Many recent articles and online discussions have been rife with the idea that the reason for Russia’s “withdrawal” from Syria (which we now know is really nothing of the sort) was due to its mounting economic problems.
In reality that could not be farther from the truth. Here’s why:
(1) As of March 2016, half a year since the start of military operations in Syria, it had cost a total of $464 million – that’s just about 1% of Russia’s annual military budget.
And most of that came out of the Defense Ministry’s 2015 funds earmarked for training.
(2) Which is quite appropriate, since functionally Russia’s Syria campaign has been one huge, ongoing, live-action training exercise. A sort of desert Salusa Secundus for the Russian Air Force and special forces.
The average age of Russia’s pilots in Syria is 27 years. The youngest are closer to 25 – that is, almost straight out of flight school. Many pilots share the same plane, and there are frequent rotations, so a huge percentage of Russian Air Force personnel gets this training relative to the modest scale of Russia’s investment into Khmeimim.
(3) Equipment also gets tested. For instance, the recently withdrawn Su-25’s have been replaced with attack helicopters armed with the new President-S system of countermeasures against MANPADs. It has worked in controlled environments; will it work in a real war environment? So far the answer has been “yes.”
(4) Like the US during the Gulf War, it is also an excellent opportunity for getting rid of the old munitions that Russia has absolutely no shortage of.
Meanwhile, the SVP-24 technology addon allows old Russian fighter planes to drop old Soviet bombs with the near accuracy of a JDAM delivered by a modern American bomber.
(5) This is only to be expected, but yes, the actual use of Khmeimim – a pretty useful strategic asset in its own right – is completely free.
(6) Finally, the good performance of Russian weaponry in Syria has led to an additional $6-7 billion increase in foreign orders, which translates to a more than 10% increase in Rosoboronexport’s total portfolio of foreign orders.
(7) Paradoxical as it might seem, there are grounds to believe that Russia’s intervention in Syria has also improved its image in the world. Neocon blowhards shilling for a no-fly zone in the Washington Post to protect ISIS from Russia ultimately only represent a certain fraction of the American elites. They do not speak for the world or even most Americans. Most normal people appreciate the sight of Islamist fanatics getting lit up along with their Turkey-bound oil truck convoys and Western MSM propaganda to the contrary has had very little effect on these healthy sentiments if the comments sections are anything to go by.