Last Wednesday, large swathes of the public appeared to be caught off guard when Russia began an air campaign in Syria. After weeks of hearing about the build-up of Russian military equipment we were still somewhat surprised to hear that they were actually using it despite repeated reassurances by the Kremlin that such a move would never occur.
With the annexation of Crimea in March 2014, the seizure of Georgian territory bordering South Ossetia, along with the conflict in the so-called Donetsk People’s Republic, we should probably have learnt by now that the current occupier of the Kremlin can be economical with the truth.
As such, we probably shouldn’t have been surprised in the slightest when Putin, as promised throughout the entire Syrian conflict, moved to support his ally, President Assad. The reason perhaps for our shock in this case is that Putin apparently delayed Russian involvement for so long.
However, as many following the conflict already recognise, Russian armed forces have been taking part alongside Iranian military personnel, training the Syrian Army and acting as advisors. Combine this with the repeated promises of assistance and consistent backing of Assad, and we should have known it was only a matter of time before Putin made good on his promises to defend Assad, and more importantly, the assets leased from the Syrian government.Putin has spent the past years waiting for his moment. In order to have the best and biggest impact, he had to act at a time when the coalition airstrikes organised by America and the UK had been discredited.
Given that they have now been happening for the best part of a year with no end in sight and no tangible impact, this was the perfect moment.
More than this, however, Putin is showing himself to be stepping up to defend Assad from the radical ideas of ISIS, at a time when other nations are not successful at doing so. As such, Putin is being presented in his narrative of the Syrian conflict as being a peacemaker, a defender of the recognised government from American sponsored rebels and radical fighters.
Putin’s narrative has been being prepared for a long time. However, the key to success was that he could not be limited to peacemaking in the Syrian conflict. He needed to show that he could succeed where NATO had failed. In working with rebel elements in Donetsk to delay their local elections, as well as securing the further withdrawal of heavy weapons and artillery from the front lines, he has done just that.
In this manner, he has created a new image – Putin the Peacemaker. Putin the Diplomat. In all reality, anyone feeling surprised by Russian actions in recent weeks has underestimated Putin. He has consistently tried to create a Russian identity, one acting in direct defiance of NATO where necessary, harking back to the glory days of Soviet Russia, willing to do anything to ensure that Russia is supreme.