Taking a risky 72-hour ride inside the Russian military's information war

Russia's Ministry of Defence is waging an ambitious and aggressive information war surrounding its intervention in the Syrian conflict. CBC News went inside Syria with the Russian military as it staged a 72-hour media tour complete with an orchestral performance.

Media invited along as Ministry of Defence carries out plan to showcase influence and deflect criticism

Russia's Ministry of Defence is carrying out an ambitious plan to showcase its influence as both a modern military power and a key negotiator in the Syrian conflict, seeking to deflect criticism over its bombing campaign in support of President Bashar al-Assad's Syrian forces.

It's using a well-crafted media campaign to promote its message, pushing beyond the mostly friendly Russian media, and engaging with foreign media.

In the annals of military public affairs, it's hard to imagine what other country in the developed world would stage as bold and as risky a plan as Russia did last week — escorting 100 of the world's global media and an acclaimed world orchestra to a war zone recently liberated from ISIS fighters.

The logistics alone would have raised red flags in many other military war rooms. 

Herd 100 of the world's reporters, photographers and videographers on tourist buses for a seven-hour drive to the Syrian desert through recently active fighting territory. Tell reporters nothing in advance about the destination or the dramatic events to follow — just a normal day on tour with the Russian military in Syria.

Russian armoured transport vehicles escort a convoy of media and the Mariinsky Theatre orchestra to Palmyra, Syria. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

The convoy to Palmyra on Thursday was the most brazen media show of Russian power to date. Armoured vehicles in front and back escorted the media buses, flanked by attack helicopters flying alongside the route.

A third of the way along in the journey, at a gas station festooned with posters of Assad, three more buses joined the convoy and security intensified.

At the time, reporters could not confirm who was riding along to Palmyra in a remote part of the Syrian desert, nearly 250 kilometres by road from Damascus, but it was clear they were VIPs.

Potential high-impact target

For the last 100 kilometres, Syrian soldiers stood at attention guarding each of the crossroads, virtually shutting down the highway.

The convoy was big, obvious, a potential high-impact target. The fact that it successfully travelled hundreds of kilometres indicates the degree of control that Russia with the help of Syrian forces currently commands in that part of Syria — or it illustrates the risk Russia's willing to take to promote its message.

The Ministry of Defence would not divulge the cost, but unofficial estimates suggest that kind of security would demand a healthy budget.

The head of culture for the military told CBC it was Valery Gergiev, an acclaimed music conductor in Russia, who first came up with the idea for a concert by the Mariinsky Theatre orchestra in Palmyra and that planning took as long as a month.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad shares the billing with Russian President Vladimir Putin at an airport in Latakia, Syria. Russia's intervention last September helped strengthen Syrian government forces. (CBC)

Then to add a touch of "Only in Russia" flavouring, cellist Sergei Roldugin performed a solo. Roldugin, a close friend of Russian President Vladimir Putin, was named in the Panama Papers as controlling secret offshore accounts. He says the money was for purchases of rare musical instruments.

The optics were obvious — Bach filled the air in a 2,000-year-old amphitheatre, one of the ancient monuments of a UNESCO World Heritage Site where last July ISIS filmed the beheading of its enemies.

On stage this time was a large photograph of 82-year-old archeologist Khaled al-Assad, who is credited with putting Palmyra on the map as a cultural treasure and who was executed as an "apostate" by ISIS.

Russia believes its role in liberating Palmyra in May is under-appreciated. An earlier, much smaller press tour by helicopter to Palmyra garnered little attention outside Russia as some international media, including CBC News, were either not invited or ultimately unwilling to go.

Biggest press tour to date

At the time, the commander of the ministry's press office, a tough and imposing major general named Igor Konoshenkov, was critical.

"They all wanted to come they said, they were on the list, and then literally one hour before leaving they all refused for different reasons," Konoshenkov told Russian and a few foreign media in Palmyra in April.

"How after this, can you speak of any objectivity or independence in the coverage of the peace process here?"

Russian Maj-Gen. Igor Konoshenkov briefs members of the media at air base near Latakia in western Syria. (CBC)

So the ministry regrouped and organized its largest press tour to date. The invitation list was solely up to the Ministry of Defence in consultation with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which accredits all media based or visiting Russia.

Our CBC News team, which was operating a pop-up bureau in Moscow for the last four months, got a call just three days in advance.

There were no documents to sign detailing rules of engagement. Restrictions on what a reporting team could write or say were limited to filming or photographing sensitive areas on the Russian air base in Latakia, Syria.

But over the 72 hours, the media was confined to areas organized in advance, not invited to front line areas. It was made clear that Russia's Ministry of Defence would review all of the reports coming out of Syria — on the flight back to Moscow journalists were told to send in links to their stories for review. We did, after the trip.

Aggressive and charming

Orchestrating the daily events was a 27-year-old press officer who bears a confidence and authority beyond her years.

Maria Okuneva holds a commanding control of media wanting access to the Ministry of Defence. She is both aggressive and charming and can easily cut off access if a reporter crosses her or Konoshenkov. Those much higher in the command hierarchy joke even they "are afraid of Maria."

Journalists flew overnight from Moscow to the Hmeymim airbase in Latakia, Syria. In the background, Maria Okuneva, the gatekeeper for the Russian Ministry of Defence press centre, gives instructions to members of the global media. (Corinne Seminoff/CBC)

The first day began at 7 a.m. with a visit to the Russian airbase in Latakia for a tour of soldiers' barracks, exercise areas, a military parade and a look at about a dozen fixed wing aircraft on the runway as Russian Su-24 and Su-30 fighter jets took off and landed.

In spite of Putin's surprise announcement in mid-March to pull back "the bulk" of Russian military assets from Syria, it was clear the Latakia base is fully active and operational.

Estimates vary but military analysts suggest only between 10 and 30 per cent of its operations were cut back. A fragile "cessation of hostilities" in April meant fewer airstrikes, but in four days last week Russia carried out 80 sorties, a considerable number.

In the afternoon Wednesday, media were bused several hours to Kaukab, a village recaptured from the al-Nusra front.

Villagers brandishing posters of Assad were celebrating, but it was unclear exactly what they were celebrating. We were told the repatriation of their village, but there were varying reports of when the enemy had fled and how.

In the hour allowed, it was difficult to confirm whether the villagers had assembled only for our visit or were actually living there. Men of unknown identity, with their faces covered, lined up to turn in their weapons to local officials in a "reconciliation" ceremony.

Russia says it has carried out 92 similar agreements with 52 armed groups. The military handed out bread and food to the villagers and conducted a mobile medical clinic.

What would the foreign reporters say?

The Russian media on the tour were keenly interested in what "foreign" journalists would report.

In a scrum Wednesday in Latakia, they asked Konoshenkov "what provocative questions the international media were asking," and questioned "what message Russia was trying to send to bring so many international media on the tour."

Russian broadcasters, largely sympathetic to the Kremlin, have been invited multiple times to accompany the military to Syria. Russia's "successes" in Syria are regularly headline news.

A Syrian girl can wander again amongst the pillars of Palmyra. Russian airstrikes helped liberate the city from ISIS fighters in March.

At a large scrum with UNESCO ambassadors in Palmyra, Konoshenkov demanded many of the Russian broadcasters remove the IDs on their microphones, not wanting it seemed for the news conference to appear dominated by Russian media.

Caught up in the "bubble" in Palmyra with spotty cellphone connection and little mobile data, news of a reported airstrike on a refugee camp that killed at least 28 in northwest Syria did not filter through until much later.

Russia disputed later that it was an airstrike at all and says no Russian or other planes flew sorties in that area Thursday.

There was no access to the town of Palmyra, which suffered through almost a year of control under ISIS. Brief glimpses on the ride in showed buildings destroyed from the bombardment in early March in advance of Syrian ground troops.

In fact, there was little evidence of Syrians at all — even though this is Syrian territory.

Long trip back

Putin opened the concert by video link from his home in Sochi. Another concert with a Syrian choir and VIPs was scheduled for the following day, but the media would be flying back to Moscow by then.

As the concert ended and dusk enveloped the Syrian desert, the military minders herded up the media again onto buses for the long travel back to Latakia.

More than 100 members of the media were escorted by Russian military to the ruins in Palmyra, Syria, a place that was mostly inaccessible two months before when ISIS controlled it. (Susan Ormiston/CBC)

Night travel is more dangerous and at one point on the seven-hour ride back, journalists were suddenly told to turn off their laptops, extinguishing the light coming off the screens, and pull the curtains tightly closed on the bus's windows.

Soldiers accompanying the buses went into ready alert as we snaked through the desert.

On a Khrushchev-era plane returning to Moscow the next night, tensions relaxed, military minders smiled broadly for the first time in three days.

Russia's Ministry of Defence clearly considered the tour a "success" — an interim "mission accomplished" as far as public affairs goes, reinforcing the reality that Russia's intervention in Syria is both a tactical war of airstrikes and an information war. 


Susan Ormiston

Senior correspondent

Susan Ormiston's career spans more than 25 years reporting from hot spots such as Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya, Haiti, Lebanon and South Africa.