The Russian president should beware of using Syria as a backdrop to his election campaign, writes Faisal Al Yafai
Putin's final presidential campaign will be banking on military victories in Syria and Crimea
The official start of Russia’s presidential campaign came at the beginning of December, when Vladimir Putin told a group of automobile plant workers that he would, after much speculation, be standing for re-election.
But there were hints of what sort of campaign he intended to run months earlier, when the State Duma approved a bill to push back the date of this year's presidential election by a week, from March 11 to 18.
The significance of that date was lost on no one. It is the date in 2014 when Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea. For Russians, it was a “return” to Russia, after having been severed for so long. But to the rest of the world, it was a blatant land-grab, the theft of a piece of a nation's territory by a stronger neighbour of the sort that was meant to have passed into history in a Europe of settled borders.
Mr Putin had begun his re-election campaign with a grab for some of the most valuable political territory: nationalism.
A few days after making the announcement that he would stand for re-election, Mr Putin made a surprise visit to Syria. Here he fired the first shots of the campaign in earnest, telling the assembled Russian soldiers that they were going home – and going home “victorious”. Here was Mr Putin grabbing more valuable political territory, the backdrop of military might and victory. Over the next three months, Syria will prove to be Mr Putin's biggest backdrop as he goes into this election, for several important reasons.
This will be his final election campaign. By the time his expected term is over in 2024, he will have occupied one of the top two Russian political positions – president or prime minister – for nearly a quarter of a century.
Although polling suggests his popularity is far beyond any of his competitors – so much so that the word ought to be in quotes – he is taking few risks. Last weekend, Russia's supreme court upheld a ban on opposition leader Alexei Navalny standing in this year's presidential election. The decision was keenly followed because of a belief that it would signal how serious Mr Putin was about having genuine competition.
As it turns out, not very. Mr Putin is deadly serious about winning in March and is using every political tool he has at his disposal.
The photo opportunity before Russian troops in Syria played extremely well at home, because it managed to hit three themes that are very popular in Russian politics. Mr Putin will be looking to return to those themes again and again in the next three months, with the help of Russian state television.
The first is, simply, ending a war and bringing the troops home, a theme politicians across the world love to use. That Mr Putin himself first sent the troops out there will be forgotten amid the flags.
The second is that Russia's involvement in the war, according to the Kremlin, was aimed at keeping the homeland stable. That Russia's deployment will involve the man who instigated the Syrian civil war remaining in presidential office matters little to the public: the version of events that will be told is that Russia's military had to fight “over there” to stop the bombs exploding “over here”.
But the third theme might be the most powerful: vanquishing the ghosts of history.
Mr Putin is a cautious, careful strategist. When he decided to commit troops to Syria in 2015, he knew there was a significant risk it could undo his entire presidency. Barack Obama predicted the conflict would be a “quagmire” for Russia; another White House official warned Moscow to “remember Afghanistan”, the decade-long war of the 1980s that ended with the superpower retreating.
There were other historical parallels. In 1979, when Leonid Brezhnev made the decision to invade Afghanistan, the Brezhnev Doctrine of defending socialist countries against capitalism had never been tried outside the Soviet sphere of influence. Similarly, in 2015, Syria was the first time Russian troops had ventured into combat beyond the Soviet space since Afghanistan.
This was not, like Ukraine, a political adventure in a neighbouring country that the Kremlin had long prepared for. With so many groups fighting in Syria, in such a sensitive geopolitical theatre, the chances for failure were high.
For Russian voters, therefore, what has happened in Syria is a victory. The military aims have been fulfilled – albeit at a heavy, brutal price for ordinary Syrians and with the virtual destruction of large parts of Aleppo – and the human costs to Russia's troops have been manageable. Officially 16 soldiers died in Syria last year, a number that, when the private military contractors the Kremlin is using are factored in, is thought to be many times higher.
But the downsides – another quagmire to rival Afghanistan, as Iraq in 2003 engulfed the Americans, or a long drawn-out conflict that continues to empty the country's coffers – were potentially so bad that most Russians will breathe a sigh of relief that it is over.
In that sense, the Syrian “victory” is far more powerful for a Russian domestic audience than the annexing of Crimea, even if Crimea occupied a far more sentimental place in the hearts of some Russians than Syria.
The next three months will be something of a victory lap for Mr Putin. By his account, he vanquished the European Union over Ukraine and beat the Americans in the Middle East in Syria.
Mr Putin would prefer Syria to be centre stage, if only because the Crimea adventure resulted in sanctions on Russia that severely hurt the economy. But he should beware of using the Middle East as a mere backdrop. The war in Syria is far from over, whatever Mr Putin declared in Lattakia. Last Wednesday, a bomb exploded in a St Petersburg supermarket; ISIL claimed responsibility. Middle Eastern wars rarely stay in the Middle East.