Russia Syria
Russian President Vladimir Putin is not prepared to change his stance regarding the regime of Syrian President Bashar al AssadReuters

As – quite seriously – Russia's main television weather forecaster notes that while Moscow is getting colder and wetter, October offers "ideal" bombing conditions in Syria, the question is just how the Kremlin's latest military adventure is being pitched at home.

After all, this is a country where the state controls or influences most of the media and can craft its message as it likes. But as President Vladimir Putin may discover, sometimes the propaganda can actually limit policy and become a future embarrassment. Four broad and equally triumphalist themes have emerged in the official line.

The first is an upbeat take on the pinpoint accuracy and devastating impact of the Russian bombing raids. Despite certain Western doubts as to the precision of some of the attacks, Russian viewers have been treated to grainy gun-camera footage of flaring explosions that they are told are Islamic State (IS) command centres and barracks (and reports contrasting that with the apparent US air strike on a hospital in the Afghan city of Kunduz).

The corollary is that this is a mission which is safe for Russians and dangerous for the enemy. Dozens of air strikes have been launched, with no planes downed or pilots killed or captured. Defence ministry spokesman Colonel General Andrei Kartapolov gave an upbeat take when he said: "Intelligence says that militants are leaving controlled areas. Panic and desertion has started among them. About 600 mercenaries have left their positions and are trying to flee to Europe."

Indeed, the ever-hyperbolic Pravda news site went so far as to report some three thousand militants on the run. At this rate, Russian viewers must be thinking the war will be over soon. Even though the Kremlin has outlined no clear exit strategy, the airy reassurances from parliamentarian Alexei Pushkov that this deployment will only last "three to four months" even sound like pessimism.

No wonder that, according to the Russian media, everyone – except a disgruntled and partisan United States – is impressed by and supportive of Russia's unilateral action. Meanwhile, fighting Isis in Syria is very much presented as a way of preventing it from spreading at home.

So the official line is that Russia's Syrian mission is militarily flawless, heading for a quick victory, being lauded around the world, and helping security in Russia. No wonder most Russians seem currently happy with being embroiled in yet another military adventure.

Russia in Syria: Air strikes, Isis and Putin's goals explained in 60 secondsIBTimes UK

However, the Kremlin's propaganda not only tells us what its current concerns may be, they also create a series of expectations for the future.

The need to present the Syrian operation as quick, triumphant, and – for Russians – bloodless is in implicit contrast to the Kremlin's undeclared war in Ukraine's south-eastern Donbas region. There, local proxies, backed by regular Russian troops, have become bogged down in a conflict that has not only left Moscow diplomatically and economically isolated, but also has led to a steady trickle of "cargo 200s," the army term for combat deaths.

As the economy continues to decline – and now the World Bank has revised even next year's forecast downward, from a 0.7% recovery to a further 0.6% slide – the Kremlin is increasingly relying on a nationalist narrative to satisfy the public. With Ukraine no longer delivering feel-good headlines, it is happy to be able to replace it with a new and more positive story.

However, at the back of everyone's minds is the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. What was meant to be a brief, surgical operation in 1979 to install a new leadership and over-awe Islamist rebels became a ten-year war in which the Soviets sustained more than 15,000 casualties. The emphasis on the early successes and the implicit promises that this deployment will last only a few months are clear attempts to head off fears that this could become another quagmire.

But are those reassurances plausible? For all Moscow's claims, this relatively limited deployment of air power is not going to win the war for Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. At best, it gives his regime a breathing space to regroup and rearm.

Russia air strikes Syria weather forecast
Great weather for a bombing runRossiya 24

When will Moscow feel it has done enough to be able to withdraw – and what will it do the next time the tide of the war turns against Damascus? As importantly, how will it respond to the inevitable accidents, surprises and reversals of war? When, say, a suicide truck bomb blasts its air base at Latakia, or a captured pilot is beheaded on video, or a Russian advisor is gunned down on the streets of Damascus?

What does Putin do then? If he pulls his troops out, he avoids the threat of a new Afghanistan but loses face. After all, ordinary Russians are being told this is a short, victorious little war, and suddenly they are seeing their country cut and run.

He could try to ignore what happened, but even if suppressed in the Russian media, between the internet and the grapevine, the word will get out. The Soviets discovered when they tried to pretend there was no war in Afghanistan that once people have reason to disbelieve your propaganda on one point, they start to question it more generally.

Or maybe he will succumb to the common temptation for "one more push" and Moscow will become more and more deeply mired in this messy civil war.

Meanwhile, more and more terrorist groups in the Russian North Caucasus are pledging allegiance to Isis. If anything, the Syrian adventure is likely to galvanise them into launching new attacks. All those promises of a quick, surgical victory, respect abroad and security at home are likely soon to sound depressingly hollow.


Dr Mark Galeotti is Professor of Global Affairs at New York University and Director of its Initiative for the Study of Emerging Threats.