MOSCOW — Vladimir Putin's decision to withdraw the lion's share of Russia"s troops from Syria might have come as a surprise, but insiders in Moscow say the timing makes perfect sense.
Many factors can explain why now. "Putin promised this operation would be limited in time and wouldn't lead to an Afghanistan-like stalemate," explains Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, who also notes that the coming hot weather and summer sand storms would reduce the efficiency of air attacks.
The Syrian operation carried a fundamentally new character for Moscow. "For the first time, the Russian military understood they could get results with the sole use of air power," Pukhov adds. "It's a revolution in the Russian mindframe, which until now mocked American or European interventions, because they thought victory was impossible without a ground intervention."
Still, the fact remains that Russia did little to defeat ISIS. Far from it, given that Russian warplanes essentially focused their strikes on other groups directly opposed to Bashar al-Assad. "Moscow has transformed the situation on the ground. Syrian forces are no longer faced with 56 fronts like at the beginning and can instead focus their offensive on just three or four fronts," notes Kirill Koktych, political theory professor at MGIMO University.
The Kremlin's other broader objective is the destruction of Islamist fighters from former-USSR countries. And we don't know whether that was successful. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry, there are about 2,000 of them. The Kremlin has made it no secret they're concerned about the dangers if these fighters return home.
Putin is also aware that he has gotten off lightly, with very little human losses on the Russian side. And reports that anti-aircraft missiles had reached Syrian rebels for the first time since the beginning of the conflict, courtesy of Ankara and Riyadh, may have also accelerated the pullout.
Among diplomatic circles, Moscow's Syrian intervention is interpreted as a step towards a long-term objective that consists in restoring a parity — at least a symbolical one — with Washington in the running of international affairs. "Vladimir Putin isn't focused on Assad's fate," a diplomatic source says. "What he wants is to be treated as an equal by the American president. Russia's fantasy is to divvy up the world with the Americans, like they did at the time of the Yalta conference."
International relations expert Vladimir Frolov concurs. "The strategical goal behind the Syrian operation was the rebirth of the American-Russian bipolar format. Seen from Moscow, this type of relationship with Washington is the key element that defines a global power status ... leading to the stabilization of a system that's coming out of a unipolar world into a new world order. The Russian-American cooperation in Syria can and must become a model to resolve regional conflicts, and in the fight against terrorism."
Resolving other tricky conflicts, like the one in eastern Ukraine, will be a crucial test for this renewed bipolar power status that Vladimir Putin has been seeking for so long.