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Russia’s media savors Moscow’s upper hand in Syria, while noting pitfalls

Newly arrived Russian soldiers line up at the Russian military base of Hmeimim near Syria's Mediterranean coast on Sept. 26, 2019. (Maxime Popov/AFP/Getty Images)

MOSCOW — It was 20 years ago when a Russian peacekeeping force based in Bosnia suddenly dashed across Kosovo and established itself at the Pristina airport, practically under the noses of the arriving NATO troops.

Back home, the Russian media was giddy at the thrill of it all. A badly weakened, virtually bankrupt, and almost completely ignored Russia in the late 1990s had pulled a fast one on the West (without any casualties on either side, to be sure). The NATO soldiers — Canadians — stopped at the airport perimeter and shrugged. The Russians strutted.

This week, Russians were again on the march, moving in to fill the vacuum in Syria created by the departure of American troops. Russians took on the task of keeping Syrian government forces and the invading Turkish army separated. President Vladimir Putin was at the same time on something of a regal tour of Arab capitals, complete with bands, horsemen, falcons and fighter jets.

What a difference two decades makes.

Russian pundits this week savored the prominence and deference their country has achieved. But there was less surprise and less triumphalism — and more reflection on the challenges ahead than at that scrappy moment in 1999.

In the Mideast, there’s one country everyone talks to: Russia

A viral YouTube video featured a Russian reporter smirking as he rummaged through a just-abandoned American outpost in Syria. At the same time, the media in Russia was mindful of two realities: that Russia was taking advantage of a situation not of its own making, but of President Trump’s; and that Turkey’s invasion of Syria could easily spin out of control.

“Trump’s mistake on Syria could be described as an unexpected ‘lottery prize,’” wrote Mikhail Rostovsky in Moskovsky Komsomolets, a big-circulation newspaper that is a reliable booster of the Kremlin. “It has further strengthened Moscow’s position in the Middle East and damaged America’s reputation as a prudent political actor and a reliable partner.”

“Russia has shown an ability to carry out a policy of quick responses rather than long-term strategies,” wrote Fyodor Lukyanov in Rossiskaya Gazeta, the official state newspaper.

In an interview on the liberals’ favorite radio station, Ekho Moskvy, Alexei Malashenko of the Carnegie Moscow Center think tank warned that Russia “had fallen on a pair of scissors.”

Both Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad have minds of their own, he said, and both look out for their own interests, which are not necessarily Russia’s.

In the worst case scenario, he said, fighting would break out between Russian and Turkish forces. In the best case, he said, the Turks show that they have genuinely intervened to “help their Syrian brothers,” and Turks and Russians and Syrians all agree to get along.

“But you know,” he said, “that’s a fairy tale.”

On the Russian state television channel, Middle East bureau chief Yevgeny Poddubny told viewers their country was taking a “restrained stance” on the situation in Syria, avoiding harsh rhetoric even as the Americans suffer a “serious blow to their reputation” for “abandoning their allies.”

Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, on Monday, and Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, on Tuesday, occasioned more flamboyant, and in some cases fawning, coverage.

Even the most Kremlin-friendly news organizations treated the ostentatious welcome ceremonies as just a little over the top. The best twist, everyone seemed to agree, was the way the UAE painted and labeled the cars that accompanied Putin’s motorcade so they resembled Russian traffic police vehicles.

They wanted to make him feel at home, the reporters said.

Still, a website called, a tabloidy organization that caters to the needs of the authorities, took the occasion to feature a photo spread of all the ways Putin has been treated like royalty by countries in the Middle East and around the world.

State television found much to praise.

“Russia has in recent years won in the Arab world the status of a country that one ought to listen to and with which it is safe to do business,” a reporter on the Rossiya 1 channel said.

“Our president,” said a Channel 1 journalist, has acted as an “effective mediator” in a region beset by conflict and suspicion. He has managed to do “what even the powerful Soviet Union failed to do.”

A columnist for the state-owned RIA-Novosti news service, Ivan Danilov, took satisfaction from the presidential trip, during which the fighting in Syria and a number of energy deals were discussed.

“The visit of Vladimir Putin to Saudi Arabia and the UAE,” he wrote, “provides a rare opportunity to enjoy the self-flagellation and overt sorrow of Western experts on foreign policy and energy markets.”

Natalia Abbakumova contributed to this report.

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