Russia Celebrates a Triumph for Putin After Clinching Syria Deal

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Mikhail Klimentyev / AFP / Getty Images

Russia's President Vladimir Putin and his aide Yuri Ushakov attend a session of Shanghai Cooperation Organization summit, in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, Sept. 13, 2013.

On Sunday night, the anchor of the main weekly news show on Russian state TV went on the air with a jubilant grin on his face. Only a week earlier, Dmitri Kiselyov had warned his viewers about the rise of “American fascism,” which was about to claim the Syrian regime as its victim just as Germany had swallowed up Poland in 1939. But on Sunday he announced that this threat had subsided, and the world had President Vladimir Putin to thank. “The diplomatic duel” between the Moscow and Washington over what to do with Syria’s chemical weapons had ended in “the great victory of Russia,” Kiselyov declared, while the Obama Administration had seen its “geopolitical amateurishness swept away, leaving only the ruins of narcissism.”

Although it may not have been the most decorous way to celebrate, this was the tone that Putin’s image makers took after the U.S. and Russia reached an accord over Syria this weekend. It was, in many ways, a unique opportunity for them. Only a few days ago, Syrian President Bashar Assad, a close Russian ally, was preparing to face a U.S. military attack. American warships were poised to cripple Assad’s military infrastructure in retaliation for his alleged use of chemical weapons last month against his own people. Russia, which insisted that any strike against Syria must have the approval of the U.N. Security Council, was being shoved to the edge of the Syrian debate. And in the course of a couple of days, Putin managed to offer a solution that would not only forestall another American war in the Middle East but put Russia in the role of a global peacemaker. It has been at least a generation since Russia pulled off such a deft diplomatic maneuver.

So even Putin’s most vocal critics could not avoid singing his praises, albeit through gritted teeth. “On state TV they are busy bestowing sainthood on their dear leader as usual,” says Mikhail Kasyanov, a former Prime Minister under Putin who is now one of the leaders of the opposition against him. “This is in the Soviet tradition of controlling the tone of the media,” he tells TIME. But when pressed on whether he would have done anything differently on the issue of Syria’s chemical weapons, Kasyanov admits that he would not. “If this agreement is enforced, this is good not only for the world but for the [Russian] opposition as well,” he says. “That’s simply because this is in the national interests of the Russia.”

Although no fresh opinion polls have yet been released since this weekend’s negotiations in Geneva, they are almost sure to give Putin and his diplomatic corps a boost in the ratings. But that is not because Assad’s regime has been rescued from a U.S. strike, says Alexei Grazhdankin, a sociologist at the Levada Center, an independent pollster in Moscow. “Syria is too far away to garner much interest among the [Russian] population,” he says. What matters to Putin’s electorate is how he manages relations with Washington. A harsh confrontation with the U.S. boosts Putin’s popularity at home, because it plays well with the older generation of voters raised on the dogmas of the Cold War. But any warming of relations also plays well for Putin, especially when it puts Russia in the position of an equal and respected partner. “It hurts him when Russia is ignored or belittled,” Grazhdankin says. “But here Russia has taken a respected position, showing itself to be a serious player on the global arena. This naturally inspires positive emotions.”

That much was clear from the broadcasts this weekend on state TV. Recalling the G-20 summit of world leaders earlier this month, when Putin and Obama first discussed the idea of bringing Syria’s chemical weapons under international control, Kiselyov claimed that Obama had been “pulled to Putin like a magnet” on the sidelines of the summit. (The New York Times, citing U.S. diplomats, has reported that Putin in fact approached Obama at the summit.) After considering the Russian proposal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons peacefully, “It seems Obama found a way to save face, to scare everyone but not take any sin on his soul,” the Russian anchor said on Sunday’s program, which aired on the state-run channel Rossiya 1. Kiselyov’s colleagues at the NTV network, another Kremlin-backed channel, also used their chance to cast the U.S. as a bully whom Putin has managed to tame. “In modern history there are no examples of anyone convincing the U.S. not to use force,” NTV said on its Sunday news program. After Putin’s mediation, the NTV report added: “Even the American hawks have folded up their wings.”

Both networks continued pushing Russia’s official line on the issue of blame for the chemical weapons attack that struck near Damascus on August 21. In its program on Sunday, Rossiya 1 claimed that Syrian rebels with links to international terrorist groups staged the attack as a “provocation” to pull the U.S. and its allies into Syria’s civil war. This claim will likely come up again at the U.N. Security Council, which is expected to meet in the coming days to review the U.N. investigation into the incident. Although the U.N. inspectors were not authorized to rule on who was responsible for the attacks, their report found “clear and convincing evidence” that chemical weapons were in fact used to kill civilians. While the U.S. has laid the blame on Assad’s forces, Russia still points the finger at the rebel side—consensus on that front in Syria among the members of the U.N. Security Council still looks a distant prospect.

In the meantime, Russian hawks were offered a new enemy to rail against on Sunday. Both Rossiya 1 and NTV aired lengthy segments about the dangers coming from China, with Rossiya 1 warning of Beijing’s encroachments in the Russian Arctic while NTV reported that Chinese farmers were poisoning Russian soil with illegal pesticides. Such scare-mongering on Russian state TV has usually been reserved for the supposed American menace, at least while the U.S. and Russia have been at odds over Syria. But as those tensions eased over the weekend, the hysterical comparisons between the U.S. and Nazi Germany faded away, and the Kremlin’s spinmeisters got a chance to spike the football for their President.