MOSCOW – Vladimir Putin cited Russian military success in Syria as his reason for scaling back his forces there. But his belief that the intervention delivered him a seat at the top table of world affairs is more likely to have tipped his hand.
Russia’s Syria operation, launched on Sept. 30 last year, made military, diplomatic and domestic political sense for the Kremlin, which was keen to shore up its closest Middle East ally and protect its only naval facility on the Mediterranean. It has largely achieved both aims.
But an analysis of comments made by the Russian president and other officials, and conversations with people familiar with his thinking, suggests his primary aim was to make Russia so indispensable to the Syrian peace process that it could regain a measure of the global clout the Soviet Union once enjoyed.
“Russia has returned to the global board of directors,” said Alexander Baunov, a senior associate at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “(It has returned) to the table where world and regional powers decide the fate of others’ conflicts and Russia is clearly not a local but a world player.”
Putin is famously inscrutable and unpredictable, and his decision to draw down in Syria was no exception. He confides in only a small coterie of people around him, and it came as a total surprise for many in the Kremlin and the Defense Ministry.
“I spent all day at the Defense Ministry and did not hear a peep,” one defense industry source told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.
State propaganda outlets spoke on Tuesday of a “mission accomplished,” a phrase that deliberately mimicked the one plastered on a U.S. warship in 2003 when President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations in Iraq.
The real mission, some say, was to give Russia a say in world affairs.
In the space of six months it has gone from being a pariah state in the West because of its annexation of Crimea and support for pro-Kremlin rebels in eastern Ukraine to being the go-to partner over Syria. Once spurned by Western leaders, it is now a regular interlocutor for both Washington and EU leaders.
“Putin has already got all the political benefits,” said Nikolai Petrov, a political expert at the Higher School of Economics in Moscow. “It is better to withdraw before costs increase, before any accident can happen, and before the risks become too high.”
Reuters estimates the 5-month operation has cost the Kremlin $700 million-800 million. The human cost has been higher. Although the official Russian military body count is just four, the Islamic State group claimed it blew up a Russian passenger plane over Egypt in October, killing all 224 people onboard, in revenge for Syria.
Reasserting Russia’s global voice is crucial to Putin, who has been alternately president and prime minister for over 15 years, and is thought to have a close eye on his historical legacy while showing no signs of wanting to leave the Kremlin.
He has long pushed for a new multilateral world order where other powers counter-balance U.S. influence.
In a speech to the United Nations in New York in September, in a barely disguised dig at the United States, he complained of the “arrogance, exceptionalism and impunity” of those he said had engineered the Arab Spring.
Dmitry Medvedev, his prime minister and ally, outlined the world order the Kremlin craved as recently as last month, evoking the 1962 Cuban missile crisis as a model of how Moscow and Washington were able to solve dangerous crises.
He said he believed the world’s powers could come together in “a fair and equal union” to maintain global peace.
Russian officials say recent events show how Moscow has, once again, come to matter.
They point out that it was Russia, along with the United States, which co-brokered the current cessation of hostilities in Syria, however fragile. Officials also rarely miss a chance to note that it is the Americans who have time and time again come to them for help over Syria.
John Kerry, the U.S. Secretary of State, flew to Moscow in December to discuss Syria with Putin, and has recently spoken almost daily to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, Kremlin and White House statements confirm.
Even Putin’s critics have recognized the clout Syria has gifted the Russian leader.
“There’s one man on this planet who can end the civil war in Syria by making a phone call and that’s Mr. Putin,” Philip Hammond, Britain’s foreign secretary, told BBC TV last month.
By scaling back after a campaign of over 9,000 sorties, the Kremlin has made it less likely it will be dragged into a potential regional conflict with Turkey or Saudi Arabia.
And although it did not in the end help bag a spectacular battlefield victory, such as the complete taking of Aleppo, the Kremlin thinks it has done enough to ensure that Syrian President Bashar Assad and his forces can hold the line.
Domestically, the intervention helped keep Putin’s ratings near record highs and served as a useful distraction at a time of economic pain. Amid brass bands and rousing speeches, state TV on Tuesday presented the decision to start drawing down forces as the culmination of a short, victorious war.
But though Putin’s partial Syria withdrawal may be seen as a diplomatic coup by some, his country’s return to the world stage has not been a complete success.
U.S. and EU sanctions imposed over the Ukraine crisis remain in place and compound a domestic financial crisis made worse by the collapse in oil prices.
And the decision to scale back Russian forces was, some analysts believe, conversely dictated more by weakness and a realization that Russia could not make a deal with the West over Syria to lift sanctions on it.
Others, including one Western diplomat who told Reuters the news came as a complete and inexplicable surprise, say Putin’s motives are unfathomable.
“None of us knows what the intent of Mr. Putin is when he carries out any action, which is why he is a very difficult partner in any situation like this,” Britain’s Hammond said Tuesday.
Putin’s move is being interpreted in some circles as an attempt to influence the outcome of Syrian peace talks in Geneva and possibly to put pressure on Assad to get serious about doing a deal.
Yet few inside Russia believe Assad is in danger of losing Putin’s support, even if the Kremlin does want him to contest any future presidential election.
Putin has shown no particular fondness for the Syrian leader but appears to see little point in replacing him with someone who might turn out to be even worse and does not believe Syria is ready for Western-style democracy anyway.
Putin has in any case hedged his bets.
If he feels his newfound global influence or Assad is threatened he can use the two military bases left behind to rapidly expand the Kremlin’s military footprint.
His public relations strategy is also hedged.
“If the cease-fire turns into a lengthy peace he will automatically be considered the victor,” said Carnegie’s Baunov. “But if war breaks out again, he can always say: ‘You see, when we were there everyone was making peace but after we left war erupted.’ “