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What Russia's military proved in Syria

Sasha Mordovets/Getty

As the Kremlin oversees its drawdown of Russian forces from Syria with every evidence of satisfaction, there is an inevitable Western concern that Russia will gain a taste for military interventions. In practice, though, the Syrian case was an outlier, and if it does lead to a shift in Russian policy it might, strange as it may sound, be to the West’s advantage.

Vladimir Putin certainly has grounds to be happy with his Syrian intervention (so far, at least). The initial deployment and the announcement of the partial withdrawal both caught the West entirely by surprise. The Assad regime, which had been on the defensive and even facing potential fragmentation, has been stabilized and revived. Moscow’s claim to a say in Syria’s future cannot now meaningfully be challenged.

In the process, Western attempts to isolate Russia have been all but abandoned — most vividly shown in January, when US Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland sat down with Russian Presidential Representative Vladislav Surkov to talk about the future of eastern Ukraine.

By withdrawing, Putin avoids getting sucked into an open-ended commitment, reassures the Russian public that this is no rerun of the 10-year Soviet war in Afghanistan, presents himself as a peacemaker, and reduces the risks to his forces in Syria. More forces in the country means more firepower, but also more scope to take losses.

And Putin accomplished something else, something less obvious but still important: He demonstrated that Moscow has not only the capability to launch interventions outside its immediate neighborhood — even the Soviets only launched such actions on their own borders — but that Putin’s military reform program has made some headway in addressing a great historical challenge for its forces. This is the "tail" — the maintenance, training, logistics, supply, and support services that support the much more exciting "teeth." The Soviets and then Russians often put disproportionate effort and resources into the latter, only to see them suffer because of the lack of the former.

Warships bristling with missiles and guns would break down at sea whenever they operated far from their home posts. Fast, lethal tanks would throw a tread or try to load the arm of the gunner into their cannon instead of a new shell. High-tech aircraft able to mount the most sophisticated "smart" ordnance would end up dropping "dumb" bombs simply because they were the only kind available.

The conclusion in Moscow’s military and decision-making circles, based on my conversations, is that, within limits, Syria has demonstrated Russia's capacity to deploy force to affect situations politically and then, equally important, to know when to withdraw. This last has been a particular concern given that an overconfident decision to intervene in Ukraine’s southeastern Donbas region has left Russia stuck in an undeclared war there with little immediate prospect of withdrawal with honor.

This will undoubtedly hearten a Russian regime that increasingly is defining itself not so much through progress and prosperity at home as through its place in the world — or, more to the point, a campaign to gain what it sees as its rightful role.

What this means is less an equal status with the US — even the most starry-eyed Russian nationalists in the leadership are not that ambitious — than having the right to a say in any grand decisions made by the international community. The corollary is that they get to hold and maintain their own sphere of influence in Eurasia, whatever the Ukrainians, or the Georgians, may feel.

Of course there were problems in Syria (including a lack of enough smart munitions), but the Russians defied Western expectations and their own track record. The furious "optempo" (operational tempo) was maintained, with sometimes a hundred sorties a day being launched. Planes were generally kept flying; there were not the disastrous mechanical failures one could have predicted. Even if sometimes they had to resort, in classic Russian style, to improvisation — including buying junked ships from Turkey — they kept the force supplied.

And Syria is a messy, unpredictable conflict, and there is ample scope for things to go wrong on the ground. If the peace talks fail — and the odds are still sadly good that they will — then who knows how the war will go in the future. There are still going to be perhaps a thousand Russian troops there, vulnerable to conventional or terrorist attack. But for the moment, Putin seems content, and his assertion that troops could be returned "in several hours" is really a warning rather than a hope or expectation.

Admittedly, one should not read too much into the success of the Syrian intervention. This was a relatively small, affordable operation, carried out by some of Russia’s best troops, and largely involved airstrikes on enemies with little or no modern anti-air capability.

And while the operation may have reversed Putin’s isolation and Assad’s retreat, has that much changed in the big picture? There has been some triumphalist rhetoric from the usual Kremlin cheerleaders that "once again, just like in the previous era, the real ‘bosses’ remain Moscow and Washington, with no one else having the power or capacity to make important decisions."

However, one cannot extrapolate great power status from success in Syria any more than Moscow’s expensive blunder into Ukraine proves, as some argue, that it is now geopolitically irrelevant.

Indeed, comparing Syria and Donbas, Moscow may well be encouraged actually to reconsider any thoughts of using the so-called "hybrid war" model. This approach, as employed in Ukraine, relies on using a range of deniable and arm’s-length instruments, from influencing politicians to arming and unleashing proxy militias. This is still fashionably terrifying in the West, but is proving an unwieldy approach of questionable effectiveness in Donbas.

In Syria, by contrast, Russia could openly deploy its latest weapons systems, and control when they were deployed, what they did, and how they withdrew, without having to maintain any pretenses or negotiate with proxies. (Assad appears simply to have been notified of the withdrawal on the day.)

So if Moscow is going to intervene in the future, it may be with old-fashioned deployments of conventional military assets that are more effective and much easier to control. And these are forces that, incidentally, NATO is best equipped and configured to resist.

But there is a more fundamental question here. Okay, Syria may have demonstrated that Russia has some limited intervention capability. But where could a more interventionist Russia actually intervene? In Syria, the Russians were there as guests of the governing power and able to use friendly ports and bases. They could perhaps again meddle more forcibly in the South Caucasus, but beyond that they are hemmed in by NATO to the west and China to the east. Afghanistan is of distinct concern, but it would be a foolhardy Russian leader who would send an army into the country that claimed the lives of 15,000 Soviet soldiers before they withdrew in despair.

We may see some intervention in Central Asia if those countries develop their own problems with Islamist or jihadist insurgencies, but that will be driven by fear of unrest on their borders, not grandiose dreams of global status.

So while Moscow can feel good about its Syrian gamble, we should not think this has changed the world balance of power or opened the way to a new wave of Russian interventions. The Russians have indeed demonstrated a new capacity to intervene, but it is only a very limited one, especially when compared with the US, with its global network of bases, its aircraft carrier battle groups, and its Marine Corps. Moscow’s options are still very limited, and Syria is an exception, not the new normal.

Mark Galeotti is a professor of global affairs at New York University and a visiting fellow with the European Council on Foreign Relations. He blogs at In Moscow’s Shadows and is on Twitter as @MarkGaleotti.