Russia's decision to withdraw the majority of its forces from Syria, announced on Monday by Vladimir Putin, has analysts questioning what the rationale behind the move was. Was this practice for Putin before another attack in Ukraine or the Baltic states, or was it an even more crushing defeat than what the Soviet Union experienced in Afghanistan?
Russian forces in Syria
© AP/Scanpix

The announcement came as a surprise to many, since Russia had often claimed it would stay in Syria as long as it would take to defeat the terrorist ISIS forces found there. Many Western critics, however, have claimed that Russia's true goal was to help president Bashar al-Assad crush the Syrian opposition forces.

Russia is a threat to the Baltic states

Commentator Audrius Bačiulis is convinced that the move bodes ill for Lithuania and the Baltic states.

“I have a bad feeling about this. Russia did not get stuck in Syria and Putin managed to move in there to exercise his military power – especially his aviation, using the newest military technologies and weapons that are not yet widely used in Russia, and train his pilots to attack small, dispersed light infantry units. This is what Bashar al-Assad's military opposition consists of,” Bačiulis told Delfi.

According to Bačiulis, Russian soldiers now have experience fighting forces that would be similar to those in Lithuania and other Baltic states – in other words, against an army that doesn't have much military equipment but that has more light infantry units. In Syria, Putin's soldiers did not get stuck in ground operations and did not enter direct ground battles, meaning withdrawal was easy.

“Of course, one could ask whether he did that by choice or whether he was forced by the conditions at hand, but that isn't very relevant. The most important thing for us was that, as long as Putin was engaged in Syria, he did not have the forces, money or time to start another war elsewhere along Russia's border. Now, his hands have been untied,” said Bačiulis.

He pointed out that, this year, Putin has a large window of opportunity to initiate aggression “even in the Baltic States”. Currently, the Baltic States have completed orders for additional weapons and have started to increase the size of their militaries, but their current strength is still similar to what it was like two years ago.

“In the second half of this year, the Baltic states will have many more American forces stationed here, and next year, we will begin arming ourselves normally, we'll get our first howitzers, we'll have a sort of reserve, there will be even more Americans in the Baltic states and Poland, so the ship has sailed when it comes to attacking the Baltics. From now until August, however, we are a fruit ripe for the picking, should Putin manage to do so,” said Bačiulis.

Instead of little green men – little green planes

Political scientist Dr Nerijus Maliukevičius, however, does not think that the threat to Lithuania and the other Baltic states has increased after Russian troops withdrew from Syria.

“I don't think that we need to move to another panicked public extreme. Whatever the case may be in Syria, we need to continue to take care of our defence and security, to first do so for ourselves and then worry about our partners as well. We simply don't need to start with these scenarios that Russia's next step will be Lithuania. I don't think that will happen because if Putin will look for weak points, he will find them in Ukraine and elsewhere along its borders," said Maliukevičius.

He also pointed out that if Russia had indeed achieved what it had wanted in Syria, then the withdrawal had been carried out at a time convenient to Putin.

“The Americans have been involved in the Munich format, an ostensibly stable ceasefire has been established under Putin's initiative, military infrastructure has been established, and the Syrian conflict has now involved not just external partners like Iran and Hezbollah, but the Syrian Kurds as well, enticed by talks of another possible federalisation of the sort that we had heard of in the context of Ukraine's conflict,” said Maliukevičius.

According to him, Syria was a partial repeat of the hybrid or frontless war that had occurred in Ukraine. Instead of the “little green men” this time, however, there had been “little green planes.” The beginning of the war had been unannounced and covered in fog, while the end has been accompanied with a bombastic public relations victory.

Afghanistan – 10 years, Syria – 5 months

Well-known Russia analyst Andrejus Piontkovskis, however, is convinced that Russia's withdrawal from Syria is part of a crushing defeat.

“It was clear that Vladimir Putin, Sergey Lavrov and Sergey Shoygu were under great stress. If we can use the language of the partially criminal Russian political elite, they seemed broken and they spoke total nonsense,” Piontkovskis wrote on his Facebook page.

According to him, the Russian government was trying to fool its citizens: “historically, the situation looks just like the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan in 1988. However, Brezhnev, Andropov and Gorbachev spent 10 years there, while here, 5 months sufficed.”

Piontkovskis also said that it was not entirely clear what had prompted Putin to withdraw. “I don't know who or what serious reasons brought these people to such a point, after all of our propaganda spent half a year tirelessly speaking of how we had risen from our knees and begun fighting terrorists in distant lands. In the meantime, Putin called al-Assad on the phone and told him 'Hang in there, we are with you!' But do you remember what happened to his friend, Najibullah? In the end, they hung him on a post in Kabul. Perhaps al-Assad has decided to avoid such an end and came to an agreement on his own with the opposition and the Americans for the preservation of his government in Alawite lands. As a 'legitimate president,' he would demonstrate his ability to agree by telling Putin to beat it,” he said.

“In any case, this is a serious loss in terms of foreign policy and image,” Piontkovskis reasoned. “One of those that lead to such dictators' falls. Ukrainians, this is your chance to give him another similar loss by rejecting the agreement on Donbas and leaving Putin with his criminally claimed Luhansk.”

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