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Russia

Did Syria Intervention Return Russia To Superpower Status?

Russian planes heading back to Russia from Hmeimim, Syria, on March 15
Russian planes heading back to Russia from Hmeimim, Syria, on March 15
Emmanuel Grynszpan

-Analysis -


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.

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Geopolitics

With The Chechen War Veterans Fighting For Ukraine — And For Revenge

They came to fight Russia, and to avenge the deaths of their loved ones and friends killed in Chechnya. Not wanting to sit in the trenches, they've found work in intelligence and sabotage.

Photo of members of the pro-Ukrainian Chechen group "Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion" posing with weapons

Members of the pro-Ukrainian Chechen group "Dzhokhar Dudayev Battalion"

Lydia Mikhalchenko

At least five Chechen units are fighting for Ukraine, with more than 1,000 troops in each unit — and their number is growing.

Most of these Chechen fighters took part in the first and second Chechen wars with Russia, and were forced to flee to Ukraine or elsewhere in Europe after their defeat. Vazhnyye Istorii correspondent Lydia Mikhalchenko met with some of these fighters.

Four of the five Chechen battalions are part of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, and are paid the standard wages (about €4,000 per month for those on the front line) and receive equipment and supplies.

Chechen fighters say they appreciate that Ukrainian commanders don't order them to take unnecessary risks and attack objectives just to line up with an unrealistic schedule or important dates — something Russian generals are fond of doing.

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The experienced Chechen fighters have taken fewer losses than many other units. Unhappy sitting in trenches, they mostly engage in reconnaissance and sabotage, moving along the front lines. "The Russians wake up, and the commander is gone. Or he's dead," one of the fighters explains.

Some of the fighters say that the Ukrainian war is easier than their previous battles in Chechnya, when they had to sit in the mountains for weeks without supplies and make do with small stocks of arms and ammunition. Some call this a "five-star war."

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