Syria: Russian triumph or more Kremlin deception?
A shell explodes in the Syrian city of Kobane. Source: Flickr
Russian President Vladimir Putin seemed rather pleased to announce the withdrawal of the bulk of his air power from Syria this week but this could be seen as more of an effort to score points over the west rather any strategically significant reduction in military muscle.
He seems as poised as ever to hammer the many groups that are challenging Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad for control of the tattered state.
It has been estimated that almost half of Russia’s fixed-wing aircraft previously based in Syria have been flown out back to southern Russia in the past two days, suggesting Moscow is accelerating what it said would be a partial withdrawal.
Putin surprised most observers on Monday when he announced that he had ordered the bulk of the Russia’s military contingent in the war-torn state to be pulled out after five months of air strikes. He said his objectives had been mostly achieved and was trying to contrast his ability to conduct a limited operation with the west’s failure to achieve this in numerous conflicts. Putin has long pointed to Nato’s prolonged, messy engagements in Afghanistan, Iraq and earlier in the former Yugoslavia as evidence of its lack of strategic vision, its inability to draw up objectives and its failure to know when to withdraw from a theatre. Cynics might also ask if the US needs ongoing involvement in the world’s trouble spots as a means to justify its eye-watering, Cold-War-era defence budget.
Russia has not told the media how many planes it is keeping at its Hmeymim base in Syria’s Latakia province but satellite imagery suggests there are about 36 fixed-wing jets there. At least 15 of those planes have flown missions in the past few days, including Su-24, Su-25, Su-30 and Su-34 jets.
Upgraded Soviet-era Su-24 and Su-25 jets planes appear to have been carrying out the majority of Russia’s operations in Syria. They had carried out 75-80 per cent of the more than 9,000 sorties flown, said Maksim Shepovalenko, a former Russian officer who is now deputy director of the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies. Russia’s formidable S-400 surface-to-air missiles will probably stay in Syria and a “few thousand” Russian troops are expected to stay behind. Other hardware will probably be handed over to the Syrian army.
Russia has already demonstrated its ability to strike targets in Syria from bases in southern Russia. It could fire cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea or use its a naval force in the Mediterranean. If called on, Alexander Kots, a military correspondent for the pro-Kremlin Komsomolskaya Pravda newspaper, claimed that Russia could return its air force in Syria to full strength within 48 hours.
The ongoing presence of Russian hardware in Syria has raised questions about how genuine Putin’s Monday proclamation was. The Kremlin seems to be getting increasingly irritable with the amount of media speculation about what forces it is leaving behind in its jealously guarded Syrian airbase. It is possible Putin has enjoyed his role as the world statesman, resolving the problems of far-away states in the manner of a Soviet leader, too much to just abandon the role.
The Kremlin has successfully distracted attention from its strengthening grip on Ukraine’s Crimean peninsular, its gruesome domestic human rights record and its economic woes caused by the falling price of oil while propping up a key strategic ally. The fact that the US and its Nato allies had been floundering for years while Syria spiralled into ever-deeper crisis clearly made a Syrian adventure too tempting. US President Barack Obama has been forced to drop his rhetoric that dresses Putin up as some kind of ex-KGB thug and is instead calling him for lengthy conference calls as they try to resolve the crisis before Obama leaves office in January.
Moscow appears to be sensitive about having its military movements subjected to too much scrutiny. Russian news portal lifenews.ru said an American aviation blogger had been detained on suspicion of spying. He had been caught near the Chkalovsky military airport north of Moscow and was later released, it said. A Russian security services source was quoted saying that two British diplomats had been caught covertly filming the Mozdok air base in southern Russia. The UK Foreign Office said the envoys were carrying out a routine trip and had undergone all the necessary Russian checks.
Few observers can be surprised that the Kremlin is being secretive but the apparent contradiction between its state of military readiness and Putin’s proclamation that his Syrian objectives have been largely achieved does suggest that Assad’s grip on power might not be as solid as Moscow makes out.