Children gather next to members of the Russian military police in Syria GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

What Putin Wants in Syria

Putin has taken great care to present Russia’s military operation in Syria as a limited endeavor, undertaken solely for the purpose of ridding the world of the Islamic State. In fact, the Kremlin has a broader objective: to send the message that popular revolts aimed at overthrowing Russian allies will not succeed.

NEW YORK – On February 7-8, according to Western sources, a US-led airstrike on forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed at least 300 Russians, all working for the private military firm Wagner. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, however, claims that only five Russian citizens, with no connection to Russia’s armed forces, were killed and a few dozen wounded. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has even condemned Western reports about the deaths as “attempts to speculate on war.”

At first glance, Russia’s response is somewhat surprising. At a time of rising tensions with the United States, the attack amounted to a golden opportunity for the Kremlin to condemn its rival. And, typically, Russia seizes such opportunities: just recently, Russia’s United Nations envoy, Vasily Nebenzya, attacked his US counterpart, Nikki Haley, for calling Vladimir Putin’s “legitimately elected” government a “regime.”

Moreover, Russia is eager to hail its countrymen killed in battle as heroes. The military pilot Roman Filipov, killed in battle a few days before the US airstrike, has been celebrated for his valor. Andrei Malakhov, a television personality on the Kremlin-affiliated Rossiya 1 TV network, is now in Syria shooting a documentary about Filipov.

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