The Syrian Civil War celebrated its 5th birthday on Tuesday, March 15, a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced an immediate drawdown in the warplanes and special forces units whose intervention has granted Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime vital room to breathe since late September of 2015. Though most of Russia’s combat aircraft active in Syria have been grounded since March 1 at their primary station, Khmeimim Airbase, Putin’s declaration that the Russian mission in Syria was complete came as a surprise to many western observers. [i] Putin’s intervention in Syria has long been labeled as a saber-rattling side-show to the Ukrainian conflict that is heedless of collateral damage and is only serving the interests of the quasi-sovereign Assad regime. [ii] While descriptions such as this certainly capture the machismo attitude of Russia’s premier, who has repeatedly expressed his desire to rebuild his state as an actor that is taken seriously on the international stage, the recent conclusions of Russian-driven peace talks portray a different character entirely.
Russian Federation forces intervened in Syria to ensure that their friendly regime would not succumb to opposition from a myriad of western-backed militias and from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. They also intervened to protect Orthodox Christian populations in the Levant, a decision widely supported by domestic groups including the Russian Orthodox Church, whose chaplains have accompanied troops and squadrons into the warzone to guide them spiritually and even to bless their guns and bombs. [iii] After five and a half months, over 9,000 combat sorties, and a $464 Billion portion of the Russian defense budget, pilots returned home to parades and traditionally dressed girls giving them fresh baked loafs of bread; though he did not need to try hard to justify the expenditure, Putin explained the sum as adding to the overall combat effectiveness of all weapon systems and units involved in the campaign. [iv]
The Russian government did not decide to intervene primarily to shock the world into paying deserved respect, or to uphold its divine role as the sole defender of an ancient religious faith, or to distract its population from a parlous economy, or to defend a rare ally. Putin ordered his forces into the region to accomplish all of these goals in unison. Therefore, when his diplomatic mission was more or less resolved in Geneva and his population was suitably satisfied with his effort to protect fellow Orthodox Christians and to reestablish Russia’s sphere of influence in the Middle East, Putin ordered his troops’ withdraw. Loyalty to Assad was never enough for Putin to grant him a large-scale ground operation, let alone remain involved so deeply and expensively in a conflict that otherwise was complete for Russian interests.[v]
The Russian President has stated how he views alliances as diminishing to sovereignty. In this belief, Russia operates fundamentally different from its western counterparts. Where ideology and entangling alliances have routinely pulled liberal democracies into quagmires that diminish the ruling party’s popularity, Putin’s evolving foreign policy appears to be driven more by the issues at hand than by principle. The deployment of Russian strategic bombers over Syria in early November, 2015, while then seen as a serious escalation in Russia’s battlefield presence, can now be seen as the natural progression of a predetermined and limited Russian mission.[vi] The downing of a Russian aircraft by Turkish air forces later that month, while leading to a complete deterioration of Russo-Turkish relations, did not greatly impact Russian military planning and only granted Putin more justification for his instigation of further violence and for the construction of an advanced air-defense system that can now effectively shield all but the eastern-most parts of Syria.[vii]
The de-escalation of fighting in early 2016 led to a halted series of peace talks from which only Russia has emerged content. Amidst disagreement over Assad’s future, Putin maneuvered himself into a position of power that allowed him to rescind costly responsibility in Syria without losing face or even dominance over the future of the shattered country, as Russian warships will remain within striking distance and a number of logistical and advisory personnel will stay attached to Syrian government units indefinitely. The focus of Putin’s foreign policy, however, has been allowed to shift. Within days of Russian bomber pilots receiving orders to remain grounded earlier this month, Ukrainian government troops stationed around Donetsk felt the stomach lurching impacts of heavy-artillery shells striking their fortifications from separatists testing their lines. Since March 4th, separatists have escalated their usage of weapons banned under prior cease-fire agreements, including multiple-rocket launchers, tanks, and large-caliber artillery guns. [viii]
Putin’s foreign policy in Syria is flexible and cannot be attributed solely to domestic pressures or the desire to prove Russia’s nascent strength. The Russian President’s ability to act without regard to other countries’ interests or to international norms is singular, and as long as he can balance his objectives and not be fundamentally challenged by the west, Putin will be able to enact policy in a void.