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'Irreproachable' Air Strikes: Russian Media Spin The Syria Offensive

A woman watches a news program showing Russian President Vladimir Putin making a statement about the Syria situation in St. Petersburg on September 30.

MOSCOW -- Russia may have taken the world by surprise when it launched air strikes in Syria, but the media back home in Moscow were more than ready.

By early evening on September 30, hours after the first bombs dropped, prominent pro-Kremlin TV personality Vladimir Solovyov was hosting a “special” two-hour session of his Evening show on state-run Channel One to explain it all to a primetime audience.

“The only foreign power in Syria to provide military support in line with the law is the Russian Federation,” Solovyov told the country in his opening remarks, implicitly condemning the U.S.-led coalition in Syria.

For 18 months, Kremlin-controlled TV had been focused on feeding Russians propaganda about the conflict in Ukraine and President Vladimir Putin’s standoff with the West.

But Putin’s September 28 speech at the UN General Assembly and the start of the air strikes accompanied a grand shift in the narrative. Nowhere was that switch more apparent than on Solovyov’s show: Ukraine was rarely mentioned, and when it was, it was more like an old joke remembered with a knowing smile.

TV host Vladimir Solovyov
TV host Vladimir Solovyov

Laced with anti-Americanism, the show also gave little airtime to the uproar from Syrian rebels, activists and Western officials who made claims -- denied by Moscow -- that Russia’s “pinpoint” strikes had actually hit locations not under IS control, in some cases killing civilians.

State Duma security committee chief Irina Yarovaya praised the military action as a part of what she called Putin’s “uncompromising” campaign against “terrorism” -- a preemptive strike to stop Islamic State (IS) militants from one day training their guns on Russia.

“The United States is playing a virtual game with a joystick, making war and peace, but this is real life for us, the real security of our citizens,” said Yarovaya to applause from the audience.

Presiding coolly in all-black garb evoking a martial-arts master, Solovyov chipped in with a piece of information that seemed meant to bring the Syrian conflict closer to home and justify Moscow’s biggest military intervention outside the ex-Soviet Union since the 1979 invasion of Afghanistan: The distance between Russia and Syria is the same as the distance between Moscow and St. Petersburg.

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Ultranationalist writer Aleksandr Prokhanov entered the discussion with a challenge for “our liberal opponents.”

“Surely they realize that if ISIS reaches the Caucasus, then a third Caucasus war is inevitable?” asked Prokhanov, referring to two devastating wars pitting the Kremlin against Chechen rebels.

Aleksandr Prokhanov
Aleksandr Prokhanov

His remarks and Solovyov’s both echoed Putin’s statement earlier in the day that terrorists and militants must be destroyed before they “come to us.”

A key source of friction in Syria between Russia and the United States is the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who Washington says “drops barrel bombs on innocent children" and must leave power in a “managed transition.”

Moscow says Assad’s government is key to the fight against IS -- a line that was pushed hard by Yevgeny Satanovsky, a Middle East analyst who appeared as a panelist on the Evening show.

"Russia is coordinating its action with the people fighting terrorism, while the greater part of the counterterrorism coalition led by the United States is today financing and organizing war in Syria, supporting those same terrorists."

“How can we understand the Americans? I fear we can’t,” he said.

“But do we need to understand them?” Solovyov questioned.

The air strikes were presaged by an abrupt but lavishly covered parliament vote granting Putin permission to use the Russian military in Syria.

But even in Russia, the first news breaks came from U.S. and Middle Eastern news outlets, while the domestic media seemed slow to get the story -- a point of frustration for observers like Moscow-based blogger Filipp Kireyev.

“Reuters and CNN are writing in caps about Russia’s air strikes against ISIS, but our media is silent. Are we now going to learn everything from the Americans?”

But soon the Russian newspapers and websites caught up.

By late afternoon, pro-Kremlin daily Izvestia ran an opinion column on its website praising the Kremlin for stepping into the breach in the Middle East, blaming the chaos in the Middle East entirely on the West and quoting Putin on the West's Middle East policy: “Now do you understand the mess you’ve made?”

“Syria Looks With Hope To The Skies: Russian Planes Hit Terrorist Positions,” ran popular tabloid Komsomolskaya Pravda’s headline, accompanying a gritty report on the “antipropaganda” effort from a command center filled with tobacco smoke where officers disseminate pro-Damascus propaganda online from computer stations.

In seeking support for the air strikes, the Russian media did not have to rely solely on Russian sources.

On October 1, sensationalist news site LifeNews latched onto comments in which Republican U.S. presidential hopeful Donald Trump said he sided with “the group that says, 'If Russia wants to go and fight ISIS, you should let them.'”

On the Solovyov show, Russian lawmaker Aleksei Aleksandrov told the country that “legal irreproachability” was a crucial aspects of the air strikes.

Aleksandrov said that Assad’s formal request of military support gave the action legitimacy -- a rationale that has been emphasized by the Kremlin and attacked by analysts such as Sam Greene, director of the Russian Institute at King’s College London.

“So, if [Ukrainian President Petro] Poroshenko asks Obama to bomb rebel positions in Donbas, that would be just fine with Putin, presumably,” Greene wrote on Twitter.

Satanovsky suggested that Russia is up against more than militants in Syria, portraying the United States and other countries as contract killers trying to take out Assad.

“We have a problem: They are being honest,” he said of Western nations that have called for Assad’s exit. “An honest killer must carry out the hit, even more so if it’s paid. There was an order to kill Assad. France, Australia, and United States tried their best to fulfill it. But then suddenly we showed up.”

At this point, Solovyov cut him off with a comment that won loud applause.

“We’re also honest,” he reassured Russians. “We say: ‘Nuh-uh, we won’t allow that to happen.”

For all the frenzied focus on Syria after the air strikes began, some outlets seemed to play down the story the following day -- suggesting, perhaps, that Russia’s big military foray in the Middle East is just part of a day’s work for Putin.

The top story on Izvestia’s website on October 1: Russia may impose a tax on picnickers grilling shashlyk, or shish kebab.