Putin’s “mission accomplished” announcement has attracted the attention it was intended to get. The dramatic declaration, coupled with the loading of cargo planes in Syria, unleashed echoes of Metternich’s response when told of Talleyrand’s death in 1838: “I wonder what he meant by that.”
The answer is not so esoteric. Russian objectives were limited at the outset. They were to militarily stabilize the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, ensure elite cohesion within the regime by boosting its self-confidence, strike the congeries of jihadist groups lurking near regime-held territory, and, if possible, enable the regime to expand its security perimeter.
The regime needed some strategic depth, and Russia gave it to them. And for Russia, the opportunity to show that it is a force to be reckoned with no doubt leavened the proposition. The Russians did not go into Syria to restore an Edenic past and police the future. They went in to level playing fields—and much else besides.
None of these objectives, given the inherent weaknesses of the armed opposition, was going to take a decade to achieve. Nor did they require a large force. Russia deployed about 4,000 personnel to facilitate the operations of 25 bombers, 32 fighter-bombers, eight fighters, 12 attack helicopters, and four utility helicopters. Offshore, it maintained seven ships on patrol, including a submarine, an intelligence collection platform, a cruiser, and a couple of smaller warships. Some of these have haunted Mediterranean waters for a while.
Over the past six months, Russian aircrews flew over 10,000 missions, averaging between 60 and 74 sorties per day, a relatively high operational tempo. They did this fairly cheaply, unlike Operation Inherent Resolve, the U.S. military operation against the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), in which attack aircraft need to traverse comparatively long distances from their bases to targets. The Russians have been able to stage strike aircraft literally minutes from their targets. Their cost per sortie has therefore been quite low. According to Jane’s, the estimated daily cost of Russian operations has been in the $4 million range, which is small potatoes in the context of a defense budget of $50 billion. In contrast, the average cost of a single air strike conducted under Inherent Resolve is $2.4 million.
Having dusted off and renovated its old installations at Tartus—and with personnel remaining in place—Russia can redeploy its aircraft on very little notice. Indeed, the Russians will probably do what the United States does in the Persian Gulf, rotating aircraft in and out of bases in Qatar and the United Arab Emirates in a manner that amounts to a permanent presence, but is technically temporary. Their removal back to Russian bases does not therefore represent some kind of closure owing to a presumed difficulty of reestablishing a presence in Syria in the future. It merely represents a tactical pause.
Redeployment to bases at home does more than save money and give crews a break. It’s also the diplomatically adroit thing to do. The maneuver demonstrates Russian restraint and cooperation at a crucial stage in the Geneva negotiating process. It puts pressure on the opposition to reciprocate by advancing a position that is actually negotiable.
For those asking, à la Metternich, what Putin meant, one answer might be that he had become impatient with Assad’s public defiance of Russia’s emphasis on negotiations and, given Putin’s tendency to act out of pique regardless of Russian interests, ordered a partial withdrawal to teach Assad a lesson.
Alternatively, and more plausibly, the withdrawal was not intended to put pressure on Assad, as some have speculated (and wished). Russia’s diplomatic goal is a negotiated settlement that leaves Assad in place. The withdrawal of Russian airplanes—and just how many aircraft, vehicles, and personnel are included and how fast they will be removed we still do not know—will not strike terror in the heart of a now vulnerable, cowering regime. Assad’s forces are in fairly good shape, his lines are defensible, and the opposition’s supply lines are tenuous or have been disrupted. For Assad and Putin, the partial withdrawal is a win-win arrangement.