Russia and the Sinai plane crash fallout 


Will Putin double down on a war he never expected to win?

William Echols

[*Note: This was written 2 weeks ago, before Russia admitted its passenger jet was bombed in Egypt, the Paris attack and now the incident in Turkey. That being said, it’s still interesting to see if my thesis will hold in light of just how much has happened in a short amount of time.]

The alleged bombing of a Russian passenger jet over the Sinai Peninsula has brought home the risks involved in Moscow’s Syrian intervention. The question is, will Putin be forced to change his political calculus in battling an enemy where victory in any traditional sense was never really part of the equation?

From “likely” to “99 percent certain”, Western intelligence has increasingly taken the view that a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268, killing all 224 on board.

Moscow has been far less willing to jump to conclusions or air its own intelligence on the matter, though Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev conceded “the possibility an act of terror” downed the plane.

Russia’s reticence to speculate on the incident likely reflects the potential domestic and international consequences a terrorist strike would entail for Moscow’ recent Syrian intervention.

There are several factors, however, which will diminish Russia’s need to mitigate for any sense of popular backlash, leaving Putin’s Syrian objectives unaffected.

Matter of opinion

Empirical evidence suggests that Russian public opinion on Syria remains highly malleable. Less than two weeks before bombs started falling over the Levant, only 14 percent of Russians believed Moscow should give the regime of Bashar al-Assad direct military support. Following a targeted media blitz, a later poll by the Independent Levada Center saw a full 72 percent of Russians feel mostly or entirely positive “towards the strikes on the ‘Islamic State [IS]’ in Syria.” 


Interestingly, another survey released by the Levada Center on November 6 (though conducted prior to the October 31 crash) found a plurality of responds (a full 40 percent) believed the primary benefit of the Syrian intervention would be “a decrease in the terrorist threat to Russia posed by the Islamic State.” Only 17 percent believed it would increase the threat.

Thirty four percent also said intervention would “strengthen Russia’s authority in the Middle East/the world arena,” while 22 percent believed it would “normalize the situation and end the bloody war in Syria.”

Only 6 percent believed Russia’s actions would undoubtedly lead to “a new Afghanistan for Russia,” while 29 percent thought it was entirely possible an Afghanistan-style quagmire could develop.

While Afghanistan syndrome and the increased likelihood of terrorism remain genuine concerns, anecdotal evidence suggests Russians by and large have not begun to question Moscow’s decision to intervene in Syria as a result of the Sinai incident. Rather, they appear increasingly dead set on seeing IS destroyed. This in part stems from the fact that Russians have a different relationship to acts of terror than Westerners, and thus expect different reactions from their leadership when such acts occur.

Putin would know, for he himself helped create this expectation.


The June 1995 hospital siege in Budyonnovsk, in which Chechen separatists took at least 1,000 people hostage, proved instrumental in forming Putin’s zero-tolerance policy towards terrorism.

Following failed attempts to storm the building, Moscow was compelled to negotiate with the militants, ultimately securing a ceasefire which was viewed as a turning point in the First Chechen War.


It is unsurprising that Putin’s rise to power was cemented by a rebuff to this perceived humiliation, when the suspicious 1999 apartment bombings helped spark the second military conflagration in Chechnya. Putin’s “we will rub them out in the outhouse” philosophy came to signify a willingness to stop at nothing to counter terrorism, even if it meant significant Russian civilian casualties.

From the 2002 Moscow Theater hostage crisis, in which Russian special forces employed an unknown chemical agent, leading to the deaths of 130 hostages, to the 2004 Beslan school siege, where 385 were killed after Russian forces stormed the building using tanks and rocket launchers, Moscow will risk sacrificing its own citizens rather than capitulate to terrorist demands.

Due in part to a compliant state media, proclivity towards stoicism, employment of conspiracy theories to deflect blame, ethnoreligious animosity, and a militaristic culture which places a lower premium on human life, Russians appear willing to accept such civilians losses. As for the Sinai incident, nothing indicates anything will change in that regard.

Putin doesn’t care? 

Recently, political analyst Stanislav Belkovsky told the Moscow Times “Putin is not concerned with domestic events at all,”  and thus does not feel an obligation to his electorate during this time of tragedy. A Washington Post editorial noted that unlike Western states, Putin was more interested in “defending” his government than his own people.

While there is some truth to these assertions, they miss the broader point. One, Putin’s actions on the international stage are all done for domestic considerations. As it stands, domestic events are a less efficacious path towards generating a sense of national greatness the Russian public craves than international ones.


Secondly, that this potential bombing happened abroad gives Putin more room to maneuver. Domestic attacks, especially those conducted by separatists, are viewed as an existential threat to Putin’s state supremacy model, giving him no choice but to execute his “outhouse” policy. An attack on a soft target abroad, meanwhile, allows for a more nuanced response.

Another factor comes into play as well. Just as in the West (or anywhere else for that matter), the attempt to correlate acts of terror with foreign policy decisions is a non-starter. Russia is no exception in this regard.

Staying the course 

Even if the Kremlin is more or less indemnified from public outrage, will Putin feel compelled to prove to IS or the Russian people that such attacks will not go unanswered?

For now, Flight 9268 will likely facilitate Putin’s pre-existing goals in the Levant rather than spawn new ones.

Video: New Russian Airstrikes against ISIS Terrorists in Syria

New Russian Airstrikes against ISIS Terrorists in Syria

Putin’s primary strategic goal remains securing Russia’s military foothold in the region while dictating any forthcoming political settlement, ideally with Assad still in power.  As early as 2012, Syrian expert Fabrice Balanche propopsed that “Russia and Iran can support an Alawite state on the coast, like [Russia’s support for] Abkhazia in Georgia.”

Ultimately, Russia only needs to secure about 20 percent of Syria to achieve its aims, though any additional territory would be a bonus.

An extended campaign against IS would likely run counter to those strategic goals, though Putin would remain amenable to forming his proposed “anti-Hitler Coalition” in Syria in exchange for a range of concessions from the West, including a lifting of Ukrainian-related sanctions.

Meanwhile, the need to look strong and reaffirm to the Russian public that the terrorist strike will not go unpunished, while simultaneously not risking a more serious ground campaign, can be accomplished with the help of state media.


Despite the perceived need for vengeance, there is really no litmus test for retribution. How many televised airstrikes, how many glitzy graphs detailing the number of terrorists killed would be needed to sate the Russian public?

As it stands, an estimated 88 percent of Russians receive their news via a largely state-controlled medium (television). This gives the Kremlin carte blanche to create its own Syrian realities for the public —something it has clearly been doing from the outset.

Of course, if additional terrorist strikes against soft targets are forthcoming, or if zinc coffins start piling up in Sevastopol, public sentiment could eventually push Putin’s hand. But even in the event that cutting and running became politically expedient, Putin would neither have to deal with a critical media or viable political opposition in executing a Syrian volte face. Turn on the television, and whatever message the Kremlin needs to tell will be told. That will be true for the Sinai crash; that will be true for whatever comes to pass in Syria.


The pathosis of Putin’s failed plans 

William Echols

A string of failures which have recently blighted Vladimir Putin’s regime demonstrate that when it comes to Russia’s executive function, the rot in Russian society starts at the head.

Everything is a system. No matter the field of study, a person will encounter complex networks of interdependency, and what happens when kinks in those webs create problems for the whole.

Just look at the human brain, with its 100 billion neurons and scores of internal structures, all of which perform a series of vital cognitive and/or physiological functions. Damage to one part, no matter how small, can spell disaster.

Take the cerebellum, or “little brain”, which plays a vital role in motor control.


Unlike the motor cortex, the cerebellum is not an agent of volition. Rather, it takes signals from the central nervous system and fine tunes them, especially as it relates to the coordination, precision and timing of specific movements. In the event that there is a mismatch between intended and actual action, the little brain that could is able to correct for them in real time.

Likewise, there is a type of movement disorder stemming from damage to the cerebellum which throws the above corrective feedback loop out of whack.

In the words of neurologist V.S. Ramachandran,  a person could “attempt to touch her nose, feel her hand overshooting, and attempt to compensate with an opposing motion, which causes her hand to overshoot even more wildly in the opposite direction.”

This disorder is called an intention tremor.

In politics, there is an analogue to intention tremors, which likewise afflicts the executive branch of government.

One primary cause of an intention tremor stems from “corruption-based dysmetria” — a lack of coordination of movement between government bodies. The government, by its own design, is incapable of executing its goals, and often acts against them.

This brings us to modern day Russia, where people have long said fish rot from the head. Even a cursory glance of its political system shows that something is indeed rotten in the Kremlin.

Vladimir Putin, doors

In theory, the Russian president is not part of the executive; it is not their job to determine long-term domestic policy objectives. Much like the cerebellum, the president positionally sits apart from the primary body of executive function, acting as a constitutional corrective for the laws and regulations of the Russian Federation.

In practice, of course, Putin has usurped the executive, bringing the Government of Russia under his direct control and violating the very constitution he is tasked with defending. The system he has created is ultimately hollow, with Potemkin courts and legislatures stripped of their powers. Corruption, meanwhile, is no longer a byproduct of his rule, but rather an intended goal.

Consequently, when Putin actually does attempt to act in earnest, the coordination of movements between state organs is permanently skewed, with no viable means of correction. Signals sent down the power vertical fail to create the desired response. Putin, in short, cannot act against the internal contradictions of his own order.

Take the case of Boris Kolesnikov, an anti-corruption crusader and police general whose tragic story was recently recounted by Joshua Yaffa. Kolesnikov, the former deputy head of the Interior Ministry’s anticorruption department, was imprisoned, beaten and allegedly driven to suicide for failing to stitch up his boss and Medvedev-appointee Denis Sugrobov.

The case proved one reality: seemingly honest cops who investigate members of the security services for their role in multi-billion dollar “dark money” schemes are jailed for doing their jobs. Their anti-corruption department is labeled an “organized criminal organization” by actual organized criminals in the FSB. It was the same with the late Sergei Magnitsky, an auditor who implicated government officials in a $230 million tax fraud scheme. After being wrongfully imprisoned and ultimately killed, he was ghoulishly convicted on trumped up tax evasion charges in the first posthumous trial in Russian history. Gogol surely rolled over in his grave.


Such instances, however, might not represent intention tremors at all; they may very well happen by design.

A less ambiguous case was the Second Chechen War, which was undoubtedly waged to bring the restive republic under Moscow’s thumb. But how does a country without rule of law reintegrate a lawless place? Putin did the only thing he knew how to do; start a brutal war and then hand the reigns of power over to a well-subsidized and slightly unhinged megalomaniac who, incidentally, has succeeded in creating a gross caricature of the Russian system.

Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov operates with impunity, including the right to build a 20,000-strong army, set up his own tax system, allegedly murder opposition politicians (and personal enemies) on the streets of Moscow, assassinate other rivals abroad, threaten to kill Russian cops on the streets of Grozny, and make polygamy legal. In a bid to reintegrate Chechnya into Russia, Russia has merely subsidized what is independence in all but name.


Another example is Russia’s recent saber rattling over Ukraine. In 2014, NATO was forced to scramble its jets on 400 separate occasions to intercept Russian military aircraft. But while Moscow’s intention was to show its military might, massive weaknesses were revealed in the Russian Air Force, which is reliant on massively outdated Soviet stock. Since June, seven Russian military aircraft have crashed in as many weeks, prompting an investigation by the Defense Ministry. In an attempt to keep NATO on its toes, Moscow revealed its own feet of clay.

Russia’s covert war in Ukraine has equally revealed that the country lacks sufficient numbers of well-trained troops capable of waging “hybrid war” on a long-term basis.

Likewise, no military reforms will stop barracks from collapsing on their soldiers, or keep overtaxed soldiers from deserting to avoid being forced to fight and die as “volunteers” in Ukraine as long as every institution in Russia puts the needs of corrupt officials first, and the ostensible purposes of those institutions second.

Putin has risked global isolation to keep Ukraine in the fold, only to lose Ukraine, possibly forever. He has further sacrificed Russia’s economy, introducing austerity cuts across the board, while vowing increased military spending to sustain he latest adventures. And yet some analysts believe the invasion of Ukraine has sounded the death knell for the country’s military reforms as well.

During former-president Dmitry Medvedev’s 2008 inauguration speech, he said that Russia “must overcome the legal nihilism that is such a serious hindrance to modern development.”

He rightly noted that the battle against legal nihilism was essential for economic and social development, fighting corruption, and  making people feel safe. Medvedev further said such reforms were vital to boost Russia’s global influence, and to be taken “as equals with other peoples.”

His words are telling. Those at Russia’s helm recognize their system of rule undermines their credibility as equals in the international arena, although such parity (or a lack thereof) is an obsession of Putin’s. A fake president delivered a speech saying the very mechanisms of power which had resulted in his candidacy were scuttling his country’s hopes for a better future.

The irony is palpable. Putin was brought to power to raise Russia from its knees. In the process, it just might end up on its face.