Russia's Syrian campaign showcases weaponry, maybe 'even profitable,' Kremlin backer says
But what does Vladimir Putin's strategic pullout augur for Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad?
Surprise is clearly Russian President Vladimir Putin's favourite tactic.
He pulled it out of his strategic arsenal again this week when announcing, with astonishing speed, a partial military pullout of Russian troops from Syria.
He then followed that up with the warning Thursday that, "if necessary, literally within a few hours, Russia can build up its contingent, and use the entire arsenal of capabilities at our disposal."
What these unexpected manoeuvres mean for the Syrian peace talks just getting underway in Geneva — and the future of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad — is still very much up in the air.
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But for a five-and-a-half-month war that didn't touch Russian territory, and is far from over, the Russian president is certainly reaping political capital at home.
Since Tuesday morning, Russian television have been breathlessly reporting, minute-by-minute coverage of Russian bombers leaving their Syrian base of operations in Khmeimim.
"I want to go home," said one pilot in his cockpit ready for takeoff, "it's time."
As each Russian Su-35 or Su-24 bomber sped off the runway, a narrator recited its technical capabilities, a virtual air show.
Landing on Russian soil, fighter pilots were rewarded with heroes' welcomes.
A crowd waited at the Voronezh airbase, where bouquets of red roses were thrust into the pilots' arms and they were presented with medals on velvet cushions as choirs in full Russian traditional dress looked on.
"My brother is home", said a woman "our family is so proud".
Show of strength
Pride in Russia's military campaign in Syria will no doubt fortify Putin's approval ratings, which also shot up after Russia annexed Crimea two years ago.
Russians support the Syrian campaign, "not because people so much care about Syria," says Sergei Markov, a political adviser close to the Kremlin, "but because people are proud that Russia behaved very well in Syria and showed how strong the Russian army is."
More than that, the Syrian campaign, he said, was a valuable showcase for Russian military weaponry.
"Everybody could see how well the Russian weaponry is, and as a result …Russia's military industrial complex" has — he motions with his fist as if knocking on a door — billions worth of interest from other countries.
"Some big advertising of Russian weaponry, of course, is not the main goal," says Markov, "but it means it's not costly, even profitable" to have taken on this campaign.
The Kremlin said Thursday that the Syrian operation cost the equivalent of about $630 million. Much of that, it claimed, was transferred from Russia's defence training and drills budget for 2015, effectively making this outing a real-war training mission.
Putin confirmed Thursday that the Russian withdrawal was being carried out in concert with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who, Putin said, agreed with the plan.
"We have enhanced its armed forces," Putin said. "The Syrian army has gained the strategic initiative …today they are able not only to curb terrorists, but maintain successful offensives against them."
At the same time, the Kremlin seems to be putting some distance between itself and the future of al-Assad.
On Monday, just hours before the pullout announcement, Syria's ambassador to Russia told CBC News that "Bashar al-Assad must stay."
Speaking about the parties to the Geneva peace talks, Syrian ambassador Riad Haddad said, "We have told them from the very beginning when they started talking directly about the transition stage and the resignation of the president Assad, that we refuse this line of talk."
But after Russia's 9,000 sorties, where does President Putin stand now on the future of Assad?
"It's very simple," says Markov, who is often seen as distilling the Kremlin's message.
"We're not for Bashar al-Assad, we're against terrorists of Islamic State. The only main military force fighting against Islamic State is Bashar al-Assad, that's why we have to help him."
And if defeating ISIS takes a very long time?
"So it means for a long time we will support Bashar al-Assad," says Markov.
"When IS is crushed it will be another game. We'll decide, we'll see what's better for a political solution."
But is Putin himself willing to play the long game when it comes to ISIS and Syria?
His rapid-fire moves this week would appear to be telling Syria's leadership to consider its options more flexibly in Geneva.
Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrives here in Moscow next week, another showcase to underscore that the West needs Putin's influence to try to find a solution in Syria, which is exactly the position Vladimir Putin wants to be seen in.