Foreign Policy Essay

Putin's Pullout: A Failing Public Relations Campaign

By Carol R. Saivetz
Sunday, May 8, 2016, 10:48 AM

Editor's Note: Russia won in Syria – or so Putin would like us to believe. The Russian intervention seemed to tip the balance of forces in Assad's favor, and Russia announced a pullout with its mission accomplished. Carol Saivetz of MIT, a regular Lawfare contributor, makes the case for skepticism. She points out Moscow is far more involved in Syria than it likes to admit and still runs many risks from its intervention.

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On March 14, Russian President Vladimir Putin surprised observers by ordering the withdrawal of the “main part” of Russia’s forces from Syria.  In a meeting with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, he said, “the task which was given to the Defense Ministry and the armed forces has overall been fulfilled.” A month later, in his annual call-in program, Primaya Liniya, Putin claimed that the Syrian army was capable of “serious offensive operations” even after the supposed withdrawal. Indeed, he noted the recapture of Palmyra from the Islamic State. These pronouncements were part of a well-orchestrated public relations campaign targeting both domestic and international audiences.

Russia has indeed accomplished many of what most observers presumed were its goals. First, President Assad will remain in power for the foreseeable future. Indeed, an Assad spokesman firmly stated that Assad’s future is not up for discussion. Second, Moscow has clearly made itself central, if not indispensable, to any resolution of the Syria crisis.  In the words of noted commentator Dmitri Trenin:  “the Middle East [Syria] has become a key testing ground for Russia’s attempt to return to the global stage.” Third, the Russian military has not only demonstrated new weapons, such as long-range cruise missiles, and has actually tested new fighter jets in battle. And finally, Russia publicly announced that it had killed 2,000 Russian jihadis before they could return to their homeland.

These successes go a long way toward explaining the timing of the announced withdrawal. With the February 22 Cessation of Hostility agreement and the start of negotiations in Geneva, Russia could claim that its intervention had moved the Syria crisis closer to resolution. Moreover, Putin clearly hoped that tamping down hostilities would demonstrate his cooperation with the international community.  Diplomacy, in effect, allowed Moscow to reduce its risks of getting caught in the quagmire that U.S. President Barak Obama predicted would befall Russian forces.

But, the optics of success belie the reality of the military situation and mask the dangers remaining for Russia. Putin’s announcement and subsequent Russian statements indicated that Moscow was not abandoning its naval base at Tartus, on the Mediterranean coast; nor was it closing its new airbase at Hmeinim. Russia withdrew some fixed-wing aircraft but left in place combat helicopters and air defense systems, including S-400 missiles. All reports indicate that the so-called “Syrian express” (the transport of men and arms to Syria) is continuing.  Heavily laden ships have exited the Black Sea through the Bosphorus Straits and returned riding much higher on the water. And Russian television footage reveals the deployment of at least one Iskander missile launcher.

But, the optics of success belie the reality of the military situation and mask the dangers remaining for Russia.

In terms of Russian manpower, Russian spokesmen have announced that the Spetznaz, Russian special operations forces, participated in the fight for Palmyra alongside Syrian, Iranian, and Hezbollah troops. Additionally, there is increasing evidence that Russian mercenaries are in combat as well. According to Mark Galeotti, Russian contractors appear to be driving T-90 tanks and have been central to the retaking of Palmyra.

So Russia did not fully quit the game, instead positioning itself so that it could easily resume combat operations. And it now looks as if that time is at hand. As of this writing, Russia has built up its military forces near Aleppo, and on April 28, Syrian jets bombed a civilian hospital in the rebel-held section of the city. Russia denied responsibility, but the episode raises the question of whether or not Russian military action in support of Assad has emboldened the regime. 

Moscow, it seems, is now following Assad’s lead. Initially, Russia refused to include Aleppo in the renewed calls for a ceasefire, but then on May 1, announced that it was in talks with the Assad regime to include Aleppo in the “regime of calm.” On May 4, the United States and Russia agreed to extend the ceasefire to Aleppo and the Syrian military, according to the BBC, confirmed a two-day halt in military operations. But, whether or not the truce lasts for more than 48 hours remains to be seen. And barring a return to negotiations, Russia is stuck in Syria.

Six months ago, I wrote on this blog about the dangers to Russia from its Syrian intervention. Those dangers included: becoming embroiled in a sectarian conflict that could have repercussions at home; roiling relations with outside powers; the impact of Syria’s costs on an already enfeebled economy; and the difficulties of the diplomatic process.

If Putin hoped to convince the domestic audience and the international community that its intervention was a great success, the outlook is bleak.

None of these dangers has receded. Despite the claims of killing 2,000 jihadis, there is continuing turmoil in the North Caucasus. And, academics continue to track Chechens who have traveled to Syria to fight with the Islamic State. It is not just Chechens: there is evidence of over 5,000 jihadis entering the fray from the Central Asian states—an area where Russia has concerns about stability.

The Russian economy has stagnated since the Ukraine crisis. The combination of falling global energy prices and the sanctions and counter-sanctions imposed after Ukraine have caused the Russian Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to decline 3.9 percent in 2015. Inflation is high, and last year wages dropped 10 percent. Predictions for 2016 are equally grim, with GDP poised to lose another 1.9 percent. Nonetheless, the war in Syria is still popular at home; but how long will citizens be distracted by foreign adventures? 

Diplomatically, the biggest casualty has been the bilateral Turkish-Russian relationship. When Turkey downed a Russian fighter in November 2015, there were fears of a wider clash between Russia and NATO. Thus far, direct military confrontation has been avoided, but the economic costs are great.  Russia retaliated by banning Turkish goods and significantly raising the price of natural gas. Moreover, the proposed Turkish Stream Pipeline is dead. So Russia is, for now, dependent on Ukraine to transport of much of its energy to western Europe.

Given the dangers of Russia’s continuing intervention in Syria, one question remains: Can Putin afford his seemingly open-ended commitment to Assad? Moscow desperately needs a diplomatic solution to achieve its goals, but Assad is not cooperating. If Putin hoped to convince the domestic audience and the international community that its intervention was a great success, the outlook is bleak. Ultimately, though the “success campaign” has been short-lived at best, the alternative is worse. Abandoning Assad and Putin’s last foothold in the Middle East would be a dramatic failure.