Speaking before the UN General Assembly, Russian President Vladimir Putin made waves with a once-in-a-decade appearance before a star-studded audience. And while the sets may change, Putin showed some themes remain constant. The Russian audience, after all, knows a good villain when they see one. 

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Just as Kyiv’s transformation into a child crucifying successor state to the Third Reich forced Moscow to not intervene or aide East Ukraine’s pro-Russian rebels in any way, shape or form (wait, what?), Putin called for an analogous “anti-Hitler coalition” to wage war against ISIS (because really, nazis always sell, haven’t you watched the History Channel?) 

One need not worry if behind the scenes, it appeared that airstrikes supposedly aimed at Islamic State actually helped the terrorist menace gain ground in Aleppo. All of that could be taken out in post production. No, for those watching Russian TV, any target was an ISIS target, even if it wasn’t. Terrorists are fleeing Syria in sheer panic while 64 sorties managed to do what thousands of US sorties didn’t do — “considerably [degrade] the strength of the “terrorist forces in Syria.” 

Crack Russian cops are breaking up ISIS-linked terror plots in the heart of the Russian capital, least one forget that the terrorists are more than willing to take their show on the road. Better to fight them there rather than here, a wise man used to say. 

And now there’s talk of a proxy war looming with the dastardly United States, though this wouldn’t be the first time that scenario had played out in Syria. Call it a short memory, call it nostalgia, but the public loves remakes. And at this rate, sequels may well be guaranteed. 

All in all, it seems that Russians were in need of a messianic mission; a civilizational crusade. In the words of premier spin master Dmitry Kiselyov, Russia would for “the forth time save Europe from enslavement or barbarism” (HITLER!!!, Napoleon and the Mongols being the other three).

All in all, the ratings have been stupendous. Just days after Putin “secured” support from parliament to let the bombs fly, a later Levada poll showed that a full 72 percent of Russians supported the aerial bombardment. What a turnaround! 

Though every great production, of course, has its critics. Following another recent survey conducted by Russia’s state-run VTsIOM, journalist and military expert Alexander Golts was less than amused with his compatriots philistine tastes. 

In his assessment, the majority of Russians approve of war without even being bothered to know what they are fighting for. What’s worse, many Russians are apparently patho-adolescent boys who get “a big kick out of watching television footage of Russian planes locking in and destroying their targets exactly as if it were a video game.”

Such sentiments are evocative of criticisms which popped up during the US-led Gulf War, when first-person perspective missile strikes and the eerie green hue of explosions viewed in night vision gave the highly televised war a futuristic video-game sheen. 

The late, great comedian George Carlin said his favorite thing about the Persian Gulf campaign was “that it was the first war we ever had that was on every channel plus cable.”

The not-so-great comedian Dennis Leary, voicing the atavistic id of America, riffed that he watched the war with “a six foot erection” that had a “giant cheeseburger on the end of it.” 

So Russians are just following their imperial nemesis in learning the value of watching things die from a good, safe distance. 

And based on the American experience, such programming can prove resilient. Just look at Iraq War redux, which was all the rage until too much improvisation on the ground turned the emerald glow of “shock and awe” into a nausea-inducing affair. 

That’s the problem with selling war as entertainment; the public mood can change as quickly as channels. 

As Denis Volkov of the Levada Center told AFP, Russian support for military action in Syria “is an approval rating of a television program rather than an indicator of the mobilization of Russian society.”

“Declaring one’s readiness for war,” he added, “reflects perceptions about the might of the Russian military machine and the army’s symbolic authority rather than one’s readiness to take up arms.” 

And seeing how it’s far more difficult to edit out the sad parts in domestic programming, the desire for symbolic greatness abroad can never completely drown out the constant undercurrent of anxiety in Russian society.  

Even among those who support the Syrian campaign, a full 46 percent believe it is entirely likely (39 percent) or certain (7 percent) the Afghanistan scenario will repeat itself. It’s all fun and games until the zinc coffins start coming home. 

Perhaps that’s why Russia is keeping its head in the clouds without putting boots on the ground. This is not a war for victory in any traditional sense. The only hearts and minds Russia needs to win are its own. This grand show is really just politics by others means. As popular as it may be, this was never planned to be anything more than a limited-run. 

Though, as the horrible fate of one Jordanian pilot attests, the phrase “Махмуд, поджигай!”  risks taking on far darker dimensions for all who take to the Syrian skies. 

Some things were just not made for TV…

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