Syria Palmyra concert: Canny Putin puts himself centre stage

Syria Palmyra concert: Canny Putin puts himself centre stage

We drove for more than 200 miles (320 km) through the dangerous territory of central Syria, with armoured vehicles behind and in front of us and Russian military helicopters circling overhead, bristling with weaponry.

In the seven coaches that made up our convoy were a couple of dozen world-class musicians from Russia's Mariinskiy Theatre Orchestra, including Vladimir Putin's close personal friend, the cellist Sergei Roldugin, who was recently implicated in the Panama Papers tax scandal.

There were also about 100 journalists in the convoy, the majority of them Russian but with a number from foreign countries as well - Britain, Canada, the United States and China among them.

This was an exceptionally large and unwieldy party to escort through a country involved in one of the world's nastiest civil wars.

Imagine the reaction if something had happened to us. It would have been a public relations disaster for President Putin and the Kremlin; the perception would have been that Russia had no real grip on Syria.

There was one moment on our way back from Palmyra to the coastal city of Latakia, at night-time, when our military guides warned us that there was shooting on the road ahead. We were ordered to close our curtains and switch off any sources of light. So the security wasn't entirely for show.

Only the strongest motive could have persuaded the Kremlin to take a risk like this.

A PR masterpiece

The concert went off remarkably well, with the orchestra playing (if only for 20 minutes - about the shortest concert the Mariinsky has ever played, I imagine) in the magnificent Roman-era theatre of Palmyra.

Russian television produced some brilliant shots, including one from a camera on a blimp a few hundred feet above the ruins.

On a huge screen on one side of the stage, President Putin appeared live from the Kremlin in Moscow, praising his armed forces for everything they had done in Syria. Mr Putin must have been feeling pretty relieved that nothing had gone wrong.

But whatever was it all about? Why go to so much trouble, and run such risks?

There's a simple answer. This coming Monday is the big Russian celebration of VE Day. It won't be as grand an occasion as last year, the 70th anniversary, but it will still be pretty big. President Putin clearly wants to show that under him the Russian Federation is as successful and strong as the old Soviet Union was under Stalin, back in 1945.

What better way to demonstrate the new world-reach of Russian power than to have Russia's best orchestra playing Prokofiev in the heart of the ancient city which Russian arms had played a major part in liberating from the so-called Islamic State? Brilliant, as long it worked. And it did work, magnificently.

The real hero of Palmyra

Watching from the Kremlin, a tad nervously, I thought - he knocked the microphone awkwardly at one point - Mr Putin had cause to feel pretty pleased with himself. He quite often seems to, at present.

Of course the whole thing was distinctly heavy-handed. That's another key indicator of Russian power at present. A purist would say that a bit of self-effacing modesty would have gone down better with the Syrians, and with the worldwide audience too.

But Mr Putin isn't exactly concentrating on Syrian public opinion at the moment. His big audience is at home in Russia.

The Syrian soldiers I was sitting with at the theatre in Palmyra applauded politely and tried to steer clear of the Russian soldiers, who don't always treat them with maximum care.

But the senior Russian officers at the very topmost tier of the theatre were absolutely delighted, clapping enthusiastically when Mr Putin spoke and grinning at each other. They knew that their boss had scored a public-relations triumph.

Palmyra was until recently a place of horror, where 12-year-old boys were handed guns and made to shoot Syrian army prisoners in the back of the head on the stage of the theatre.

A photograph on stage commemorated Palmyra's chief of antiquities, Khaled al-Asaad, who helped to get many of Palmyra's finest treasures out of the city as IS closed in, and was beheaded when he refused to give the militants what they wanted. He was the real hero of Palmyra.

Perhaps, then, turning this occasion into a tribute to Vladimir Putin and his forces was a little less than tactful. But there is no doubt about it, in this breathtaking Roman setting the Russians staged a near-Roman triumph. And they made sure the world knew about it.

Source: BBC