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23 September 2015

Are the Russians afraid of war with ISIS?

Different scenarios of Russia’s participation in the anti-terrorist campaign against ISIS may be perceived differently by Russian society

According to the results of the survey by the Public Opinion Foundation (POF), approximately one- third of Russians have never heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and therefore, have no opinion on the issue. Forty-one percent of Russians consider ISIS to be a threat to Russia’s security while 50% - to global security. That being said, 36% of Russians believe Russia has to join in the fight against the Islamic State. In total, one-fifth of Russians have grown concerned over the issue of this Islamic terrorist organization.

However, the above data give us only a superficial understanding of the attitude of Russians to this threat. Responses among people having little interest in political news, given the increasing relevance of the theme of the fight against ISIS, will most likely be distributed similarly, thanks to which the leadership will supposedly have a legitimate reason for becoming actively involved in the Syrian situation.

The meaning of war for Russians

The terrorist threat in general and the threat posed by ISIS, in particular, are not treated seriously by Russians. According to the data of the comparative study covering a number of countries, in spring 2015, as few as 23% of the population of Russia were very concerned about the rise in terrorism, whereas this figure is 52% on average among Western countries. Moreover, compared to the survey from four years ago, the level of concern is down in Russia. Obviously, this genuinely brings into question the seriousness of the Russians’ perception of the threat of ISIS.

At the same time, to stay as united as ever, Russian society needs to identify an enemy. Shifting the focus of the information agenda from international to domestic issues doesn’t suit the country’s leadership nor, odd as it may seem, the population, since active foreign policy is a means of escaping from everyday problems for the latter. For Russians, war is a spectacle, a symbolic fight with no real losses, and only in this form is war acceptable for the mass consciousness. Even the anticipation of deprivation, the slightest decline in living standards stirs disquiet. According to sociological studies, the public mood had adjusted for the second time in a year-and-a-half by late summer. It is too early to speak of any large-scale changes, but a number of key indicators show a weakening of public mobilization. Between June and August, the level of approval of the policy of the leadership fell by 9 percentage points and that for the president – by 6 points. The subjective assessment of the financial standing of the family as ‘prosperous’ continues to decline, too.

With that, there are several changes in the nature of fears experienced by Russians: the fear of a world war, still high on the agenda, has turned out to be less frightening than fears of disease and poverty. All these changes occur against the backdrop of growing economic difficulties and diminishing emotional tension in the information agenda following a certain ‘lull’ in the Donbas. These developments bring about a necessity to maintain the internal unity of citizens around the leader. And this very unity reaches the highest level given the fight against the internal or external enemy.

Let us consider two possible options for Russian participation in the Syrian conflict in terms of the attitudes of Russians towards them.

The official deployment of troops

Hypothetically, official forces could be sent into a conflict zone to fight on the side of Bashar al-Assad. However, it would be a great mistake to believe that active military intervention will receive widespread support among Russians. Even at the peak of confrontation in the east of Ukraine no more than 40% of Russians supported the deployment of Russian troops (no more than 16% definitively supported it). A military operation with the involvement of Russian ‘official’ troops will inevitably trigger comparisons with the war in Afghanistan which was considered a mistake and an unfair war by 68% of the Russian citizens interviewed in 2014. Moreover, the deployment of the Soviet troops in Afghanistan is perceived as a crime by a significant proportion of the population (44%). But most importantly, in 1991, when the Soviet state suffered its demise, 69% of Russians regarded the Afghan war to be a crime on a national scale. Glorification of public discourse had declined even before the collapse of the USSR. The address by academician Sakharov at the Second Congress of People’s Deputies of the Soviet Union in 1990 – just one year after the withdrawal of the Soviet troops from Afghanistan – marked the start of condemnation of the Afghan campaign at the state level. The hasty reversal of the state rhetoric and the dismantling of the image of the heroic mission of the Soviet people caused deep trauma to the collective consciousness. An attempt to bury it, consign it in the depth of experience (which explains the drop in public disdain by 25 percentage points: from 69% in 1991 to 44% in 2014), can provide the state with the tacit consent of the majority of Russians. But it is worth remembering that indifference can rapidly be replaced by public outrage.

In the opinion of the overwhelming majority, propping-up the leadership of a distant country, alien to an average Russian, is not among the list of country’s priorities by any means. Russians’ most pressing issues include everyday problems: rising prices, deteriorating living standards. The country’s leadership may encounter increasing public discontent were the burden of warfare be borne by the population. In order to maintain a certain level of loyalty in the midst of military operations involving Russian soldiers, strategists would have to ensure powerful ideological support and – primarily – to explain the reasons for venturing there. For these measures to gain support among the wider population, people should sense an affinity with the warfare, witness the enemy’s encroachment on socially significant symbolic or material riches. Fortunately, Russians have not come across such a serious threat. However, should the contingent of troops deployed in Syria be small, the issue of internal legitimation of the military support will not appear on the agenda at all.

Syrian hybrid warfare

Here, the second possible option in terms of Russian involvement in the anti-terrorist operation emerges. From the point of view of the power elite, a symbolic war is considered most favorable. A fast and, as perceived by the Russian public , low-cost military operation with the participation of Russian “volunteers” in the east of Ukraine was approved by Russians and even became a source of pride. Subsequently, as the economic well-being of citizens deteriorated, the situation changed: from early spring to late summer, the number of Russians who believed that Crimea’s “accession” to Russia was beneficial decreased by 11%. Still, most of the burden of responsibility for victims is borne by volunteer-adventurists. From the point of view of Russians, this may be compared to the delight of a child, still afraid of his independence, who has managed to disobey the strict rules of his parents. Undoubtedly, he would like to experience this feeling again. The main source of delight: the ability to violate other people’s rights with impunity. The scenario of the hybrid war is convenient for the leadership of the Russian state also because the actual costs of its implementation remain uncalculated – just as the value of “aid” provided by Russia to the east of Ukraine is not known precisely, either.

New shooting range, old targets

Public opinion in Russia, as in any other state, is quite easily manipulated. This makes it possible to direct the wrath of society not only towards terrorists but old enemies, too – Western countries in this case. It was merely a year ago that the conflict in Syria was presented in the majority of the Russian media as a war between the legitimate government of Bashar al-Assad and terrorists sponsored by the West. And this is what 40% of Russians believed in September 2014.

Taking into account that, today, Russian aid is addressed solely to the Syrian government and not the anti-terrorist coalition, European and American politicians have already voiced their concerns that this could only worsen the civil conflict in the country. Contraposition vis-à-vis other participants of the anti-terrorist operation can provide the Russian authorities with an excuse to continue anti-Western rhetoric, the use of which has helped them to maintain control within Russia on more than one occasion. Referring back to the survey by POF, it is noteworthy that the proportion of Russians who believe that Russia should join efforts with the Western countries in the fight against ISIS increased (from 10% to 28%) last year. The percentage of Russians who believe that Russia is capable of coping with the threat on its own has remained unchanged. Seeing no good reasons for lone Russian intervention, our compatriots prefer to share the responsibility with other countries. This sentiment is amplified by the work of the media, too, which now emphasize the global impact of the threat of ISIS.

But how can public opinion change if the adversary turns outs to be a force which does not observe the rules of others? One can assume that public mood will be far from euphoric. The blows may be struck against the most vulnerable flaws of Russian society, in particular interethnic relations. Still, the number of those ‘very concerned’ about the spread of terrorism from the North Caucuses to other regions in Russia decreased by 20 percentage points in 2014. At the same time, the proportion of Russians who do not believe that the federal government controls the state of affairs in Chechnya fell. These indicators remain at the same level today. However, intensification of the information agenda in connection with the war against Islamic fundamentalists could increase the likelihood of a civil war – the prospects of which are slim, but by no means less frightening.

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