On Monday, two Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian plane that had crossed into Turkish airspace. Various interpretations could in theory be placed upon this event. Depending on one’s point of view, it could be described as an act of self-defense on the part of Turkey, a NATO member—or an act of aggression. But to Vladimir Putin, and to his claque in the Russian media, only one question matters: To which of his narratives should it belong?
I realize that sounds like an overly literary, possibly even pretentious way to describe Russian strategic communications. But follow the Russian media over any time period and you soon begin to see patterns in the reporting of news. Nothing ever just “happens.” Every event is always part of a larger story, usually a conspiracy theory. Russia, or rather a plot to destroy or undermine Russia, always lies at the center. Elements of reality are included in the story, but distorted with virtual reality in order to suit the story line.
Over the past couple of years, we’ve watched several versions of this process unfold. Famously, the Euromaidan demonstrations in Ukraine in 2014 were repeatedly interpreted by the Kremlin as a revival of Nazism, inspired and supported by NATO. The Russian foreign minister scolded Germany for supporting a “Brown Revolution.” Patriotic television entertainment depicted fantasy battles between Russian biker gangs and “Ukrainian fascists” bearing swastikas or NATO symbols. The propaganda continued even when elections brought centrists to power and excluded the tiny far-right parties in Ukraine from any serious influence, and even when NATO failed to come to the military defense of Ukraine.
With the Russian bombardment of Syria, Putin launched a new narrative. At the U.N. General Assembly in September, he called for an anti-terror coalition “similar to the anti-Hitler coalition” which could “unite a broad range of forces that are resolutely resisting those who, just like the Nazis, sow evil and hatred of humankind.” This time, the enemies were not Ukrainians but terrorists. The anti-NATO language was toned down. Patriotic television news showed effective strikes against terrorist cells. This propaganda continued even as it became clear that the Russians were targeting all opponents of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, mostly not ISIS.
The Russian media did not dispense with their previous obsessions, of course. Instead, they connected the dots. Russian state television has claimed that Ukraine is a “supplier of weapons to ISIS.” The Russian Defense Ministry’s television channel, meanwhile, has declared that ISIS fighters are being trained in Ukraine. It seemed possible, for a time, that both enemies could be maintained at once.
But Turkey has now added a new level of complexity. Is the downing of the plane a part of the Nazi/NATO “aggression against Russia”? If so, that might require a Russian response to NATO. Is it part of the terrorist plot against Russia? If so, that looks a bit odd, given that Turkey claims to be fighting terrorism, too.
For the moment, Russia has chosen the second option. The NATO element has been left out. Turkey, a false friend, and an “accomplice of terrorists” has “stabbed us in the back,” Putin declared. “The Turks are saving ISIS,” one “expert” said on Russian state television.
Given the alternatives, that’s good news: It means that Russia is unlikely to respond to the Turks militarily and unlikely to drag NATO into broader conflict. It could also mean that Putin still hopes to be part of a larger coalition in Syria, or that he still wants a role in whatever Western diplomatic effort might eventually bring the war to an end. After all, he needs evidence for another one of his narratives: That he has brought back his country’s “superpower” status and its international influence.
But that doesn’t mean that the story has come to an end. What if there are further Russian losses, or another plane is shot down? What if the Syrian war begins to go badly, or becomes unpopular in Russia? Then the Kremlin will need an explanation for its failures and the narrative will have to change again. NATO might still prove an excellent villain. The only question is whether Russia’s response will then play itself out in virtual reality—or in real life.