Russian President Vladimir Putin staged a surprise visit to Syria in December to tell Russian servicemen they’d soon be “going home victorious” after turning the tide of the country’s bloody civil war in favor of embattled dictator Bashar Assad.
Now, amid spiraling reports that Russian mercenaries suffered up to 300 casualties as a result of U.S. airstrikes against pro-Assad forces last week, Putin’s opponents have seized on the issue to hammer the Kremlin. The rising toll marks the first clear indication that Putin may have underestimated the costs of intervening in the Syrian conflict, Anna Borshchevskaya, an analyst at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told VICE News.
“Certainly, reports of hundreds of Russian casualties aren’t a good thing for Putin domestically,” Borshchevskaya said.
Especially not with a presidential election coming up next month. While Putin’s victory at the ballot box in March is seen as assured, the Kremlin is hoping for a strong turnout and enthusiastic support to cement the legitimacy of Putin’s rule as he enters his third decade in power.
Now, the Kremlin is seeking to downplay the true cost of its military campaign in Syria, to avoid letting Putin’s domestic audience think the mission has gotten out of hand, Borshchevskaya said.
“They’re basically pretending that nothing happened,” she said.
On Thursday, Reuters cited three sources to report that about 300 men working for a Kremlin-linked Russian private military firm were either killed or injured in a confrontation with U.S. forces in Syria last week, including up to around 100 fatalities.
The same day, Russia’s Foreign Ministry slammed media reports of widespread casualties as “disinformation,” saying that while it appeared five Russian citizens had been killed in the incident, the whole thing was still uncertain — and that it wasn’t even clear whether Russians were involved at all.
“We’re talking about five people killed, presumed to be Russian citizens,” said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova at a briefing in Moscow. “There were also injuries. But all this requires investigation.”
Putin’s domestic opponents pounced on the reports to knock the Kremlin’s handling of foreign policy.
Grigori Yavlinsky, a liberal politician running for President, issued an open letter calling on Putin to personally address the situation. Yavlinsky demanded the Kremlin “explain why Russian citizens are taking part in ground military operations in Syria, despite statements by the President and Minister of Defense on the withdrawal of Russian armed formations from this country and that the civil war in Syria has ended.”
Ksenia Sobchak, the reality-tv star-turned-political journalist now running for president, called on Russia to “end its Syrian adventure” in a post on Instagram.
Alexei Navalny, an anti-Kremlin activist who’s been banned from running against Putin over charges he says were trumped up to silence him, blasted the authorities over the incident from his YouTube channel.
“Ms. Zakharova, in general, never speaks a word of truth,” Navalny said. “She still doubts whether they were even Russians.”
As fresh media reports continue to raise doubts about the Kremlin’s version of events, there’s reason to think Putin’s detractors will have ample opportunity to keep piling on, analysts said.
When Russia entered Syria back in 2015, then-U.S. President Barack Obama warned Russian forces were jumping into a “quagmire.”
Now, over two years later, Russia faces real-world geopolitical losses if it pulls out of Syria, including access to bases in the country, post-reconstruction opportunities, regional expansion, and arms sales, said Amanda Kadlec, an analyst at the National Security Research Division of RAND Corporation.
“Few would argue at this stage that Syria is anything but a quagmire of multidimensional conflict and human suffering,” Kadlec told VICE News. “Once swept up in the tornado, it is difficult to extricate oneself without some damage. This event demonstrates that.”
Cover image: This Monday, Dec. 11, 2017 file photo, Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, and Syrian President Bashar Assad watch the troops marching at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria. (Mikhail Klimentyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP, File)