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Russian Warplanes Bomb Syria; Russian TV Takes On The U.S.


Let's move now to a new turn in the Syrian civil war. Russian warplanes are on a third day of airstrikes against rebel-held targets in Syria. Those airstrikes have led to accusations that they're killing civilians and also targeting rebel groups supported by the U.S., which has led, back in Moscow, to another offensive, a media war. NPR's Corey Flintoff has that story.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: Russian news media were full of accounts of the attacks in Syria, with announcers touting the pinpoint accuracy of the bombing raids and showing video of exploding targets. But the top story on the pro-Kremlin NTV channel wasn't directly about the airstrikes.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: It was about President Putin's reaction to Western criticism of the mission. In response to reports that the Russian action had killed civilians, Putin said, we're ready for such information attacks.


PRESIDENT VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Through interpreter) I'd like to draw your attention to the fact that the first information about victims among civilians had appeared before our planes got off the ground.

FLINTOFF: An opposition group called the Syrian National Council said that Russian airstrikes killed 36 civilians, including five children. But that claim could not be verified. Russian officials have routinely alleged that the United States is waging a propaganda war against their country. But those assertions have been particularly intense over the past few days. The Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Maria Zakharova, said there was an anti-Russian propaganda campaign that reminded her of a Hollywood movie.


MARIA ZAKHAROVA: (Speaking Russian).

FLINTOFF: "It was like the film "Wag The Dog,"" she said. That was a 1997 hit in which a Hollywood producer concocts a fake war for political reasons. Zakharova said the speed with which the criticism emerged proved that it was a preplanned act of what she called information aggression. Analyst Maria Lipman says the accusations show how relations between Washington and Moscow have broken down.

MARIA LIPMAN: Information war arises from relations that are not built on trust, when the motives and the actions of the other party are interpreted so that they would not look good. And I think we have this on both sides.

FLINTOFF: Lipman, a Moscow-based expert who's affiliated with George Washington University, says the Kremlin is determined to control its messages to both the Russian public world opinion. Coverage of the Syrian airstrikes has virtually supplanted news about the war in Ukraine, which has been the number one topic for months. Some Western analysts have speculated that Russia's military operation in Syria was undertaken in part as a way to draw attention from the Ukrainian conflict. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reacted angrily to that suggestion.


SERGEI LAVROV: I cannot speak about something which sick minds are presenting to the media. It's always possible, you know, to find some absurd interpretation of what is going on.

FLINTOFF: Maria Lipman agrees.

LIPMAN: I think it would be a really bad oversimplification to reduce all of it to an intention to overshadow the developments in Ukraine.

FLINTOFF: Lipman says that one of the strongest motives for Russia's action in Syria may simply be that President Putin does not want to be seen as allowing a longtime ally in the Middle East to lose. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Moscow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.