MOSCOW — The Russian Defense Ministry has launched its latest public relations campaign: a traveling exhibit of weaponry and equipment captured in Syria from opposition militants and terrorist groups.
On Feb. 23, Defender of the Fatherland Day, the military equipment was loaded onto a train that also doubles as a museum exhibit, titled “Syria’s turning point.” It was first displayed at Moscow's Kazansky railway terminal. The train will travel to about a dozen other cities, from Sevastopol in Crimea all the way to Vladivostok in the far east, covering more than 17,000 miles. The mobile exhibit will run until April 17, when Syria celebrates its independence day. The schedule and route of the train can be traced online.
Maj. Gen. Alexander Yaroshevich, the Defense Ministry's chief transport official, said the display aims “to offer a sense of what the army encounters in Syria,” according to Haaretz.
Soldiers and military officials who accompany the train will recount to visitors stories of how the equipment was seized.
The train is being welcomed to new cities and stations with much fanfare, attracting large crowds of locals who come to catch a glimpse of the artifacts. The train's 20 cars are divided by theme, including chemical agents, improvised explosives and automatic rifles. With more than 5,000 items on board, including armored personnel carriers and drones, the most popular exhibits are a Т-55 tank, an Eagle Head armored vehicle seized from the People's Protection Units, an Aardvark JSFU mobile mine detector and a Jeep Grand Cherokee “jihad-mobile.”
One train car contains a gift shop where visitors can buy Russian military paraphernalia, while another car is a military recruitment center.
The campaign, initiated by President Vladimir Putin himself, comes as part of a set of initiatives to whip up patriotic sentiment.
Syria has arguably been Russia’s most successful policy achievement over the last five years. Whereas Russia’s relationship with the West is at its lowest point in recent history, and the long proclaimed “pivot to Asia” hasn’t materialized as intended, the Middle East has emerged as a venue for Moscow to showcase its best diplomatic practices and brightest military breakthroughs.
The situation in Syria today is still complicated. While Moscow has inserted itself in spats between Israelis and Iranians, Turks and Kurds, it has also established itself as a go-to player among most local and regional actors. Yet, just as the Kremlin is trying to profit from its Syria success — by monetizing relationships and entering markets — the Syrian campaign, on the domestic front, doesn't inspire national pride or reinforce Putin's popularity.
An April 2018 Russian opinion poll on Syria, conducted by the nongovernmental Levada Center, concluded that 31% of those surveyed said they were watching the developments in Syria “very closely,” the highest percentage since June 2013, when such polling was first conducted. Meanwhile, 51% said they followed developments but “not very closely," with 14% saying they “didn’t know much about” the latest events in Syria. Asked whether people feared that Syria may bring Russia and the West to a third world war, 16% said they were “seriously concerned,” 41% had “some concerns,” and 27% and 11% said they didn’t have “much concern” or had “no concern,” respectively.
In March 2018, the state-run Russian Public Opinion Research Center conducted its own survey. Of the 84% who said they followed events in Syria, only 22% said they followed it “regularly.” Most expressed pessimism regarding developments in Syria: 25% said they saw the situation as a stalemate, while 17% believed things were getting worse. This is remarkable given that in September 2017, 58% said they felt the situation in Syria had stabilized. In February 2018, the number of “optimists” decreased to 38%.
That said, 73% of those surveyed believed that Moscow had achieved its goals in Syria. (Interestingly, the number was high among Russians over the age of 60 — 83% — and among those aged 18 to 24 — 61%.) However, when asked about Russia’s further participation in the conflict, 34% supported the Kremlin's current policies, 14% advocated for a more proactive stance, 24% said Moscow should either “halt its actions” or “choose a more cautious course,” and 11% argued Russia should cease its operation.
Finally, a media analysis found that, from January 2015 to February 2018, the word "Syria" appeared in the Russian media over 3.2 million times. While no further analysis was conducted, it's apparent that the presence of the Syria issue in the Russian public sphere has visibly decreased, with the domestic socio-economic agenda dominating discourse.
Besides, since the future of the Syrian war and the post-war settlement is precarious, the Russian leadership is seeking to take advantage of the opportunity and make the most of its spoils of war.
However, the traveling exhibit has provoked mixed reactions, including criticism that the funds used for the exhibit could've been better directed toward the social needs of the people.
Alexey Avetisyan, a lawyer in the southern city of Krasnodar, together with his colleagues, appealed to the regional prosecutor’s office to investigate the train exhibit.
“To show to the kids the swords with which terrorists have been chopping [off] heads of the captives, or exhibit the explosive devices used to bomb civilians, is this acceptable?” Avetsiyan complained on Facebook.
“We believe all this rubbish [military equipment] should be either simply destroyed or used by the military exclusively," he added. "By showing it around the country [the military is] intimidating the population [and] methodically propagating the politics of 'aggressive militarism.'"
Another social media user raised an important question concerning Russia’s participation in the Syria conflict.
“Well, if Russian forces didn’t participate in a ground operation, as Putin and [Defense Minister Sergei] Shoigu have stated several times, where did they get the trophies from? Did they steal them from the allies — Iran and Hezbollah?” the person asked on Twitter. The account was soon deleted.
Others joked, saying that instead of a military exhibit “on wheels,” the government should have launched a “food train” across the country following the highly contested Russian pension reform.
Those who applaud the initiative say it should have been carried out in a more organized way, with the ministry doing a better job raising awareness of the exhibit so more people could see it.
The military itself believes that a “patriotic upbringing,” which is a goal of the exhibit, is integral to the strengthening of Russia’s defense potential.
“We have long argued that exploiting a country’s protest potential to later use as a pretext to intervene or stage a special operation is how modern and future warfare will be conducted," a high-level military official told Al-Monitor, arguing that what happened in Libya and Syria "is now happening in Venezuela. There’s only one way to shield from this kind of threat: by instilling a sense of patriotism in the people, in the youths.”
He continued, “They should take pride in the heroic deeds of their countrymen in the military. Things like this train exhibit help them feel part of this historic experience."
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