In his annual marathon press conference Thursday morning, Russian President Vladimir Putin referred to Russia’s intervention in the Syrian civil war as a “military exercise” for Russia’s “air forces, air defence” and “intelligence.”
“We did not start the war” in Syria, Putin told reporters during his end-of-year press conference from Moscow, according to a translation by the state-sponsored news agency Russia Today.
He added: “We are just conducting separate operations, using our air forces, air defence, intelligence. This is not a serious burden for the budget. … It’s hard to imagine a better exercise [for the Russian forces]. So we can train there [in Syria] for a long time without any serious harm to our budget.”
Boris Zilberman, a Russia expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, said he thinks the statement was an admission of one of Moscow’s key intentions for the Russian military intervention in Syria.
“I think he is basically saying that the conflict in Syria is allowing Russia to showcase their air and sea capabilities in a real conflict,” Zilberman told Business Insider.
“He doesn’t say it, but I think the point he is getting at is that the conflict in Syria increases the Russians’ military readiness.”
Russia reformed its air force, weaponry, and intelligence following a five-day war with Georgia in 2008 that exposed serious deficiencies in the Russian military’s mass-mobilization capabilities, according to the Council on Foreign Relations.
The results of these reforms have been showcased in Syria, where Russia began building up its military arsenal in September — two months after Iranian Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani visited Moscow asking for Russia’s help in shoring up the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
A Russian air campaign launched on September 30 has consequently used a mix of updated Soviet aircraft, including Su-24, Su-30SM and Su-34 fighter jets capable of carrying out airstrikes with a surprising level of accuracy.
“Syria is a debut of sorts for Russia’s tactical aviation,” military expert Michael Kofman wrote in October for War on the Rocks. “Despite its visible limitations, watching footage from Russian drones of relatively accurate nighttime airstrikes in Syria is almost science fiction compared to what the Russian air force was capable of as recently as 2008.”
Russia is reportedly building a second base of operations for Moscow’s air assets in Syria southeast of Homs, at the current Syrian military base of Shaayrat. Russia has largely been carrying out air strikes from its base in northwestern Syria, in the Latakia province.
Following Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Turkish-Syrian border late last month, Moscow ordered that all Russian fighter jets conducting air strikes in Syria be equipped with air-to-air missiles for self-defence.
A powerful S-400 surface-to-air missile defence system was also reportedly deployed to the Russian air base in Latakia to deter Turkish jets from shooting down its warplanes in the future.
The Syrian civil war, now entering its fifth year, is also a chance for Russia to use its Black Sea fleet. Though admittedly outdated, the fleet wields a naval variant of the S-300 defence system — one of the most potent anti-aircraft missiles currently in existence.
Indeed, as Kofman noted, “Military reforms, a large modernization effort, and a relentless exercise program have restored competence and capability to a percentage of the Russian military.”
More than 4,000 Russian military personnel are now deployed in Syria — roughly double the number that were there initially providing repair services and support to Russia’s naval base at Tartus.
Trainers and advisers are working alongside the Syrian military, and forces are guarding Russia’s bases in western Syria. None of the forces are engaged in a ground-combat role, the Russian government has said.
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