RD Interview: Russia Direct talked to Alexey Levinson, social research director at Levada Center, to understand how Russians reacted to the Kremlin’s military campaign in Syria against ISIS.

The broadcast of Russian President Vladimir Putin's address before the concert of the Mariinsky Theater Symphony Orchestra in Syria's Palmyra. Photo: RIA Novosti

This is the abridged interview, which was originally published in Russia Direct's new report. Download it here to get access to the full version of the Q&A.

In an interview with Russia Direct, Alexey Levinson, social research director at Levada Center, discussed the reasons why Russians supported Russia’s military campaign in Syria against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). In addition, he explained in what way the Kremlin’s information campaign around Syria is different in comparison with the one around Ukraine.

RD: Russians seem to have started to pay much more attention to Syria after the Kremlin launched a military campaign there. Has the interest of Russians toward Syria been catching up with their interest toward the events in Ukraine since then?  

A.L.: No, there was no such growth of emotional and informational involvement of Russian public opinion in the Syrian events. The whole campaign in Syria attracted less interest than Ukraine, with the events in Donbas having been much more important for Russians for certain reasons.

Also read: "Making sense of Putin's popularity and rising anti-Americanism in Russia"

First, Ukraine is a neighboring country for Russia, with a common historical background and links, including those among ordinary people. Second, Kiev’s attempt to join the Western bloc and distance Ukraine from the alliance with Russia provoked a very controversial, if sophisticated, response from the Kremlin and ordinary Russians: It was a mix of indignation, jealousy and betrayal.

Third, in fact, the idea of integration with the West and the EU was not foreign to Russian society in the 1990s. Yet, afterwards, disappointment came and Russians perceived the political and economic union with West with a great deal of suspicion, while Ukrainians did not give up their aspirations to follow the European path.      

In the case of Syria, there is a totally different story. There are no reasons for Russians to pay as much attention to Syria as they did in the case of Ukraine. So, all attempts to find historical and political connections between Syria and Russia – including the claims that Syria is the homeland of Orthodox Christianity and our old friend and close ally – failed. So did the arguments that Russia was going to annihilate any terrorists who might presumably come to Russia: This reasoning was not too persuasive for ordinary Russians.

RD: If Russians didn’t pay as much attention to Syria as they did in the case of Ukraine, is it really fair to say that the Kremlin tried to distract public opinion from Ukraine by launching the military campaign in Syria, as some argue? 

A.L.: I don’t rule out that some Russian political figures implicitly tried to set such a goal. If they indeed wanted to distract attention from Ukraine, they succeeded to a certain extent. After all, it is a matter of diversifying TV coverage and switching to other TV footage: from the painful debris in Eastern Ukraine to the Russian jets soaring up over Syria and bombing terrorists. So, that TV footage has very powerful potential for grabbing attention.

RD: Why did 68 percent of Russians support the Kremlin’s military campaign in Syria when it started?

A.L.:  Putin is the national leader. He took this decision and set the goal as the country’s commander-in-chief to protect Syrian President Bashar Assad. As a reflection of their high respect for their leader, Russians supported his military campaign in Syria. However, the ideological reason for Russia’s involvement in the Syrian war was too weak.

Alexey Levinson, head of Levada Center’s Analytical Department. Photo: Russia Direct

Again, the support comes not from political discourse about the future of Syria, but from Russians’ personal support for Putin. Even when the President withdrew Russian troops and aviation from Syria, 81 percent supported him, while only 7 percent said “no,” which indicates that everything Putin does is right, according to the population.

To illustrate this trend, let me give another example. The abrupt deterioration of Russia-Turkey relations [as well as anti-Turkish sentiments in Russian society] results not from Turkey’s downing of the Russian jet, but from the way that Putin responded to it. He gave the go-ahead signal to anti-Turkish movement in Russia and it started shortly after.

Recommended: "The implications of the Turkey factor for US-Russia relations"

RD: To what extent was the Kremlin’s information campaign around Syria more successful within the country in comparison to the one around Ukraine?

A.L.: You know, in the case of Ukraine, Russia needed to reach very difficult goals: The Kremlin needed to persuade people that there were no Russian troops in Eastern Ukraine, while, in fact, there were. In general, it was extremely difficult for the authorities to change the attitude of ordinary Russians toward Ukraine, which they saw as a brother nation.

The Syrian [information] campaign was much easier in this regard. In fact, Syria was a sort of tabula rasa: Russians don’t treat this country like they treat Ukraine. Even the widely publicized ISIS threat didn’t win their attention as much as the Ukrainian agenda did. First and foremost, they don’t clearly understand what the Islamic State is.

That’s why the Syrian information campaign was more successful if we talk about implementation, but this success was not as great as it was in the case of Ukraine from the point of view of the impact on Russia’s public opinion. In fact, Russian public opinion was not the major target of the Kremlin’s Syrian campaign. The Kremlin has other powerful tools for manipulation. Basically, Putin needed Syria for other political reasons: It was a very successful move to strengthen Russia’s position in the international arena and his opponents recognized it.

RD: If Russian public opinion wasn’t the main goal of Putin’s Syrian campaign, does it mean that the idea that the Kremlin tries to replace the Crimean narrative with the Syrian narrative within Russia is not persuasive enough?

A.L.: The Syrian narrative cannot replace the Crimean one, but we should take into account that Russians keep steadily supporting Crimea’s incorporation into Russia. Yet the Syrian campaign can be rather a sort of preemptive measure. It might have resulted from the expectations of the authorities that the Crimean emotional euphoria might end sooner or later. In fact, it became an additional element of the Crimean narrative: in Russia’s public perception, it strengthened the idea of Russia being a great power.

Infographics by Alena Repkina. Source: Levada Center

RD: Previously, you said that Russians have no clear understanding of ISIS. Given the recent terrorist attacks in Europe and ISIS’s alleged involvement in the explosion of a Russian plane in Egypt in late October, are Russian people really afraid of the Islamic State?

A.L.: When asked about the terrorist threat for Russia, the majority of Russians agree that such a threat does exist. And they see ISIS and the North Caucasus terrorists as the major source of this threat. But there is no panic or excessive scare among ordinary people despite their previous bitter experiences. 

RD: It seems to contradict any speculation that the Kremlin might be manipulating and using the fear of terrorism to boost Putin’s rankings like it was the case in 1999. To what extent is this relevant for Russia these days?

A.L.: It is more of a legend or a sort of theoretical speculation than the truth supported by facts. There is the opinion that the 1999 Russian apartment bombings in Moscow and several other cities bolstered Putin’s ratings and, finally, helped him to win the presidency. Leaving aside the question of who really provoked these terrorist attacks, the polls of the All-Russia Public Opinion Center (WCIOM), where I worked at that time, didn’t find any correlations between Putin’s ranking and the 1999 bombings. Likewise, the Chechen war didn’t contribute to Putin ascending to power, as indicated by our investigation.

Also read: "Why the terrorist threat in Russia just won't go away"

In general, such speculations are weak in their nature. They are based on the belief that a terrorist attack can’t help but fuel fears among the population and mobilize people around the president and law enforcement agencies. The support for Putin, who scored over 60 percent in public approval ratings from the very moment he was ‘appointed’ by first Russian President Boris Yeltsin, was based on the hope Russia placed on this alternative. The ‘President of Hopes’ was the name Yuri Levada, the leading sociologist of the time, gave to this phenomenon.

This is the abridged interview, which was originally published in Russia Direct's new report "Terrorism: Inside Russia's Syria Campaign and the Global Fight Against Extremism". Download it here to get access to the full version of the Q&A.