KIEV – Two years ago, as Russian fighter jets began landing at the Khmeimim air base in Syria, military experts in the West were predicting a disaster for Moscow. The Russian army had yet to recover from the depredations of the post-Soviet period and would be incapable of sustaining a long-term deployment far from Russia’s shores. Meanwhile, the Russians would be sucked into the swamp of the Syrian civil war, and the mounting casualties would create a PR calamity for President Vladimir Putin back home.
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Fast-forward 24 months and none of that has happened. Russia has kept its squadron in Syria at a decent operational tempo. Both its men and machines remain well-supplied through daily airlifts by giant Ilyushin and Antonov transport planes and ships arriving at the Mediterranean ports of Tartus and Latakia.
The casualties have been relatively light, mainly because most ground battles of Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime have been carried out by Shi’ite forces led by Iranian officers. Aside from air power, Russia has supplied limited teams of Spetsnaz special forces operators and military advisers, and any deaths among them have been hidden from the Russian public.
Syria has not turned out to be a quagmire for Russia, no rerun of Vietnam or Afghanistan. “It’s easy to make a military success when you have no problem bombing schools, mosques and bakeries,” says one Western diplomat stationed in Moscow, but it’s impossible to ignore that Putin’s Syrian gamble has paid off.
“In Syria, Russia is now in the driver's seat,” added former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last weekend at the annual Yalta European Strategy forum in Kiev. “It’s part of Putin’s plan to restore Russia as a great power that is a necessary partner in all international events.”
The Ukrainian mud
Two years ago, when the Russian deployment was just beginning, the consensus at the Kiev forum was that Putin’s main objective was to create a lever for pressure on the West. This would allow him to get his way in eastern Ukraine, where pro-Russian separatists, with the active support of barely concealed Russian army units, were bogged down in a conflict with Ukrainian government forces. That hasn’t worked out well.
In talks with Western governments, Russia’s representatives indeed offered “cooperation in fighting against terror” in Syria. In return, they wanted the West to ease some of the sanctions imposed on Russia following its annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine. “We refused,” says a diplomat who was involved in the talks. “They have an interest in us fighting terror with them, so why give on Ukraine?”
Ironically, two years later, from the Russian perspective, Syria is a success story while eastern Ukraine remains a mess. The Russian army had to send in ground forces, which resulted in hundreds of coffins being shipped back home. In addition, there are millions of Russian speakers there who can complain about food and electricity shortages. Russia has no choice but to spend millions each month propping up the separatist regions and is shelling out billions for a new bridge to Crimea, along with gas pipelines. In contrast, no one expects Russia to invest in civilian infrastructure or even food for the local population in Syria, making the operation there much cheaper.
Another financial advantage for the Russians in Syria is that while they have kept their military operations in Ukraine largely secret for diplomatic reasons, in Syria they have been happy to show the world what they can do. As a result, Syria has also become a department store window displaying the latest in Russian weapons systems offered for sale to other countries.
But now that the survival of the Assad regime has been ensured and the enclaves controlled by rebels and the Islamic State are shrinking, what next for Putin in Syria? Russia has no plans to move its forces as of yet, even though the level of fighting is steadily decreasing. For a start, it plans to establish permanent air and sea bases there. Then Putin wants to play peacemaker – between Iran and Turkey and the Kurds. And between Sunni Arab states and Iran’s Shi’ite axis. And then, who knows, he could even achieve the impossible: an accommodation of sorts between Israel and Iran. Russia’s hold on Syria is crucial for all of these.
Six more years
But Syria is still a sideshow for Putin. It has reestablished Russia’s standing as a global player, but he is still focused on Russia’s “near abroad,” the countries to its west that were once either Soviet republics or members of the Warsaw Pact and now lean toward the West. Key among them is Ukraine, where Putin has established a foothold in Crimea and the Donets River basin – the Donbass. But the foothold remains unstable – expensive and unrecognized by the rest of the world.
And then there is Putin’s belief that the West is still intent on undermining him with its infernal insistence on democracy and human rights. Russia’s cyber-interference in last year’s U.S. election was a successful retaliation, but it was just another round.
In March there will be a presidential election in Russia. Putin is unlikely to make any major steps before that – not that he’s worried about losing. He just wants to win big, and preferably without any major protests before or after.
After that, he will have six more years to shape Russia’s future. He’s aware that his success in Syria has largely been due to the vacuum left by the Obama administration and now by Trump’s inaction. With a shrinking population and contracting economy based on dwindling income from energy exports, there is a limit to how long Russia can punch above its weight. After the election, Putin may have to take drastic steps, both at home and abroad.