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Putin withdrew majority of forces from Syria: In a move that surprised most observers, Putin announced a pull-out of Russian forces from Syria and the scaling down of his Syrian campaign, stating that the operation had largely achieved its objectives. The withdrawal, which coincided with the start of Syrian peace talks in Geneva, was coordinated only with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, according to Putin. Most Russian analysts concurred that Russia has indeed achieved its goals – it strengthened Bashar al-Assad’s positions and reinstated Russia’s role in global political processes while avoiding unnecessary economic harm to its already struggling economy. Russia’s withdrawal also enabled the peace talks to proceed, thereby crafting a picture of the country as a peace-maker and conflict resolution actor. One of the achievements, albeit questionable, of the bombing campaign for Russia was the elimination of a large segment of Russian citizens who either fought for ISIS or against the Islamists in Syria. Head of Chechnya Ramzan Kadyrov stated that there are around 200 Chechens still fighting in Syria compared to a figure of 4000 he calculated in the fall. Opinion polls indicate that an absolute majority of Russians (81%) support the ending of the active campaign, while only 16% are of opinion that Russia should not have started the campaign at all.
Russia is likely to profit financially from the Syrian campaign: The operation in Syria also generated marketingbenefits for Russia. The country is likely to earn considerably more than it has spent in Syria from arms sales. A number of Asian and African countries – Algeria, Indonesia, Vietnam, Pakistan – have approached the relevant Russian agency to place orders or negotiate the purchase of Russian military equipment. Of particular interest to the new bidders are Russian fighter jets. The revenue from these new contracts might exceed the costs of the Syrian operation for Russia several times over. Putin stated that Russia spent around 33 bn Russian rubles ($0.5 bn). Independent sources also previously released an estimate not so different from the official version, putting the costs at around 38 bn rubles ($0.57 bn). According to other calculations, the official price tag accounts for all expenses related to logistics and equipment. However, an additional 10 bn Russian ruble ($0.15 bn) may be spent to repair air-equipment and restore ammunition supplies. The expected revenue from the new contracts is estimated at $6-7 bn. Putin also claimed that theorders placed for Russian military equipment and arms in 2015 reached $56 bn, the highest number since 1992, with India, Iraq, Algeria, China, and Vietnam named as the primary customers. The profit margin might be deemed even greater if we account for Putin’s declaration that the resources devoted to Syria were simply reassigned from Ministry of Defence budget items focused on training and military exercises. Experts also pointed out that, even if we rely on the independent numbers, the costs of the Syrian campaign were significantly lower than the annual costs typically required to conduct training and military exercises for a year. Other economic benefits that may result include the potential strengthening of the Russian ruble, an increase in the price of Russian assets, and the stabilization of oil prices following a reduction in geopolitical risks associated with the Syrian campaign.
Putin reformed security services: Putin issued an executive order announcing large reforms to the security forces in the country centered on the creation of a National Guard. The new body will integrate interior security troops, includingSWAT-type and emergencies forces. It will “fight terrorism and organized crime, all in close cooperation with the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD)”, Putin explained. The Guard will be led by Putin’s former bodyguard Viktor Zolotov, who will report directly to Putin, and will have a wide array of powers from arrests and searches to the use of force. It will not be allowed to publicly reveal information regarding the location and stationing of the National Guard. As part of the restructuring, the Federal Migration Service and the Federal Drug Control Service will once again be put under the auspices of the Ministry of Internal Affairs. According to unofficial estimates, the National Guard will total around 430,000personnel. The reform is expected to improve the performance of law enforcement, optimize the budget of law enforcement and security services, and eliminate duplications in functions across agencies. The exact redistribution of functions and mechanisms of cooperation between the agencies has yet to be confirmed. Although the reform had beendiscussed for a while and did not come as a surprise, several explanations regarding the reasons for its introduction have been proposed. The most popular theory, in also highlighting the upcoming September elections, warns that the National Guard will become a private army of Putin. Combining the functions previously divided between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Federal Security Service (FSB), the new force will be easy to mobilize and can be used to “ensure safety and security” during public events and demonstrations, thus protecting Putin from the modern dayrevolution malaise. A second theory is connected to Zolotov’s appointment. According to this view, the reform reflects the re-distribution of political power and consequently functions between individuals and agencies. Putin’s known preference to rely on individuals loyal to him, many of whom happen to have served with him at the KGB or as his bodyguards, and the long suspected mistrust towards the MVD and FSB might have conditioned the decision to consolidate the most potent power under a loyal follower accountable personally to Putin. Third, financial considerations should not be dismissed. The organizational infighting is happening in a context of strict budget restraints, and the reduction of expenditures brought on by the merging of previously duplicated functions is a financially beneficial outcome of the reform (read more here). Finally, albeit more likely as a side-benefit rather than the primary rational behind the decision, the relocation of special forces from the MVD command will result in the heads of regions, including most notably Ramzan Kadyrov, losing control over the most efficient and potent units. With Kadyrov’s powers limited, theChechen special forces, infamously loyal to Kadyrov, could now be restructured and converted into an entity that is more beholden and less risky to the central authorities.
Kadyrov allowed to run for re-election: Putin appointed Ramzan Kadyrov as an acting Head of Chechnya until elections in September. Kadyrov’s administration confirmed that Kadyrov will run for re-election. Chechnya hosted a ‘study trip’ for Syrian opposition members who visited the country seeking advice from the local leadership. In Kadyrov’s view, the Syrian opposition will not be able to hold power unless they start making decisions independently from those dictated from the West. Kadyrov also announced that he intends to accept the invitation from Bashar al-Assad and travel to Syria before the September elections.
Edited by Alena Kudzko, Central European Policy Institute