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 $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.
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