Analysis

Putin's Surprise Withdrawal From Syria Is Part of His Master Election Plan

Days after announcing his plan to seek reelection next March, the Russian president tells his countrymen their sons are coming home from an unpopular and costly war

Russian President Vladimir Putin addresses the troops at the Hemeimeem air base in Syria, December 11, 2017.
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP

What better way to jump-start an election campaign than to end an unpopular and costly war?

Just days after announcing his bid to seek reelection next year, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday made a surprise visit to Syria, where he ordered the withdrawal of most Russian troops from the country. “You are coming home with a victory, the motherland is waiting for you, my friends,” Putin told military personnel, before embracing Syrian President Bashar Assad at the Khmeimim air base.

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For over two years, Russia has militarily supported Assad’s regime, reversing the tide of the war and delivering success to the regime in Damascus. Both Putin and Assad said they had achieved their mission of wiping out the Islamic State. Putin’s surprise announcement follows Assad’s unexpected visit to Moscow two weeks ago. Meeting in the Black Sea resort of Sochi, the two men had hugged each other tightly then, too.

Putin’s pronouncement came at the beginning of a week that will see his annual, widely televised press conference, attended by over 1,000 journalists who come to hear him sum up the year’s results.

>> Putin’s Syria victory lap teaches Middle Eastern leaders one important lesson | Analysis

The Russian leader will now be able to field questions about successes in Syria, rather than failures or questions over the timing of the withdrawal. Though Putin is largely expected to win the March election – a win that would extend his 18-year grip on the country by another six years – voter apathy is the highest it has been for a long time.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking during his press conference with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi in Cairo, Egypt, December 11, 2017.
Alexander Zemlianichenko/pool photo via AP

According to independent Russian pollster the Levada Center last week, 40 percent of Russians say they are not interested in voting in the election – almost double that of a decade ago. Rallying support among an electorate used to seeing the same man and the same ruling United Russia party for almost two decades is proving difficult.

In an attempt to lure more voters, the Kremlin will make Election Day, March 18, a holiday in Russia, the RBC news outlet reported, citing sources.

A low election turnout in parliamentary elections just over a year ago was embarrassing for the Kremlin, where maintaining legitimacy is key in a country battling a youth-driven opposition movement. 

Observers say the election campaign needs to sparkle in a sea of monotony, and that the Kremlin chief is distinctly aware of this. This may explain why two women – including the TV personality and opposition member Ksenia Sobchak – have declared their intention to run against Putin, a rare sight in Russian politics.

After last week’s decision by the International Olympics Committee to bar Russia from competing in next year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, because of state-sponsored doping, Putin immediately spun the judgment to his advantage, saying it was “politically motivated.” Analysts were quick to point out that Putin used the IOC ban to emerge as the true protector of his country, in the face of what is often described by the Kremlin as global Russophobia.

Now, Putin has expanded his election toolkit to include exiting the war in Syria. The war has proven unpopular: In August, half of all Russians polled by Levada said Russia should end its military operations there (while 30 percent said it should maintain it). And while the number of deaths is nowhere near Moscow’s last foreign conflict – Afghanistan in the 1980s, when at least 15,000 Soviets died over a 10-year period – Russia has recently stepped up the level of secrecy surrounding operations in Syria.

In October, Reuters reported that the number of Russian military casualties in Syria was at least eight times higher – some 131 personnel in the first nine months of this year – than the official figure. While Russia never disclosed the number of military personnel it had in Syria, leaked election data put the figure at some 4,000.

Also two months ago, the Russian Defense Ministry said it was banning troops stationed abroad from posting videos and selfies on social media, in an attempt to prevent “terrorists and spies” from finding them. Russian social media became flooded with unofficial messages and Soviet-style images, warning Russian soldiers about the dangers of posting online. Somewhat oddly, but also tellingly, these pictures showed the enemy not as Islamic State militants, but more in the guise of NATO-style forces.

Given that ties between the West and Russia are at their worst since the days of the Cold War, this makes sense. Any perceived victory over the United States is a boost for Putin and for luring potential voters to the polling stations.

On Sunday, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova reprimanded Western-led military coalitions in Syria – and specifically French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian – for taking credit for ridding Syria of Islamic State. “Dear sirs, stop it! Your successes are Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan. Come on, be proud of them,” she said, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, considering those conflicts were messes from which Washington is yet to escape with its reputation intact or with security on the ground ensured.

Ending the war in Syria is also going to save Russia money – sorely needed in today’s sanctions-soaked economy. Low oil prices have also taken a substantial bite out of Russia’s coffers. Redirecting much-needed funds from an unpopular foreign war to the home front – or, at the very least, appearing to do so – is likely to increase Putin’s popularity.

Russia’s defense budget has been steadily increasing since 2007 as it sought to modernize the bulk of its Soviet-era hardware – a goal that has now largely been achieved. Last year, defense spending of around $70 billion placed Russia third, after the United States and China, on the list of top military spenders (although the U.S. is significantly higher, by almost tenfold). New planes, tanks, ships and nuclear missiles costing hundreds of billions of dollars have been purchased and developed – all part of Russia’s plan to revamp its armed forces by 2020, coinciding with Moscow’s flexing of its muscles on the world stage. However, beginning this year, and more significantly in 2018, defense spending will begin to drop, in line with previous budgetary measures.

It’s an age-old political tactic to promise the end of a conflict in order to get elected or reelected. In Iraq, George W. Bush famously, and erroneously, declared “Mission Accomplished” in 2003, a year before his reelection as U.S. president. Barack Obama entered the White House determined to quit both Iraq and Afghanistan.

And now Putin, just over three months before an election that will almost certainly see him remain in power, has pulled the plug on the war that earned him the respect of his compatriots and fear from his adversaries.