Opinion: Saving money and still winning | Opinion | DW | 15.03.2016
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Opinion: Saving money and still winning

Putin's gambits do not merely surprise the West: they dupe it completely. By partially withdrawing forces from Syria, Russia has ultimately won control of the country and Assad, writes DW's Christian F. Trippe.

Every superpower cultivates its own rituals and stages itself in its own way. The Russian version of "mission accomplished" was presented in unspectacular fashion. Russia's President Putin summoned his defense and foreign ministers to his dark-paneled presidential office and there, as casually as could be, he announced the end of the airstrikes in Syria, saying that most of the military goals had been achieved. This laconic announcement from Moscow has been internationally received as somewhat of a sensation.

Russia became involved in the Syrian civil war to fight against Islamic terrorists. Yet that was only part of the truth, as Russia was actually pursuing an extensive hidden agenda. From the outset, Russia's bomber jets also attacked those militants who were backed by the West in their battle against Assad. Since the war in Syria is also a proxy war, Russia has thus been fighting against the USA and its allies.

Anything important stays there

The Stone Age Islamists of the so-called "Islamic State" (IS), however, have still not been defeated. This is where Russia needs, and wants, to do more. After the USA and Russia spent weeks reproaching each other for deliberately not having done enough or for having done the wrong thing in the battle against IS, the two appear to be planning joint action for the first time. In any case, Russia will be leaving enough military equipment in Syria after its withdrawal to allow it to take part in such a campaign.

Trippe Christian F. Kommentarbild App

Christian F. Trippe is currently a correspondent in DW's Moscow studio

It is a pity that there is not a diminutive form of the word "withdrawal," for if one looks closer, that is what has in fact taken place: an ultra-light version of a military drawdown. Only fighter bombers, pilots and ground staff are being sent back to Russia. The Russian arms industry used Syria as a giant showroom, where brand new flying equipment was deployed for the first time. This was, however, costly. Russia must watch its budget now; the country has been weakened by its deep economic crisis and the sanctions imposed by the West for its aggressive Ukraine policy.

The defense budget may be reduced by 5 percent next year; Russia's top arms manager is even expecting 10 percent fewer contracts from Moscow's defense ministry. This reality is also an aspect to keep in mind when considering Putin's surprising decision to stop the airstrikes. The country saves a lot of money and has nothing to lose strategically: Russia has established a permanent military presence in Syria. The Kremlin is prepared to escalate again any time. The Russian naval base in Syria, the air force base that took much work to expand, and the protection of these facilities - all this remains intact.

Russia has obviously given up on Assad

The Assad government has only survived because Russia's military came to the aid of the hard-pressed Syrian military forces six months ago. Now, Russia has the regime in Damascus completely under its political control. It is rumored that there has also been a rift between Moscow and Damascus. In keeping with those rumors, a Kremlin spokesman noted that the political future of President Assad played no role in the discussions on the withdrawal of troops. In plain English: The Kremlin is no longer interested in Assad, after having spent months playing the patron saint of the allegedly oh-so-legitimate tyrant.

The political power plays have won Russia a dominant position in the peace negotiations in Geneva. That precisely was the political plan: to intervene in Syria in order to again become a global player on an equal footing with the others. Right now, almost no one is talking about the situation in eastern Ukraine, about Russia's difficult role or the so-called "Minsk process." The annexation of Crimea two years ago? Probably a job for international lawyers. This is collateral damage from Russia's Syria mission that suits Putin just fine.

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