With characteristic deadpan delivery, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the sudden withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria earlier this week, declaring their campaign a success. Before the day was through, Russian aircraft and crews were already departing from Hmeymim air base in Latakia. Since this announcement, the media has been alight with speculation on the meaning of Russia’s sudden departure, its political and military implications, and the reasons for this seemingly unexpected move. Much of the discussion has thus far missed the mark. There is no Russian withdrawal from Syria, but rather a drawdown of the air contingent present in Latakia. Putin simply moved pieces on the board, without altering the equation.
This maneuver is more about political perceptions than military reality. It constitutes a political reframing of Russia’s intervention in order to normalize Moscow’s military presence in Syria, and make it permanent, while convincing Russians at home that the campaign is over. Putin’s statement is yet another successful effort to achieve a domestic and international publicity coup.
The “withdrawal” announcement is not about how Russia leaves, but about how it stays in Syria.
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