Did Putin win in Syria? Or is he cutting his losses?

By Putin’s own definition, Russia won in Syria

By Sergey Aleksashenko

Pavel and I agree that while the withdrawal of Russian military power from Syria came as a surprise in the immediate sense, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to pull out was logical given the circumstances he faced in Syria. Where we differ is in our assessment of whether Putin essentially won at his own game in Syria. I argue that he did, and that the West misunderstands that—which will make it harder for the West to predict his next moves.

First, when Putin deployed Russian armed forces in Syria last September, these were his goals:

  • Returning Russia to great-power status and participating as such in international dialogues, particularly on the Middle East;
  • Resisting the West, particularly its efforts to oust Syrian President Bashar Assad;
  • Preserving Syria as a unified state that remains a Russian ally (and one ready to buy Russian weapons and provide territory for Russian military bases), as well as ending the Syrian civil war and launching an internal political dialogue; 
  • Forming a partnership with Iran, including with the aim to promote the economic interests of Russian oil and gas companies and arms manufacturers; and
  • Forming a broad coalition with the participation of the United States, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey to combat ISIS.

With the exception of the last point, Putin can tick all these off his list. Regarding the confrontation with the United States, in particular—and the Kremlin does see the Syrian conflict as a regional U.S.-Russia confrontation, e.g. the “Korean War” of today—Putin may really feel himself a winner, since the West’s main goal (removing Assad) has not been achieved. Worse, it’s been removed from the table altogether.

Second, Western politicians have once again miscalculated Putin’s policy. They may have their own opinions on the Russian adventure in Syria, but that won’t help them understand Putin’s actions. Rather than compare Putin’s behavior to that of a chess player—who seeks to achieve strategic victory—I think we should look at the logic of judo, in which Putin is a high-level master. The Syria intervention, with the relatively quick deployment and withdrawal of Russian troops, was a sudden, sharp movement that destabilized Putin’s opponents. We can debate whether he won a big or a small point, but the fact is that he scored and promptly returned to the initial state of mutual tension.

Putin has demonstrated in Syria and Ukraine that he is ready to use military force—rapidly and unexpectedly, if necessary—to protect Russian interests as he defines them. (So, do not be surprised if Putin redeploys Russian troops in Syria later on—he said he’d be ready to do it on only hours’ notice). In the case of Syria, Putin defined Russian goals, largely achieved them, and got out before he got bogged down.

Putin didn’t achieve his goals in Syria—he’s just cutting his losses

By Pavel K. Baev

I agree with Sergey that President Vladimir Putin’s sudden announcement last week that he was withdrawing—at least partially—from Syria was a surprise in a limited sense but was logical for Putin more broadly. Unlike Sergey, though, I’d argue that while Putin has successfully escaped from the “quagmire” in Syria, it’s not because he achieved his goals; rather, he’s cutting his losses and getting out while he still can.

Putin has managed to curtail the power projection enterprise before the second major setback (the first one being the downing of a Russian bomber by a Turkish fighter last November), so his timing was in some sense good, it was also odd. Good, in the sense that the fragile ceasefire that has taken hold in Syria provided a perfect opportunity for Russia to wrap up its intervention. Odd, in the sense that he has not achieved victory on the battlefield: Most of Aleppo remains under rebel control, not to mention that ISIS retains control over vast areas of Syria and Iraq. Yes, the Russian bombing campaign has strengthened Syrian President Bashar Assad’s grasp on power, but the abrupt departure could leave Syrian troops discouraged and overstretched, jeopardizing the gains the motley coalition that includes Hezbollah forces had achieved. Meanwhile, at one point the plan was likely that Russian bombing would pave the way for a decisive ground offensive executed by an Iranian expeditionary corps—but that never came to be. Disagreements over oil output have worsened Russia-Iran relations, making the Russian experiment in power projection into Syria even more precarious.

And while Putin’s decision to bring the troops and hardware home made sense, Putin didn’t seem to be happy making it. Even in the carefully doctored official video, he was visibly nervous and itchy in the immediate lead-up to his surprise announcement. De-escalatory steps are not quite in Putin’s nature, and he was likely contemplating the risks of rushed withdrawal. It was likely the joy of yet again “outfoxing” Obama—not a genuine assessment that Russia had achieved its goals—that prompted Putin to make the choice he did. 

Moreover, although Putin announced the withdrawal on the eve of Geneva talks—which likely improved the prospects for the negotiations, as the State Department cautiously noted—it is doubtful whether that was indeed Putin’s intention. The end of the civil war in Syria—a remote but still inevitable prospect—would signify a decline of Russia’s influence because it has nothing to contribute to peace-building. 

Although Russia has demonstrated a high appetite for risk in Syria—as well as a disregard for collateral damage—it’s shown a lack of staying power. In theory, Russia is keeping open the option of returning its planes and troops to Latakia—but this option isn’t really practicable. The success of the September deployment was secured by surprise, which now is gone, while the combatants are better-prepared for defending against the air strikes (as the shoot-down of a Syrian fighter has proven).

Finally, the truth is that Russia doesn’t have the resources to sustain its intervention. In recent late-night meetings with the economic advisers, Putin and his top lieutenants decided that defense expenditures—which have long been sacred—would indeed be cut, initially by only 5 percent but with deeper cuts later on. This decision—like the one to withdraw from Syria—is a sensible one. But both signify Russia’s strategic retreat, and not from a position of strength.