[Rushtalk] Putin has a big problem in Syria that no one is talking about

Carl Spitzer lynux at keepandbeararms.com
Thu Oct 15 13:45:13 MDT 2015

Putin has a big problem in Syria that no one is talking about

Updated by Amanda Taub on September 30, 2015, 2:10 p.m. ET @amandataub

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Russian President Vladimir Putin.John Moore/Getty Images

Putin has a big problem in Syria — one to which Western coverage of the
Russian military intervention in Syria has not paid much attention.

Namely, the intervention is not at all popular with Russians themselves.
Because Putin's personal popularity is key to his political longevity,
that could be a very serious matter indeed for the Russian leader.

A recent poll by Moscow's Levada Center shows that only a small minority
of Russians support giving Bashar al-Assad direct military support. Only
39 percent of respondents said they supported Russia's policy toward the
Assad regime. When asked what Russia should do for Assad, 69 percent
opposed direct military intervention. A tiny 14 percent of respondents
said that Russia should send troops or other direct military support to

It's clear that Putin is taking those concerns seriously. In what seems
to be an attempt to shore up public opinion among Russians who are
worried about casualties in a faraway war, the Kremlin has already
promised that only volunteers, not conscripts, will be sent to Syria,
and that the military intervention will consist only of airstrikes.

But Putin's public opinion problems on Syria could be just the
beginning. Russia's economy is already struggling, and a new war will be
an expensive additional burden. If Russia's presence in Syria makes its
forces a target of terrorist attacks there, or, worse, if it coincides
with attacks at home, that could damage public opinion even further.

Russians' skepticism of Putin's Syria policy is especially stark when
contrasted with the overwhelmingly positive response to his actions in
Ukraine. That was a huge boost to Putin's popularity, helping his regime
weather Russia's 2014 economic problems with high public support. But
the Ukraine intervention led to sanctions on Russia, which proved
unpopular with the Russian elites.

That's a problem for Putin, because he needs to keep elites happy in
order to maintain their vital political support for his regime. If, as
some commentators have suggested, the Syria intervention is an attempt
to gain leverage to force the West to lift sanctions, then Putin may
find that it simply exchanges one problem for another: Instead of public
popularity and elite frustration, he would have happier elites but a
less supportive public.

And that's assuming it works, which it might not. For one thing, it's
not clear that Putin will be able use Syria to gain leverage at all,
which could mean that he is left with a less enthusiastic
public and still has no sanctions relief to offer elites.

Even if Putin does manage to pull it all off, using his unpopular
intervention in Syria as a bargaining chip to reduce Western sanctions
on Russia, the trade-off might not be worth it.

As Russian analyst Alexander Verkhovsky explained to me when I met with
him in Moscow last spring, Putin's popularity is his "principal
resource." As long as Putin is popular, his position is fairly secure.
But if his popularity ratings falter, then he risks being pushed out of
office by Russian elites in favor of someone else who can better protect
their interests — as Verkhovsky put it, he can be "changed for another
guy, even someone from the same [Putinist] circle." So even if Putin is
able leverage the intervention in Syria to offer elites the sanctions
relief they want, that may come at too high a political price.

To be clear, none of this means that Syria will be enough to overcome
Putin's reportedly sky-high approval, nor does it mean that one
unpopular Mideast adventure is going to bring the downfall of the Putin
government. But Putin's hold on power, as solid as it might look from
the outside, isn't; it's beset by a number of problems and, at the
moment, is premised in large part on overwhelming public support. With
elites alienated, a hit to his poll numbers is also a hit to his basic
legitimacy. That's a precarious position to be in, particularly given
Russia's current economic downturn. No single unpopular policy is going
to bring it all crashing down, but the point is that he's not in a
position to go gambling with his popularity, and yet he's just done
exactly that.

In other words, while it may look like Putin is pursuing a grand,
brilliant gamble in Syria, the reality is that he may have just made the
worst kind of bet: one in which he'll be the big loser at home, no
matter the outcome in Syria.

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