While Russia has withdrawn most of its forces from Syria, they could be sent back “within hours” if needed, Russian President Vladimir Putin warned on March 17, 2016. He made the statement during an official ceremony in Kremlin broadcasted by the Russian First Channel. Hundreds of servicemen – soldiers, officers, sailors, and military engineers – who took part in Russia’s five and a half-month military campaign in Syria attended the ceremony. The relatives of the five Russian soldiers who lost their lives in Syria were also present.
For the very first time, the cost of the Russian military involvement in Syria was revealed – 33 billion roubles or approximately $480 million USD. As stated by the Russian President, the funds were originally intended for military exercises, but again, according to Putin, they have not been spent in vain. This is of special concern in light of the needs to minimize military and financial risks, given the unenviable situation the Russian economic is facing. In his address, Putin stated:
I would like to stress here, in this hall, for the present audience, and for the whole country; Russia’s agenda today is certainly a peaceful one, it is to take care of the development of our economy in uneasy times. But without security, without building a combat-ready, efficient, and modern army and navy, we could not achieve our tasks. Moreover, without the latter, the very existence of a sovereign and independent Russia would be impossible.
He awarded seventeen servicemen with honours; four of them received the highest distinction – the Gold Star of Hero of the Russian Federation.
The main objective of our operation was to strike against terrorism. The fight against international terrorism is justified and righteousness. It is a fight with the enemies of civilization…I will repeat, the main objective of our operation in Syria was to stop this global terrible evil to spill over into Russia. In doing so, our country has proved its undisputed leadership, will, and responsibility, the Russian President added.
We have created the conditions for peace. We have established constructive and positive cooperation with the US and a number of other countries, with respectable opposition forces in Syria, who want to end the war and find a political solution of the conflict. You, Russian soldiers, paved that way, Putin stressed.
Despite declaring the mission over, it is far from over. Putin has stated that Russia will keep providing military and intelligence assistance to Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Although the exact numbers remain unclear, substantial Russian garrisons will remain in Syria at the Hmeymim airbase and Tartus naval facility. The latest Russian air-defence systems Pantsir and the S-400 Triumph remain on active duty in Syria.
All our partners have been warned that our air-defence systems will be used against any targets considered a threat for the Russian military personnel. I want to stress, against any targets, Putin noted.
Russian military personnel is also actively engaged in the peace talks with the opposition forces on behalf of Assad’s adherents.
A New Beginning?
All of the above demonstrates that the announced “end” of the Russian military campaign is far from over. But media crafting of the withdrawal in a terminal frame achieved Russia’s ends, both tactically and strategically. Strategically, it secured Russia’s interests in the region and in the Syrian political scene. As surprising as it started, so too was it ended. Game theory tells us that to be a successful player, one must play a random strategy to avoid being predictable. Whatever the Kremlin’s endgame in Syria is, the “surprise effect” of Putin’s decisions with regard to Syria makes him already unpredictable.
Tactically and in the short-run, the announcement of the Russian withdrawal was made in light of the peace talks in Geneva. This has allowed Russia to position itself as the primary instigator that paved the way for the peace process in Syria, as stated by the Russian President. The announced “end” also supports Russia’s earlier claims that Moscow’s intervention was not intended to be a long-term war, but simply a counter-terrorism operation. More than 26 years since the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia can now legitimately claim it has learned its lessons.
Thus, theoretically, Russia announced its withdrawal from Syria, but in practice, the situation resembles a new rehabilitated beginning for both Putin domestically and Russia’s international image following the Crimea annexation. Indeed, this is not the end of Russia’s involvement in Syria, but a new beginning.
Katarina Koleva is a PhD student at NPSIA and Managing Director at iAffairs.