RUSSIA’S behaviour in Syria resembles the fable of the scorpion who promises not to sting the frog that carries him across the river, but does so anyway—because it is his nature. The list of foreign powers stung by Russia continues to grow. This week Turkey protested after Russian fighters intruded into its airspace, drawing a rare admission of error from the Kremlin. The two countries’ relations are deteriorating as the Russian presence frustrates Turkey’s goal of toppling the regime of Bashar al-Assad. One might surmise that Vladimir Putin’s deployment of Russian forces in Syria is simply the latest in a series of provocations designed to irritate every Western-aligned country possible.
Curiously, Russian observers say the real goal is the opposite: not to alienate the West but to force America to recognise Russia as an equal partner, thereby overcoming the isolation caused by the war in Ukraine. The fight against Islamic State (IS) is intended to forge common ground between Russia and America. “This is an attempt to turn the page and achieve reconciliation with the West not by crawling to it on its knees, but by presenting Russia as an influential and indispensable power,” argues Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, a think-tank.
While most Russians enjoy watching the televised drama of their country standing up to America, they are in no mood for real isolation and economic sanctions. Mr Putin’s brinkmanship in Syria is meant to reaffirm that he still commands attention and respect in the world. Syria also serves as cover for scaling down Russia’s activity in eastern Ukraine: this week the Russian-backed rebels in Donbas called off their earlier plans to hold elections in defiance of Kiev, and the conflict has been frozen (at least for now).
The new war is being presented on Russian television like a blockbuster film. News programmes savour dramatic shots of Russian military jets roaring past the camera. Even Russian weather forecasts have become part of the show. Weathermen report the favourable bombing conditions in Syrian skies—followed immediately by footage of explosions recorded by cockpit cameras.”