How Standing Tough on Syria Helps Putin at Home

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Butsenko Anton / ITAR-TASS / Corbis

Russia's President Vladimir Putin, attends a working meeting during the Russia-E.U. summit, in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on June 4, 2013

Have a look at Vladimir Putin’s day planner over the past month, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Russian President has become the most powerful man in the world. Since the start of May, a parade of political giants have flown to Russia to reason with him on the issue of Syria and its civil war. All of them have failed to change his mind, or even his tone, and the only ones left celebrating Russia’s role in the crisis (other than Syrian President Bashar Assad) seem to be the Kremlin’s propaganda men. Just ask Mikhail Leontiev, one of the leading spin doctors on Russian state TV. “The West is running to us,” he told me gleefully on Wednesday, after the latest delegation from Europe had gone. “They need us. They want to talk to us. When was the last time that happened?”

Never, actually. Not once in his political career has Putin received visits from so many of the world’s most powerful statesmen in such a short period of time. In the past four weeks, he has played host to British Prime Minister David Cameron, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — all of whom have implored Putin to stop providing the Syrian military with arms shipments and diplomatic cover.

All of these visitors have politely ignored the fact that Putin’s government has spent the past year carrying out the worst political repressions since the fall of the Soviet Union. And the Western emissaries keep on coming. On June 4, the E.U.’s two most important officials — European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso — rounded out the pageant of political Olympians who have come to nag Putin over Syria. They at least managed to win a vague concession.

(MORE: Syria’s Air-Defense Arsenal: The Russian Missiles Keeping Assad in Power)

During a press conference in Yekaterinburg, Putin said Russia “has not yet realized” its plans to deliver advanced air-defense systems to Syria, fearing that they would “disturb the balance in the region.” This seemed to contradict earlier statements from Putin’s Defense Minister and other senior officials, who have repeatedly said the arms contracts will be carried out. But Putin did not mention Russia’s plans to deliver fighter jets and Yakhont ship-killer missiles Syria. And in their coverage of the civil war, Russia’s state television channels have meanwhile cast Syria as the victim of a bullying Uncle Sam.

On Sunday, June 2, Russia’s leading news program — which airs on Rossiya 24, one of the Kremlin’s mouthpiece networks — broadcast a 12-minute segment about American meddling in Syria. It argued that Washington has formed an alliance with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda in order to “spread chaos” across the Muslim world and then to Russia and China. The host of the show, Dmitri Kiselyov, who is the sort of newsman you might get if Bill O’Reilly were cloned in a Kremlin laboratory, stood before a headline scrawled in letters roughly as tall as him: “The USA and al-Qaeda — a Strategic Union.” The only person who can stop this unholy cabal from achieving “world domination,” the program suggested, is Russia’s Commander in Chief.

Such depths of Cold War mania could previously have been found on the blogs of Russian doom merchants or in the memoirs of Red Army generals. But never has the leading national news show, whose programming is tightly managed by the Kremlin, directly accused Washington of partnering with terrorists in order to conquer the world. On the morning of June 4, the U.S. embassy in Moscow even felt obliged to issue this mind-bending response on its Twitter account: “The U.S. does NOT have a strategic alliance with Al-Qaeda to destabilize the Middle East, Russia and China.”

Such exchanges play well for Putin at home. They help cast Russia as a bulwark against the conniving West, and that resonates with an electorate bred on the imagery of the Cold War. This narrative of dueling civilizations can also help explain Putin’s position on the Syrian crisis. His recalcitrance in supporting Assad has typically been explained in three ways: money, sovereignty and geopolitics. And all of these hold true. Russian firms have billions of dollars in contracts with the Syrian government, including deals to sell arms, drill oil and build infrastructure. Any outside intervention in the affairs of a sovereign state tends to infuriate Putin, who does not want to become the target of such an intervention himself. And on the geopolitical chessboard, the only military base Russia has left outside the former Soviet Union is in the Syrian port of Tartus, a crumbling toehold on the Mediterranean Sea that Moscow is keen to protect.

(MORE: The Syrian Chessboard: Behind the Game Played by Russia, Israel, the U.S. and Other Powers)

But the calculations of Putin’s image makers are no less important in shaping his Syria policy. “It makes him look strong, cool, tough and unyielding,” says Sergei Markov, a longtime Kremlin spinmeister who heads the Political Science Department at Moscow’s Plekhanov Russian University of Economics. “It shows that Putin doesn’t haggle when it comes to Russian interests. He does not yield to Western pressure.”

So there is no reason to expect him to yield, especially when his popularity at home is stagnating. For most of this year Putin’s approval ratings have been stuck at the same levels as December 2011, when massive street protests erupted against him for the first time in his career. Although his ratings remain comfortably above 50% in all the major polls, the Kremlin has not found a cure for the political tedium the nation feels after almost 13 years under the same man’s rule. “His policies on homeland security, corruption, the economy and so on, they have all been steadily losing support,” says Masha Lipman, a political analyst at the Carnegie Center in Moscow. “But not his foreign policy. That is still the most popular factor in his overall rating.”

In the past year or so, Lipman says, his foreign policy has amounted to this: “The Americans want to boss everyone around, but we’re not going to let them.” That makes it vital for Putin to keep his horns locked with Washington, and there is no prettier way to do that than to rebuff the requests of one groveling Western delegation after another. “Our policy in relation to Syria is a huge success,” said Leontiev, the spin doctor, who hosts a prime-time news-and-analysis show on Channel One, the state’s biggest network. “At first they tried to insult us. Then they tried to intimidate us. Now they want to negotiate with us. This is one of the rare instances in our foreign policy when we have come out absolutely on top.” Lipman puts it this way: “The Russian people think it’s great Putin can get away with this. It’s the old story of Russia rising from its knees.”

On June 2, that old story rounded out the weekly news program on Rossiya 24. Immediately after exposing the alleged U.S. alliance with terrorists, the program showed the Russian military “preparing to meet the enemy” near the border with Europe. Over footage of fighter jets taking off from an airfield a voiceover explained, “From this base they will carry out retaliatory strikes against our likely opponents.” The next shot showed Putin in his Kremlin office, praising the vigilance of the Russian Defense Minister. The Commander in Chief could not have looked more pleased.

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