Putin has disconcerted many with his abrupt and unexpected announcement that Russia would be removing its “main forces” from Syria. Just what this means is unknown, for he also made plain that it would maintain its main bases there, an air station in Latakia Province, and the shambolic Tartus naval facility. What residual capability will remain is unclear, and it must be noted that planes that fly out today can fly back at some future date, which distinguishes this from the US withdrawal from Iraq.
I consider it somewhat amusing that those who shrieked loudest about Putin getting into Syria are now shrieking loudest about his getting out. I guess they are upset that he will not be so stupid as to get bogged down in a pointless and bloody war that does not advance his strategic objectives.
As someone (surprisingly to some) who was not fussed about Putin getting into Syria, I’m equally indifferent as to his departure. Having no emotional or ideological investment, it is of interest mainly as an opportunity to evaluate his strategies, and his prudence in executing them.
The most obvious explanation is that the risk-reward trade-off no longer favors Russian involvement. On the reward side, Putin has achieved his main objective, and staved off Assad’s destruction. Putin may well prefer that Assad (and Iran) not win decisively: a stalemate may (cynically) advance Russian interests by continuing to make Assad dependent on Russia, and preventing Iran from getting too big for its britches.
The direct costs of this intervention, though not large when compared to American expenditures in the ISIS campaign (let alone what was spent in Iraq and Afghanistan) are nonetheless material given Russia’s straitened economic circumstances. It is not just a choice between guns and butter. Russia has already announced a sizable cut in military procurement, so there is an element of a choice between expending weapons and buying new ones. Putin clearly believes that new weapons will give him leverage in the future, so he is husbanding his limited resources for that purpose, rather than spending a few millions daily to continue high tempo operations in Syria.
On the risk side, pushing the campaign to the point where Assad is on the verge of decisive victory would increase greatly the probability of an open confrontation with Turkey. This would pose large military risks (and costs) even viewed narrowly, and would also result in a highly unpredictable situation with Nato, the US, and the EU. The upsides in such a situation are hard to see, but the downsides are clear and large. Then there are the normal risks attendant to any military operation, including the risk of some strategically irrelevant but spectacular and embarrassing terrorist operation targeted at the Russians. Furthermore, continuing the campaign aggravates relations with the Saudis, which creates economic complications by infusing a geopolitical calculus into delicate negotiations over oil output (which is a first order economic issue to Putin).
Smart gamblers know when to cash in their chips and go home. Putin came to the table with limited objectives, and has achieved them. He can claim victory: why risk losing these gains, when few further gains are in prospect?
Just like his going in was a lot less complicated than people made it out to be, so is his departure: he is leaving because he achieved the limited objectives he set out in October. As for the war in Syria, it will likely continue to grind on and on, in part because Putin wants it that way. His is a cynical move, but since “victory” by either side would likely result in a retaliatory bloodbath (and a war among the “victors” if Assad is toppled), as horrific as the current situation is, it is not demonstrably worse than the alternatives on offer.