On Thursday, Russian President Vladimir Putin chose the St George Hall in the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow, to make his address to the Russian people on the hot topic of the withdrawal of troops from Syria.  There is much symbolism here. The St George Hall invokes the glory of the Russian army, majestic and solemn at once, where the Knights of the Order of St. George instituted by Empress Catherine II in 1769 are inscribed in golden letters on marble plates on the walls and pillars.

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks at a Kremlin ceremony honoring military officers who have taken part in the Syrian campaign on March 17

Putin highlighted that a defining moment has been reached, signifying post-Soviet Russia’s resurgence as an unassailable military power on the planet. Interestingly, Putin is already in Crimea a day later on a “working visit” to inspect the work on the construction of the 19-kilometer long sea bridge across the Kerch Strait at Tuzla Island connecting the peninsula with Russia that would dispense with the land route via Ukraine.

Without doubt, Putin’s speech on Thursday at the ceremony to honour the Russian service men who distinguished themselves in the Syrian operations addressed three audiences – Russian public, the protagonists involved in the Syrian conflict and the international community.

St George Hall invokes mystic chords of memory in the Russian psyche and Putin’s message was direct when he said that “the very existence of an independent and sovereign Russia” would not be possible without creating “a battle-ready modern and efficient Army and Navy”, especially at the present juncture while developing the economy in “complicated conditions”.

Putin asserted that the operations in Syria proved that Russian armed forces are “strong, modern and well-equipped and our warriors are steadfast, well-trained and hardened, capable of resolving the most complicated large-scale tasks”. Putin said the operations in Syria “demonstrated the enhanced quality of Russia’s Armed Forces” during which “the latest Russian weaponry has passed the tests”.

Things can only get still better from this point. He added from a historical perspective: “We should remember the lessons of history, including the tragic events of the beginning of World War II and the Great Patriotic war, the price we paid for mistakes in military construction and planning and the shortage in new military equipment. Everything should be done on time while weakness, neglect and omissions are always dangerous”.

Putin was justifying to the home audience the financial cost of the Russian operations in Syria and thereby consolidating the public opinion, which is already overwhelmingly supportive of his foreign and security policies. At the same time, with an eye on the tensions with the West, he was also drawing the attention to the formidable capabilities of Russia’s conventional forces today.

Of course, for the United States, in particular, all this raises some very embarrassing questions. The entire US hypothesis that Putin had blundered into an intervention in Syria that is inexorably turning into a quagmire that would eventually bleed the Russian economy and undermine his support base at home politically looks so foolish.

Russia has shown that with just about $460 million (spent out the military budget for training programs), it could achieve so much in less than six months. In comparison, according to the US Department of Defence data, the US operations against the Islamic State as of February this year has cost the American taxpayers a whopping $5.5 billion, at the rate of around $11.2 million per day. (This is in addition to the US’ rebel training program in Syria, which had a budget of $500 million in addition to the $42 million the Pentagon spent to set it up. The Pentagon ended up spending $384 million ($2.13 million per fighter) to train 180 Syrian rebel fighters to fight the Islamic State before abandoning the program.)

Writing on the wall

Indeed, it is Putin’s assessment of the politico-military situation in Syria that stands out as most topical for the international community. He asserted, “We strengthened their (Syrian) armed forces, which are now capable of not only holding back the terrorists, but also of conducting assault operations against them. The Syrian army has gained the strategic initiative”.

Putin voiced unqualified support from Russia for the Syrian regime. He said he “notified” President Bashar Al-Assad in advance regarding the withdrawal plan, coordinated it with him and executed it with his support. Putin underlined continued Russian support that will be “comprehensive in nature”, and includes “financial aid, supplies of equipment and arms, assistance in training and building Syrian armed forces, reconnaissance support and assistance to headquarters in planning operations.”

Clearly, the message here is that Turkey and Saudi Arabia should see the writing on the wall and realise that any dreams of regaining the military initiative will remain a pipe dream. Actually, he forecast more military campaigns and anticipated the recapture of Palmyra from the IS in a very near future.

The Syrian air space will remain off bounds for Turkey, and Moscow is determined that the military balance will not be allowed to shift against the government forces. He warned Turkey that Moscow retains the option to beef up the military assets in Syria “in a matter of hours to a size required for a specific situation and to use all the option available”. Moscow has sternly warned Ankara via the Americans that “our air defense system will be used against any target that we deem to be threatening Russian defense personnel”.

Significantly, Putin made a careful distinction here, claiming “a positive constructive cooperation” with the US as one of the major Russian achievements through the recent period. He said, “We have created together with the American side an efficient mechanism to prevent air accidents”.

To be sure, the Kremlin views with satisfaction the potential for Russian-American cooperation on Syria. Never once he implied, not even remotely, any criticism of the Obama administration’s Syria policies.

Equally, Putin made no references to the Hezbollah or Iran. Moscow does not feel beholden to any third party for the success of the military operations in Syria; nor did it regard itself acting as part of any regional axis. This could be an important takeaway from Putin’s speech, which comes just ahead of the trip to Russia by the US Secretary of State John Kerry to discuss how to navigate the Syrian peace talks in Geneva.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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