Russia and the Sinai plane crash fallout 

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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.” 

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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.

Zero-tolerance 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The Sinai crash; the fog of war

William Echols

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Having written Sinai Plane Crash Could Cast Dark Shadow on Kremlin, I played off of an idea that media portrayals of Russian military action within Syria had become the next great reality show.

Subsequently, what could be conceptualized as blowback, the alleged downing of the Metrojet Airbus A32, is not part of the script.  Now, a few points are in order. First, I categorically reject any implication that Russia deserved this attack.  Nothing I write is intended to be conceptualized as an ‘I told you so’.  Beyond philosophical arguments on the legitimized right of violence (state vs. non-state actors), the death of civilians through terrorism or errant bombs is an unmitigated wrong.

Perhaps one can differentiate morally between targeting civilians and the wholly dehumanizing notion of ‘collateral damage’.  Intention does matter. But death is death.

Ultimately, the use of military force by nature entails morally reprehensible action. That political and military leaders are forced (or merely choose) to engage in a certain utilitarianism regarding human life is by its very nature unsettling.

The rubric laid out by the School of Salamanca’s specific brand of just war theory, especially regarding moral limits to action, reads like common sense.  And yet we are so often senseless.

Even the best conducted war is a dance with the devil.  It’s human killing humans, often over how their imagined meanings clash in the ether with each other.  At it’s heart, it’s madness.

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We first go astray when we forget it’s madness, when we think there can be something just or honorable about factions of humanity organizing en masse to kill each other.  Even when we are merely there to defend the weak and powerless from ethnic cleansing, we should not lose sight of the insanity of it all.  It’s the only thing that may keep us sane.

One should never forget that even just causes have their dangers.  To battle some form of evil incarnate — a death cult in a desert, or perhaps in the mountains — with foreign gods in his heart and the Tower of Babel on his tongue, can give us a sense of being too comfortable in our action.  We can allow the presumed or actual pathology of another’s ideas, to strip them of their humanity, to revel in good vs. bad binaries.

Our righteousness cannot allow us to create a hierarchy of human life; a pretext to whitewash one’s own sins.

Maybe righteousness means stopping the rape and slaughter of women; the beheading of infidels,  the burning of pilots.  Maybe it simply means your right to another man’s land. Maybe it means both. But when we don’t do body counts, we may find ourselves unknowingly wrapped up in a blanket of death; the fog of war impenetrably black.

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During an interview with Andrei Babitsky, the veritable Chechen angel of Death Shamil Basayev had these haunting words to say following the Beslan tragedy:

“Officially, over 40,000 of our children have been killed and tens of thousands mutilated. Is anyone saying anything about that?…Responsibility is with the whole Russian nation, which through its silent approval gives a ‘yes’ [gives its consent].”

Basayev’s siren song of retributive justice is a familiar one; his appeal to collective punishment seductive.  Through complacency, do we not all, on some level, give our tacit consent when we are silent in the face of government crimes?  Is it not merely convenient for governments to cynically follow Augustine’s own just war dictum, that states are the only legitimate initiators of wide-scale force?

When they kill our children but conceptualize it as something else other than murder, who says we cannot do the same thing?  And, after all, did not the US bomb Afghanistan for the same reason; did not Russia initiate the Second Chechen War the spill blood for blood spilt?  They will all suffer for the sins of the prodigal son, even, as was possibly the case in Chechnya, it wasn’t even his sins.

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Of course, this appeal to abstraction is intended to divorce intent from action.  A police officer attempting to shoot a gunman on a college campus and accidentally killing a student is not morally equivalent to the gunmen himself targeting students. But sadly, many states have been wiling to use indiscriminate violence in war. Sometimes indiscriminate violence is a tactic.  The leveling of Grozny was policy, not collateral damage.  But that does not justify a free fall into the darkness.

If non-state actors use violence to resist oppressive states, by abandoning any belief in the sanctity of life, they de facto delegitimize their causes.  Merely appealing to tribalism: ‘we value our lives more than yours lives’, will not stop the descent into madness. Any cause should necessarily be humanitarian.  To abandon humanity is to abandon any cause to fight. Because if violence is not, as paradoxically as it seems, used to stop aggression against human life, it is simply being used as a tool to support an ultimately far less valuable abstraction (religious, political or otherwise.) No abstraction trumps human life.

A man carries a wounded girl who survived what activists say was an air strike by forces loyal to Syrian President Assad in Aleppo's al-Ansari al-Sharqi neighborhood

You cannot compartmentalize human life within a stratified sense of value based on cultural and intellectual considerations.  That so many revolutions have resulted in even more repressive regimes replacing the ones they were fighting against is a testament to the notion that creating a hierarchy of life is a failed strategy.  You will ultimately throw out the baby with the bathwater.

So no, Russia did not deserve this any more than the US deserved 9/11 or the UK deserved 7/7. But in Russia, the West and beyond, when we willfully buy into nationalistic orgies of violence, sanitized of the consequences of war through slick editing and feel good media-product packaging, we are abandoning our own humanity.  Even in just wars, we cannot separate our actions, even righteous actions, from their consequences. Being right is not a panacea against guilt or shame.  Any attempt to insulate ourselves form that reality is laying the foundations for future wars. And their will be wars. But there should never be any illusion of the full scope of what we are embarking on, even in the best of circumstances. Otherwise, far more ignoble action will find fertile breeding grounds.

That is a hard circle to square.  Maybe there has never been a truly just war; maybe we have to live with just-enough. And just enough is harder to come by than you think.

The regime of Bashar Al-Assad has been indiscriminately dropping barrel bombs on civilians for years. Russia is now using military force to prop up his regime. And now 224 are dead, at least 25 of them children. An eye for an eye? No. A blind man in the desert blocking out the light. And then the cold sets in…

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Sinai Plane Crash Could Cast Dark Shadow on Kremlin

William Echols

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Whether a terrorist attack related to Moscow’s foreign policy, a technical glitch or human error, the primary theories on how a Russian airliner crashed in Egypt this past weekend pose uncomfortable questions for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s polices at home and abroad.

Wreckage in the desert. Flowers on the streets. Russia is in mourning, and its people by and large have the world’s sympathy following the crash of Kogalymavia Flight 9268 on Saturday. Eight million people fly a day; over 3 billion a year. One need not be a member of the jet set to empathize with victims of a plane crash. Most have experienced panic on a particularly turbulent ride. Around one in five people suffer from Aviophobia — the fear of flying. Columnist Alex Preston called flying “a magnet for our vulnerability, for our fear of death, for our existential panic.” 

In Fight Club, the narrator, expresses his death wish through flying, praying for a crash or mid-air collision “ever time the plane banked too sharply on take-off or landing.” 

Read the entire article at Russia! Magazine 

*At least one supplementary entry for Russian Avos will be shortcoming.