Russian Withdrawal in Syria: ‘Mission Accomplished’ for Putin?

Russian President Vladimir Putin announced March 14 the withdrawal of the majority of Russian armed forces engaged in the Syrian Civil War. After six months of fighting, Russian servicemen have returned home, greeted by cheering throngs congratulating them on a ‘mission accomplished.’ Putin has said that he considers ‘the objectives set for the defense ministry to be generally accomplished’ and that he will be extracting all forces except for those operating from the Khmeimim airbase, southeast of Latakia, and from its ‘long-standing naval base in Tartus.’ However, with ISIS still occupying huge swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory, it is imperative to ask whether Putin has truly accomplished the tasks which he set out and if Russia and her interests have exited Syria in a better state than they entered it. As veterans of an objectively falsified ‘mission accomplished’ announcement preached by the United States government in 2003, many in the West are naturally skeptical of such a statement (especially one made by Vladimir Putin), but there seems to be evidence supporting the claim that the Russians have placed themselves in an advantageous situation with their participation.

Image courtesy of Федерации ©2015, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Федерации ©2015, some rights reserved.

The somewhat brief nature of Russia’s participation is a tactical decision that provides the most potential advantages for the least commitment. In the case of both the Russian economy and the Russian population, both are unable to sustain a drawn-out conflict in the Middle East. Kimberely Marten and Rajan Menon state that Russian GDP dropped by 3.7 per cent in 2015, and the ruble has fallen by 50 per cent against the dollar since 2014. In addition, Putin had already stated that there will be cuts in the defense budget, as a part of the current Russian austerity plans. In terms of population-wide sentiment surrounding the conflict, Putin could not have afforded to get Russia involved in another long war in the Middle East. For Russians, the memories of the Afghanistan campaign of the 1980s are all too fresh and are not helped by the stagnated economy.

Putin’s forces in Syria have done exactly what they had planned to do: avert the total collapse of the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. By helping the Syrian President regain close to 4000 square miles of territory, the Russians have forced themselves into the spotlight in the Syrian Civil War, showing that their interests will be thoroughly represented as a foil to that of most Western states. Already, these actions have shown results. From Marten and Menon’s point of view, Putin’s campaign in Syria ‘forced the Syrian opposition to accept the ceasefire that took effect February 27 and gained Russia a place at the negotiation table, ensuring that the United States could not ignore its interests. The United States, too, has had to abandon its original position that peace talks were out of the question until Assad quit.’ It has become obvious that while fighting ISIS was a goal of the Russian military campaign, its aim was to allow Bashar Al-Assad to continue waging war against his opponents and attempt to keep himself in power.

From the perspective of the United States, the involvement of the Russian military and the pro-Assad advances that they have made on the ground complicates the diplomatic situation to an extreme degree. Before Russian involvement, the Obama administration would not accept peace talks without an Assad resignation, but with that seeming like more of an impossibility with every passing day, the United States has had to rethink its strategy. With the humanitarian situation in Syria in shambles and reported use of chemical weapons, the U.S. has struggled with an ambivalent policy towards Syria. The Obama administration has been clearly torn between the obvious atrocities taking place against civilians in Syria and a domestic population which is war-weary and sees no short term solution to the problem. All in all, this places Russia, with its clearly defined interests and obvious political motives, to take control of the situation and impose its own agenda.

This forced change of diplomatic position is clearly a win for Putin and his campaign for a stronger Russia abroad. He seems to judge his foreign policy success based upon the reaction of the United States, and in this scenario the American change of heart furthers his domestic agenda of creating the external enemy of the United States. Putin views Russia as one of the superpowers of the world, and he needs to project that type of strength upon the rest of the international community to prove to the Russian people that he has the ability to bring Russia back to the ‘golden days’ of the Cold War. The same logic employed in Syria has also been implemented in Ukraine and Korea. This realist point of view has caused friction in both scenarios, but it has placed Russia at the forefront of the minds of American policymakers, which is exactly where Putin wants to be.

In conclusion, Putin’s actions and hard-line approach in Syria have allowed him to dictate the conflict while anti-war domestic sentiment in the U.S. has restricted the Obama administration from countering it. From the drop of the first bomb, it was clear that eliminating ISIS was not at the top of the Russian agenda. Putin can claim his military engagement in Syria as a win, because for him it was one. It brought Russia and her interests to the negotiating table in a short amount of time and gives the Russian-friendly Assad regime room to continue fighting. At this point, a diplomatic solution must be thoroughly pursued, with the best interest of the people of Syria at the top of the agenda.