Staunton, February 15 – The Russian foreign ministry today finally confirmed that five Russians were killed by US forces in Syria, far fewer than many other sources have reported but an indication that the Kremlin felt it had to try to put the story behind it by admitting at least that (spektr.press/news/2018/02/15/v-mid-soobschili-o-gibeli-pyati-rossiyan-pri-atake-koalicii-ssha-v-sirii/).
However much Moscow may hope to change the narrative with this announcement, it can do little or nothing to end the discussions in Russia itself about what happened in Syria and why and about what responsibility the Kremlin bears for this latest loss of Russian lives and what Russia should do in response to the American action.
In short, the real “Syrian” story is now in Moscow, and the past 24 hours have been marked by five commentaries that suggest the events of the night of February 7-8 in that Middle Eastern country are going to echo there for some time, posing challenges to the regime in general and Vladimir Putin in particular.
First, Moscow commentator Andrey Volna says that it is clear from what has been reported that the deaths of the Vagner mercenaries was the product of a conflict between the official Russian military and such groups, that the former sacrificed the latter to the Americans, and that the Americans didn’t like being used (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5A84558E3F304).
That is because, he continues, American forces have always sought “to avoid even the theoretical possibility of a military clash with the Russians because of the risk of the escalation of any conflict with a nuclear power.”
But even more, Volna writes, what happened to the Vagner mercenaries reflected “the extremely serious clashes in the highest echelons of the Russian authorities and is testimony of the disintegration of the administration.” It shows that for people at the top, fighting for their selfish interests is more important that defending Russia and Russians as such.
Second, Russian commentator Aleksey Melnikov argues that the reaction of Russian society to what has happened shows that the degeneration of that society has reached a dangerous point, one where Russians appear to have accepted that war is the normal state of being even though the money being spent on war could better be used to fight their poverty (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5A84932298874).
Many are sullenly angry, but they are not taking steps to promote change.
Third, the authorities are lashing out at anyone who challenges either their version of events or raises questions about their intentions, as Igor Eidman, a Russian commentator for Deutsche Welle, documents in their attack on him, and these attacks are so hyperbolic that they suggest a certain desperation at the top (kasparov.ru/material.php?id=5A844D5902C4C).
Fourth, as Igor Yakovenko writes in Yezhednevny zhurnal, there is a sense among Russians that those running their country are ignorant of key realities and think they can proceed by denying what is obvious to others, an attitude that is leading ever more people to lose their trust in the powers that be (ej.ru/?a=note&id=32132).
And fifth, as various commentators have noted, what everyone can see to have happened shows that Moscow’s leaders are incompetent and leading the country in the wrong direction (forum-msk.org/material/power/14346248.html, kasparov.ru/material.
Such feelings may not trigger any serious moves against the regime in the short term, but they are going to make it harder for the Kremlin to maintain the fictions that it has promoted in the past. And that in turn will open a space for Putin’s opponents if they choose to exploit it to challenge what he is doing in new and more damaging ways.