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The troika gathered at a polished table surrounded by the insignia of the Russian state and made their pronouncements reluctantly, as if caught in the middle of an absorbing card game. All three looked baffled at themselves during the entire 10-minute news segment devoted to Moscow’s surprise move to withdraw the bulk of Russian forces from Syria.

The impenetrable Sergei Shoigu, Russian Minister of Defense, recounted the total sorties made and the size of the ground captured, in square kilometers. The grim faced Sergei Lavrov, Russian Foreign Minister, reported that he was cautiously optimistic as to where things stood on the diplomatic front. Neither man sounded conclusive, let alone victorious. And yet, the poker faced Vladimir Putin, after listening to them rather impatiently, concluded that Russia’s military objectives in Syria were accomplished. The Russian president then proceeded to announce a withdrawal of the “main part” of Russian forces as soon as the next day.

On Tuesday, the Russian state-run media was busy reporting the withdrawal. News programs showed footage of aircraft landing in the city of Voronezh, about 350 miles south of Moscow. About half of the 60 aircraft deployed in Syria are coming home, a source in the Russian Ministry of Defense told Vedomosti. The partial pullout, with some of the forces leaving and some rotating, is most likely a bargaining tool. It is already playing a role in the intra-Syrian talks, as well as in U.S.-Russian relations. The U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is heading for Moscow to discuss Syria. The size and thrust of the Russian contingent in Syria can be easily changed depending on how the U.S.-Russian conversation progresses.

No one that I know expected a withdrawal (if indeed it is a withdrawal) this soon. Two extreme interpretations have begun circulating. Domestic commentators, all caught by surprise, immediately hailed the announcement as Russia’s most important foreign policy coup ever. Other observers, especially those informed by the experience of Russia’s interventions elsewhere, concluded that the withdrawal was not real. Moscow has manipulated pullouts and ceasefires before. In Ukraine the Kremlin did so on multiple occasions.

So did Russia actually leave? Even during the announcement itself, Putin pointed out that Russia’s naval facility in Tartus and the airbase of Khmeimim will stay operational, as before. The Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Ivanov said on Tuesday that Russia would take every measure to protect the personnel and equipment remaining in Syria. “We have achieved some positive results. We now have a chance to put an end to years of violence. But it is too early to speak of a victory over terrorism. The Russian airborne group will continue strikes against the targets belonging to terrorists,” Deputy Defense Minister Nikolai Pankov said on Tuesday.

Moscow did accomplish a mission in Syria, but it was not, of course, the one publicly proclaimed.

Insiders and experts in Moscow are interpreting the situation in a non-dramatic way, as a partial (and reversible) withdrawal. The equipment that is being pulled out can easily be deployed again. Some goals of the campaign, in the eyes of the Moscow establishment, have been achieved. These goals are different from those that Moscow is pursuing in Ukraine. This is why it is plausible that Russia is not repeating its Ukrainian mode of action in Syria and why the Ukrainian story is of limited utility to observers of the Syrian story.

Moscow did accomplish a mission in Syria, but it was not, of course, the one publicly proclaimed. The real goals (not the official ones that had to do with fighting the so-called Islamic State) were both political and military. Keeping Bashar al-Assad in place was not Russia’s main aim, but preventing a collapse of the Syrian regime was. Essentially, the goal was to make a point: Moscow believes that incumbent leaders, however heinous their crimes, should stay in power until voted down or otherwise replaced domestically.

Moscow has also demonstrated that the Russian military is back. It was crucial for the Russian armed forces to rehabilitate itself after years of backwardness. The Russian army is the face of modernization, the Kremlin maintains. And besides, the Syrian campaign, as Putin himself acknowledged during a televised interview in December, served as an excellent proving ground for Russia’s refurbished weaponry.

The beginning of the peace talks was an opportune moment to head for the door and sell it as a well-planned move. Also, a domestic fatigue was already setting in in Russia: Syria was becoming a drag, not an energizer, for the masses. Additionally, it was very important for the Kremlin to demonstrate that Russia will avoid getting into the quagmire predicted by U.S. President Barack Obama.

Russia, in all likelihood, does want to exit Syria and probably even Ukraine, but it also wants to be treated as a winner.

But Russia cannot afford to leave completely and permanently. Yes, Bashar al-Assad was becoming arrogant as a result of the massive backing he received from a major power. So it did make sense to leave him exposed and thus pressure him into behaving responsibly during the peace talks. But the Kremlin will have to stay around to prevent any attempts to get rid of him.

The announcement of the withdrawal, however partial, caused a heavy sigh of relief among audiences across the political spectrum in Russia. Many in Moscow think that Putin has assembled a fragile ceasefire scheme that can collapse at any minute. Syria has become a hot potato, so it was only prudent to throw it to whoever would want to catch. Many expect Syria to fall apart and Putin did not want the patient to die on his hands. He grabbed the opportunity to duck out when the chance presented itself.

Russia, in all likelihood, does want to exit Syria and probably even Ukraine, but it also wants to be treated as a winner. Both Ukrainian and Syrian campaigns have to be recognized as victories for the Kremlin to feel that the mission has indeed been accomplished. Problem is, one really has to continue investing in international conflicts to uphold this kind of success. There is a popular saying in Russia, coming from the language of the underworld, “the entry is one ruble, the exit is two.” It means that if you join a gang or engage in a certain kind of—usually illegal—activity, you are unlikely to exit the scene on your own terms. 

The opinions expressed here are solely those of the author.

About the Author

Maxim Trudolyubov

Maxim Trudolyubov

Senior Advisor; Editor-in-Chief, Russia File;
Editor-at-Large, Meduza

Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Meduza. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.

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Kennan Institute

The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, Central Asia, the Caucasus, and the surrounding region though research and exchange.  Read more