MOSCOW — The first wing of Sukhoi Su-34 fighter-bombers landed in the southern Russian city of Veronezh on Tuesday, just under 24 hours after Russian President Vladimir Putin announced mission accomplished in Syria. The military had achieved most of its goals, and it was time to pack up.
At the airfield, friends and families of Russian aviators lined the tarmac as they waved the Russian tricolor to celebrate the unexpected homecoming. As the Su-34s popped their drogue chutes to slow to final rest in their Syrian expedition, a military band blared patriotic tunes for the state television cameras.
The precise number of Russia's 60-or-so aircraft to return home from Syria has yet to be specified. Additional wings of aircraft were shown last week in Defense Ministry videos on Facebook to depart the Syrian government-held airbase in Latakia from where they conducted 167 days of strikes on targets in Syria.
The March 14 announcement appeared to catch both the expert community and officials in Washington off guard. The decision appeared to be made at the very top, experts said, and American officials found themselves in the awkward position of being unable to comment on Russia's actions. What was clear, however, was that Putin's announcement coincided with the first day of a new round of peace talks in Geneva, set to last through March 24.
So where does Russia's drawdown leave the situation in Syria as well as its own standing in global affairs?
"The pullback leaves the [High Negotiations Committee] without an excuse to ignore the peace talks, or come up with new demands, because their key demand has been met: Russia is no longer pounding opposition-controlled areas," said Yury Barmin, a Russian international affairs analyst. "At the same time, [Syrian President Bashar al-]Assad is getting a signal that he no longer enjoys Russia's unconditional support, and will have to be more flexible and more cooperative."
Fred Hof, a former senior adviser on Syria for the Obama administration, now with the Atlantic Council, said that it remains unclear what Russia's intentions are and what kind of combat capability will be left behind in Syria. What is clear, he said, is that Putin bolstered Assad's negotiating position in Geneva.
"I think his objective is to force the US into a working relationship with Bashar," Hof said. "This would enable him to claim he defeated what he calls the American regime change and democratization campaign, and that Russia is back as a major power [but] we'll have to see how the announcement translates into actual facts and whether or not an air campaign that has brutalized Syrian civilians is truly over."
Cost of Operation
Putin spoke at length about the Syria operation on March 17. A crowd of 700 military personnel assembled in an extravagant Kremlin hall for an award ceremony. Putin estimated the cost of his intervention in Syria at $480 million, or about $2.9 million a day. Independent estimates provided by IHS senior analyst Ben Moores place the cost higher, at about $4 million per day.
As quickly as Russia's planes departed Syria, they can return. The infrastructure for a rapid redeployment has been maintained, and Putin said "if necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent in the region to a size proportionate to the situation developing there and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal."
Russia's Syrian operation began with about 30 fixed-wing aircraft and 16 helicopters conducting around 20 sorties per day. After a mid-October surge, Russia was operating up to 60 aircraft in Syria, conducting around 60 sorties a day, increasing to more than 100 daily missions in November. The numbers show an impressive improvement to Russian operational tempo.
Considering the resources expended, Russia's operation in Syria has been labeled by many analysts to have been a great success for Putin. He entered the conflict with clear goals and significantly altered the facts on the ground by saving Assad from an imminent defeat. He also bolstered Russia's air base in Latakia and a naval facility in the port of Tartus. By withdrawing when he did, Putin looked victorious, but he also is leaving all options on the table.
The timing of Russia's withdrawal also betrayed Moscow's true motives: its campaign in Syria was primarily intended to save the Assad regime from collapse, thereby ensuring Russian influence over the Syrian regime and winning a seat at the table equal in standing to that of the United States.
"The Russian intervention has indeed changed the trajectory of the war, and allowed Assad to consolidate control over most of Western Syria," said Vladimir Frolov, a Russian foreign affairs expert. It also weakened moderate opposition forces, taking the momentum from them. But it did not result in the decisive victory Assad might have hoped for. Instead, "Putin helped Assad fight the war to a standstill and drag the parties to the negotiating table," Frolov said.
Putin saw more success in pursuit of a second, more abstract objective. By intervening in Syria, the Russian president hoped to end his diplomatic isolation vis-à-vis the United States. He succeeded. The United States is again engaging Russia on Moscow's favored terms – the illusion that is it's one of two superpowers capable of ending major world crises, Frolov said.
Mark Galeotti, an expert in the Russian military at New York University, said that Putin chose the perfect moment to begin scaling back his operation. "The longer you stay, the greater chance that something goes wrong. And Putin likes to make a splash, so the first real day of non-contact talks in Geneva was an obvious day to announce a withdrawal."
"Putin took a risk with the intervention, and he once again demonstrated the luck of the devil. Nothing went badly wrong, and the intervention did what it needed to do. He seized a good moment to cash in his chips. But, as ever with Putin, it wasn't the product of grand strategy, it was a series of improvisations with a sense of what he wanted. He reached the stage where it seemed like the right time to pull out," Galeotti said.
Matthew Bodner covered Russian affairs for Defense News.