A service at St. Isaac's Cathedral in St. Petersburg on Sunday honoring the victims of a Russian flight that crashed in Egypt on Oct. 31, killing all 224 aboard. Islamic State claimed it bombed the jet.Credit Peter Kovalev/Reuters
Confirmation of Attack on Russian Jet May Strengthen Putin’s Resolve in Syria
By NEIL MacFARQUHARNOV. 8, 2015
nytimes.com | Nov. 8, 2015
MOSCOW — The main bell in St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg tolled 224 times on Sunday, once for each victim of the destruction of a Russian charter flight in Egypt a week ago.
Although President Vladimir V. Putin and his aides at first indignantly dismissed suspicions of a terrorist act, the Kremlin has since then clearly come to grips with the idea that a bomb was probably involved in the crash: Late Friday it suspended all travel by Russians to Egypt, and initiated an emergency airlift that by Sunday had repatriated 11,000 Russians, by government count.
Should an attack be confirmed — and particularly if the Islamic State’s claim that it bombed the plane in revenge for Russia’s intervention in Syria turns out to be true — analysts and other experts expect that it will only strengthen Mr. Putin’s resolve to become more deeply involved in the Middle East.
First, Mr. Putin said the Russian Air Force’s bombing campaign in Syria was partly intended to help dismantle the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, which includes up to 7,000 fighters from Russia and the former Soviet Union. One worry is that they might return to wage a terrorist war in Russia. An attack against a civilian airliner would confirm that Russian interests were already being threatened — and might cause Russia to begin targeting the Islamic State more aggressively.
Mourners at the service. Since the attack, the Kremlin has suspended all travel by Russians to Egypt and repatriated 11,000.Credit Elena Ignatyeva/Associated Press
Second, Mr. Putin’s Syrian intervention has been taken as an attempt to show that Russia is again become a global power capable of tackling the world’s most intractable problems. Reversing course after the first setback, however violent, would undercut that image.
Third, the Russian leader has painted the West, and the United States in particular, as quick to abandon its Arab allies since the dawn of the Arab Spring in 2011 and its chaotic aftermath. Syria, now beleaguered, has been Russia’s only Arab ally for decades, but Mr. Putin has also been courting President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt. A terrorist attack by enemies of the Egyptian government will most likely strengthen, not diminish, that effort.
Ever since the Russian Air Force began bombing targets in Syria at the end of September, Mr. Putin has repeated the theme that it is better to attack terrorists on their home territory. His response in the face of any terrorist attack will probably be to double down, analysts said. But he is still likely to avoid committing ground forces, which polls show remains highly unpopular among Russians.
“If it was a terrorist act, that pushes the stakes higher and makes this Syria operation more costly,” said Vladimir Frolov, a political analyst. “It also proves the point that terrorists have to be destroyed before they come to our own land.” -[wasn't this the Bush doctrine?]
The problem, he said, is that “Russia’s current strategy cannot defeat the Islamic State.”
Russia deployed more than 50 combat aircraft in Syria, along with some 4,000 troops. About half of them were already there as advisers and technicians, while most of the rest are ground forces needed to protect the pilots and various bases.
The strategy as laid out by Mr. Putin was that the Russian Air Force would bolster the weakened military forces under President Bashar al-Assad, allowing them to strengthen their hold on Syria and then to take on the Islamic State strongholds in western Syria, using Syrian and allied ground forces.
Alexei Makarkin, an analyst at the Center for Political Technologies, saw two main options for Russia. One, he said, was that “Russia can intensify the Syria operation, send more troops and volunteers to support Assad.” That move, he said, would probably worsen already strained ties with the West.
In the second option, “Fighting the Islamic State will become a priority rather than supporting Assad,” he said. “In this situation, Russia will pressure Assad to move toward a transitional government.” Those efforts had already started but not gotten very far before the attack.
In the few instances that Mr. Putin has spoken out about the crash, it was mostly to offer his condolences. Soon, though, he will need to explain the catastrophe at home — especially given the Kremlin’s initial insistence on dismissing the idea that the plane’s downing could be linked to Syria.
Stanislav Belkovsky, a political analyst and frequent Kremlin critic, argued that Mr. Putin intervened in Syria to fulfill his own international political ambitions and so would avoid anything suggesting that ordinary Russians might pay a price for his gamble.
“They do not want to link the plane crash with Syria, because then the question is, ‘Why did we go into fight in Syria at all? Does it correspond to Russia’s basic national interests?’ ” Mr. Belkovsky said on Dozhd television, a tiny independent media outlet.
Last week somebody floated two plain wooden coffins in a canal in St. Petersburg — home to most of the victims — one spray-painted with the question “For what?” in red, and the other with “For whom?”
Some analysts thought that the Kremlin was most likely struggling with an explanation.
“The Kremlin will have to reverse cause and effect here so that its strategy is not seen as leading to civilian deaths,” said Maxim Trudolyubov, an editor at large for the newspaper Vedomosti.
Still, the Kremlin has one important factor in its favor as it seeks to shape public opinion: a deepening belief in the Russian public, stoked by Mr. Putin’s propaganda machine, that Western governments are conspiring against the country’s interests.
Indeed, the idea that the West created the Islamic State in the first place is taken as a given here. And it took little time for allies of the Kremlin to frame the plane’s downing as yet another example of Western malfeasance.
One official almost immediately seized on the early British suspension of flights to Sharm el Sheikh, from which the downed plane took off, calling it a form of psychological warfare on Russia.
“There is a geopolitical pressure against Russia’s actions in Syria,” Konstantin Kosachev, the head of the Foreign Relations Committee in the Federation Council, Russia’s upper house, was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.
He added: “It might sound blasphemous, but there are plenty of those who, without any grounds, would like to deliberately blame this catastrophe on the reaction of the jihadists to Russia’s actions.”
Sputnik News, an arm of the Russian government efforts to spread its point of view globally, published a column suggesting that British intelligence might have blown up the plane.
“It is not hard to imagine that both would like to see Russian President Vladimir Putin incurring a political backlash from his nation over what is Russia’s worst-ever air crash,” said the commentary. “Was it really terrorists, or was it British MI-6 agents palming the deed off as terrorists?”
Suspicions that the West is withholding information, voiced by the Russian Foreign Ministry, reflect the distrust between the two sides. The United States raised similar suspicions after the Boston Marathon bombers turned out to be two brothers with roots in the Russian Caucasus.
Other analysts said that the slow Kremlin reaction compared with other governments’ responses reflected both Mr. Putin’s own caution and the desire not to harm Egypt: Russians make up about a third of the nine million tourists who visit the country annually. Almost 80,000 still need to be flown home, government officials said.
Egypt used to be the Soviet Union’s most important ally in the region, until President Anwar Sadat expelled all its military advisers in 1972. Mr. Putin has been trying to rebuild that relationship.
Not only does it counter American influence, but it is important for domestic reasons for Russia to have a strong Sunni Muslim ally at a time when it is allied with two Shiite Muslim governments, Iran and Syria, in a fight against Sunni jihadists. The estimated 20 million Muslims in Russia are overwhelmingly Sunni.
“It is important for Russia to be seen in the Middle East to be in close touch with the biggest Arab country,” said Dimitri Trenin of the Carnegie Moscow Center. “It feels uncomfortable with this alliance with Shiite power.”
Still, many expect a forceful response in Syria if the airplane downing is traced back to the Islamic State.
A terrorist attack against Russian citizens means a declaration of war against all Russians,” wrote Tatiana Stanovaya, an analyst, on Slon.ru, a current events website. “The Syria campaign will thus become not a matter of Putin’s ambitions, but of national revenge.”
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