Russia's parliament unanimously approved a resolution authorizing the use of force in Syria Wednesday morning, even as the first Russian-piloted warplanes were reportedly already going into action near the Syrian city of Homs.
The scene in Russia's parliament – which gave legal cover to an action the Kremlin had already decided on – was strongly reminiscent of the use-of-force resolution granted Mr. Putin in early March of last year to send Russian forces into Ukraine – several days after the operation had actually begun. In that case official Moscow fibbed volubly about the role of Russian special forces in taking over Crimea until Putin admitted it about a month later.
Asked by CBS's Charlie Rose in an interview aired just last Sunday if Russia was preparing to deploy combat troops to fight Islamic State positions in Syria, Putin answered: "Russia will not take part in any field operations on the territory of Syria or in other states; at least, we do not plan it for now. But we are thinking of how to intensify our work both with President [Bashar] al-Assad and our partners in other countries."
But now it's official. The Kremlin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Russian military action would be limited to airstrikes, and that the purpose of the deployment was "to fight terrorism and to support the legitimate Syrian leadership in the fight against terrorism and extremism."
Kremlin officials have also pointed out that Russian assistance was requested by Syria's government, thus making it legal. Moscow has already complained that US-led airstrikes in Syria, which lack an invitation from Damascus, are not.
"You all know well that in the territory of Syria and Iraq … a number of countries are carrying out bombing strikes, including the United States. These actions do not conform with international law. To be legal they should be supported either by a resolution of the UN Security Council, or be backed by a request from the country where the raids are taking place," Kremlin chief of staff Sergei Ivanov told journalists Wednesday.
Amid these developments, Russian media have been hammering home the message that there will be "no boots on the ground." That suggests the Kremlin is looking nervously over its shoulder at Russian public opinion, and its well-known aversion to any foreign military involvement since the former USSR's disastrous incursion into Afghanistan.
That may be a well-founded worry. A poll released Tuesday by the Levada Center, Russia's only independent polling agency, found that 69 percent of Russians are opposed to direct military involvement in Syria's civil war, with only 14 percent in favor. More than two-thirds of respondents favored extending diplomatic and political support to the Syrian regime, but fewer than half supported even limited military aid, such as training and advising Syrian forces.
"People are clearly scared that once we go into Syria we might get bogged down," says Alexei Makarkin, deputy director of the independent Center for Political Technologies in Moscow. "They are really afraid of a large-scale war that could involve our military conscripts, and touch upon the lives of their own families."