The decision by President Vladimir Putin to withdraw Russian forces from Syria changes the political discourse as well as the strategic calculus of many analysts and foreign politicians in three key ways. 


Crews of Sukhoi Su-25 assault aircraft are welcomed back home from Syria at the airfield in Primorye-Akhtarsk. Photo: RIA Novosti

For a very different take read: "Why Putin's surprise move to withdraw from Syria makes sense"

Even with all the turbulent events of the past two years, the recent move by the Kremlin to withdraw the majority of Russian troops from Syria is absolutely stunning and extraordinary. Everybody knows how Russian President Vladimir Putin is inclined towards making sudden political moves that surprise both his friends and enemies, but this time he did something that he has almost never done openly – he took a step back. 

While only Putin and his inner circle know the true motives, the decision to withdraw Russian forces from Syria has already changed the geopolitical reality and confirmed some inconvenient facts. Here’s what we now know:

First, it has become clear that Russia doesn’t consider a fight with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) its top political priority in the Middle East. Having left the theater of war at the moment when the true fight with ISIS hadn’t even begun, Russia has convinced everyone that it never viewed this fight as a top priority.

Thus, the official explanations of goals and tasks of Russian foreign policy voiced by Kremlin representatives and journalists shouldn’t be taken seriously. The highest-ranking officials and experts have been insisting for months that the goal of Russia’s operation in Syria was the fight with ISIS, and nothing else. Today they either have to admit that they’ve been misleading everyone, or agree with the statement that Russia lost the fight and thus had to leave.

What’s interesting in this connection is that President Putin was nearly the only representative of the Russian political establishment who sometimes told the truth about the Syrian military operation. In one of his interviews he said, “The fight with ISIS is not the key point around which everything will be rotating. What’s crucial for the future is the development of relationships in the geopolitical fight.” 

Today state propaganda presents this statement as proof of the the Kremlin’s sincerity. However, when that phrase was first voiced, the state media paid no attention to it. 

Also read: "Russia's Syria withdrawal: Wrapping up the Kremlin's military campaign"

Second, after the Syrian gambit it makes no sense to talk about authoritarian trends in Russian politics. Putin’s power has reached its absolute height and in the future may only persist in the same volume or decrease. 

The circumstances of the start and end of Russia’s military campaign in Syria clearly implies this. Formally, to start military action a political leader needs more agreement than for its completion. As a result, a leader who managed to start a war should be proud of his power and influence.

But in reality, the ability to stop a war in one day, not waiting for a formal victory and not caring about possible reputational costs, is real power. A politician taking responsibility for withdrawal isn’t looking up to anybody and isn’t afraid of anybody. There’s no doubt that not a single great state of the modern era, including China, has a ruler who has such huge and unlimited authority as Putin in Russia. 

Third, the events around Syria have showed that Russia’s contemporary foreign policy is basically aimed at one single overarching task: to get the approval of the U.S. as an equal partner and thus return to the club of leading world states. By active participation in the Syrian war, Putin was trying to prove to President Obama that the United States couldn’t do it alone without Russia.

It’s well known that Obama’s presidency started with promises to stop wars started by the previous Bush administration, and thus, Obama went in fear of being dragged into a new conflict. The caution and excessive wariness of the U.S. president became his Achilles heel in the eyes of political opponents. Now there’s no doubt that by starting and especially ending the war in Syria, Putin tried to play on this weakness of his counterpart. 

Putin was essentially playing a game with Obama, showing him and the entire world what “deeply authoritarian” Russia could do, even with its “economy in tatters.”

The Russian president wanted to prove that even if the U.S., with its famous democracy and economic power, could organize a successful military operation thousands of miles away from its borders - it couldn’t reap its diplomatic fruit. And, most importantly, the U.S. can’t stop military action at the right moment and right at the Commander-in-Chief’s word.

True, getting stuck in conflicts far from American borders and “imperial overstretch” is one of the curses of U.S. foreign policy of recent decades. So, if Putin could truly prove that Russia invented some unique recipe for painless withdrawal from foreign political adventures and that’s why it’s positively different from the U.S. and even the U.S.S.R., it could become a real political sensation and boost the reputation of the Russian leader. 

But reality is rather far from this imaginary scenario. There was a price to pay for diplomatic benefits that Putin received during the Syrian operation. It’s the death of Russians in the sky over Sinai, and a shoot down of a Russian military plane, and ruined relations with Turkey and Egypt, and losses among the Syrian civilian population, who got caught in the Russian aerial bombardment. 

Besides, the renewal of military action in Syria, which is more than possible, could compromise the political survival of Syrian president Bashar Assad, who was “saved” by Russia. Would the help of advisors and arms be enough to sustain the political balance? There are analogies with the fate of South Vietnam after the withdrawal of American troops, and the fate of Afghan president Mohammad Nagibullah after the Soviet Army left. 

Certainly, by stopping the military operation in Syria, Putin avoided unnecessary losses among Russian soldiers. But will the decision by President Putin change the laws of history? Is it really possible to state that an army that left the battlefield before victory could ever be deemed the victor?

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.