On Russian state television, the Russian military campaign in Syria is portrayed as one success after another — terrorists targets destroyed through precision airstrikes, the Syrian army counterattacking against ISIS, and ever new surprises up Moscow's sleeve.
While American officials have disputed the accuracy of those strikes, Vladimir Ryzhkov, a prominent opposition politician, says the Russian campaign, which began in late September, is in fact showcasing effective military reforms carried out under Putin in recent years; this is the new improved Russian army.
“Russian military officials are clearly showing the Americans that we have the same planes, the same smart bombs. We can carry out the same military campaign as you,” Ryzhkov says,
And at least publicly, Russia has laid out the same objectives: To destroy the threat of ISIS and bring peace to Syria.
But the US and its Western allies suspect Putin has another goal: Propping up the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad — Moscow's ally and best chance to reassert influence in the region.
According to western reports, Russia has been concentrating its air power on anti-Assad forces, rather than ISIS, though Putin rejects that narrative.
Speaking at a forum in Moscow a week ago, Putin accused Western leaders of having “mush for brains” when it came to their strategy against the ISIS.
“They tell us they don't want to cooperate with us and we're bombing the wrong targets,” Putin said. “Well then we say give us the targets where there are only 100 percent terrorists. Again they say no. Well then we asked them to give us targets where we shouldn't bomb. Again no answer,” he added to applause.
Recent polls suggest Russians are firmly behind Putin’s airstrikes , with 70 percent backing the campaign. One pensioner in Red Square named Natalia Nikolaevna said "[President Putin] is doing everything right. He’s raised Russia from its knees.”
The Kremlin says it has ruled out putting troops on the ground in Syria. Yet several prominent politicans, including Chechen President Ramzan Kadyrov, have called for Russian “volunteers” to join the Syrian army in the fight against ISIS.
Such arguments are reminsicent of Russia's actions in Ukraine, where the definition of “soldier” and “volunteer” have often blurred at Moscow's convenience.
But Valentina Melnikova of the Soldiers Mothers Committee says nevermind Ukraine: The Syrian operation reminds her of what Kremlin authorities once said about the Soviet invasion of Aghanistan in the 1980s — and that decade-long war cost the lives of thousands of Soviet soldiers and nearly a million Afghans.
“In Afghanistan, the authorities also talked initially of a campaign 'limited in scope,’” she says.
Alexey Skorobogatko was one of nearly a million Soviet soldiers who cycled through the Afghan war. "A life within a life" is how he describes two intense years at war. He says back then soldiers like him received a simple explanation:
“All countries near the Soviet Union should be pro-Soviet. In other words, a security buffer. If Soviet soldiers didn't go into Afghanistan, then the Americans would send theirs in first.”
Skorobogatko says, for now, he's withholding judgment on Russia's current Syrian campaign, but he hopes the Afghanistan experience taught Russia's leadership important lessons about the risks of foreign wars in that part of the world.
Even if not, he adds, they can always look at what's happened to the Americans.