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Superpower For A Week

On to Syria!
On to Syria!

Suddenly, Vladimir Putin is master of the universe again.

Not only is Russia upending the conflict in Syria, Moscow is now making noises about intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan as well.

And as it moves -- or feigns moving -- into hotspots the United States has withdrawn from, the Kremlin has also begun mimicking American methods of selling its Syria campaign to the public.

Russian television has taken to showing grainy footage of alleged pinpoint airstrikes on what Moscow claims are terrorist command centers in Syria and the Defense Ministry has released regular shock-and-awe videos of the war's progress.

"War in Syria is a perfect picture: explosions, airplanes," Russian satirist Viktor Shenderovich told The Daily Beast.

"These are very exciting scenes to watch: Our MiG and Su planes bombing everything makes people feel a bit more confident about their attitude to life, so that they do not want to check what they have in the fridge."

Russia is no superpower. But Putin & Co. certainly know how to make an exciting movie about being one.

First we take Damascus, and then we take...Baghdad? Kabul? Never mind the details. Russia is back and it's on the march.

On October 6, Federation Council speaker Valentina Matviyenko said Russia would consider expanding its air campaign to Iraq if asked.

A day later, Hakim al-Zamili, the head of the defense and security committee in Iraq's parliament said Baghdad "might be forced to ask Russia to launch airstrikes in Iraq soon."

Russia has also deployed Mi-24P attack helicopters at a military base in Tajikistan near the border with Afghanistan. Around the same time, Afghanistan's First Vice President Rashid Dostum turned up in Russia, first in Grozny for Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov's birthday celebration and later in Moscow.

It's all been pretty dizzying. And at this point it is hard to discern how much of this is just an spectacle to distract and entertain the public and how much of it is a real effort to claim the superpower mantle by muscling into the minefield that is the Middle East.

But it may not matter. Because while getting into the Middle East may be easy, getting out in one piece can be a bitch. Putin's little action movie can -- and probably will -- quickly turn into a rather unpleasant reality show.

The war in the Middle East is not a "media conflict" and it is not "a hybrid war in which polite little green men can cope," Moscow-based sociologist and political commentator Denis Sokolov wrote in Vedomosti.

"For the almost half a million combatants fighting there it is a very real war."

Whatever Moscow's motives in Syria -- and whatever its intentions are beyond Syria -- this will not be a replay of the conflict in Ukraine, where Russia was pretty much free to control the sequencing of events.

Writing in the International Business Times, New York University Professor and Russian security expert Mark Galeotti noted that managing and marketing the war may be easy now -- but the Kremlin's confidence and the public's support won't last long.

"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?" Galeotti wrote.

"What does Putin do then?"

What, indeed.

"It looks like we've learned nothing from Afghanistan," Valery Solovei, a professor at the elite Moscow State Institute of International Relations, wrote in Facebook, referring to the Soviet Union's 1979-89 war in that country that killed 15,000 soldiers.

"History is about to repeat another tragedy."

But for now, Russia is a superpower again -- at least on television.

About This Blog

The Power Vertical
The Power Vertical

The Power Vertical is a blog written especially for Russia wonks and obsessive Kremlin watchers by Brian Whitmore. It offers Brian's personal take on emerging and developing trends in Russian politics, shining a spotlight on the high-stakes power struggles, machinations, and clashing interests that shape Kremlin policy today. Check out The Power Vertical Facebook page or


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